The United Nations has a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual abuse by anyone working under the blue flag. The matter is one of such weight for the Organization that earlier this year, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Jane Holl Lute as the Special Coordinator on improving the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse.
Her role is to work across the UN system’s many offices, departments and agencies to strengthen the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse, wherever it may occur, from headquarters locations to the most remote field bases.
In her first interview with the UN News Centre, Ms. Lute spoke candidly about what the UN is doing to curb sexual abuse and exploitation, including in the field to rebuild trust with affected communities.
UN News Centre: How wide ranging is sexual exploitation abuse within the UN system?
Jane Holl Lute: I think the better question is how widespread is the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse. It frankly is a global scourge. There is not a family, a school, an organization, a military, a government, or any activity free from this problem. And that’s a powerful statement. There is, in effect, no place on the planet where women, children and the vulnerable are safe from sexual predation or the potential for that.
We have the problem as well in the UN. But recognizing that this is a global scourge, accepting that we also have a problem – and we have to be constantly vigilant and constantly improving our system and ability to prevent it from happening, to begin with, and to respond rapidly when it does.
Jane Holl Lute speaks about the intensified efforts throughout the UN system in improving the response to sexual exploitation and abuse. Credit: United Nations
UN News Centre: It’s a particular problem in peacekeeping though, isn’t it?
Jane Holl Lute: It’s not; it is a particular problem wherever women, children, and [the] vulnerable are present. It’s particularly outrageous when peacekeepers are accused of these acts because they were sent to protect the vulnerable […] it is particularly outrageous when it occurs by peacekeepers because of the trust that’s placed in peacekeepers and in the UN, and in development workers and in humanitarian assistance workers; they are sent there to protect these populations.
UN News Centre: What damage do you think this is doing to the United Nations in particular?
Jane Holl Lute: I think any time you have serious allegations of widespread misbehaviour, particularly of this nature it has all manner of adverse effects. Certainly, it has reputational effects and sets back the reputation of the organization. It has operational effects; it has economic effects and social effects. Again, the worst effects obviously are felt by the victims, and their families, and their societies. It’s hard to overstate the adverse effects of these kinds of serious allegations.
UN News Centre: To what extent do you think the UN in the past has not done enough to face up to this particular issue?
Jane Holl Lute: I often get asked this question in comparison to other organizations or other entities, and the fact of the matter is certainly the UN has recognized that it has a problem and has taken action. When I was first assigned to the United Nations, more than 10 years ago, this was an issue that I dealt with extensively with colleagues to address allegations that had emerged that time in the field.
But I would say, and I say this advisedly, the UN is singular and this Secretary-General is singular in his voice and emphases on identifying this scourge, calling it out, and urging the Organization to do more. There is more we could do and should be doing because these incidences continue to occur. Whenever they occur they are unacceptable. And we need to do more to strengthen the prevention aspects of this as well as immediate response.
UN News Centre: How do you strengthen the prevention aspects?
Jane Holl Lute: In the first instance, we want to be a standards-bearing organization, we need to make very clear – what are the standards? What are the standards of behaviour that are expected of everyone who operates under the UN flag either as an employee, military or police, working with us as contractors; or for that matter, any organization or force that operates under a UN mandate? What are the standards that are expected? Certainly, no one expects abuse, sexual abuse, abuse of children, and abuse of vulnerable populations in [or] women, and we need to make this really very clear – and we need to make the consequences of having these accusations validated be very clear, as well.
So for strength in prevention, you need to start with very clear standards. You need effective and continuous training, effective and continuous in unambiguous ways, you need the identification of best and better practices. For example, should our commanders in the field ever be deployed without prior experience in peacekeeping? Probably not. Should they be required to identify philosophies of the approaches of sexual exploitation and abuse, and clear training programmes that they will implement during the course of their deployment? This is the best practice, for example, that Malawi follows and we think it’s excellent.
There are other policies and procedure that we can have in place. Some units, for example, don’t allow forces, in their off-duty time, to travel in civilian clothes or to go to town or have contact with the local population except in supervised groups. So there are a number of things that we know for best practice, it begins with the tone of the top. Not only the Secretary-General, but also mission leadership.
UN News Centre: Are those best practices making any difference?
Jane Holl Lute: They absolutely do make a difference when units are observing them. We have a number of units that have no incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse and this is because the standards have been made clear. They are supported in capitals through their military chains of command and commanders are held accountable for the programs that they have in place.
UN News Centre: So it is possible to reduce sexual abuse to zero within the system?
Jane Holl Lute: I think it is possible. Now people say: “It’s impossible because you’ll always have people who are crossing the line, you know what is exploitation? Is transactional sex really abuse?” I mean it’s certainly against UN rules. It can cross a border to sexual abuse, and certainly sexual encounters with under-aged minors is abuse by definition. Can we drive the incidents to zero? We must have that as our goal. We can’t say, “No, we will drive it to 70 per cent or we’ll drive it to 90 per cent.” That’s not our goal. Our goal is to drive abuse to zero.
UN News Centre: Moving onto your role as special coordinator – how significant do you think your appointment is?
Jane Holl Lute: The significance is in the recognition that our system is not self-coordinating. We are a very large, complex, field-based operating organization with tens of thousands of people working every day. With agencies, offices, funds, programs, with separate mandates that nevertheless overlap when we are trying to prevent any instance of sexual exploitation and abuse or respond rapidly and effectively when it occurs. So it comes in the interest of achieving better coordination of our efforts and impartial recognition that we have some problems to fix. We don’t have a common approach to information sharing; we need to fix that. We don’t have a common approach in all cases to bringing assistance to victims; we need to fix that as well. We can make great progress on identifying best practice and widely promulgating that across the system and that’s what this office was created to help achieve.
UN News Centre: How do you feel personally to be leading the UN on this particular issue? You seem very passionate about it.
Jane Holl Lute: I think anyone who has children, anyone who has spoken to victims, anyone who has themselves been the recipient of unwanted advances of any kind feels passionate about this issue. I mean we, the world, have a real problem. There’s no family, church, school, office or activity where this isn’t an ever-present danger. We need to wake up to that fact and say: “We are not going to tolerate that. We’re not. We are going to do everything we can to prevent this from happening.” We as individuals, as international civil servants committed to the values and ideals of the UN, how can we say this is our responsibility? How can we say: “Uh, sorry those were non-UN forces so there is nothing we can do to help you.” We always have to have our human rights lights on, are ears open, and our hands willing to lend assistance where it’s needed, and say I will not put up with this, not here not now. We all have to do what we can.
UN News Centre: Specifically on peacekeeping, why has it been so difficult to bring perpetrators to justice?
Jane Holl Lute: This again has been a question that has been raised, again and again, [including by] Members States, particularly with the military retaining jurisdiction for the meting out of justice when serious accusations of misconduct have been raised. DPKO [UN Department of Peacekeeping] and DFS [UN Department of Field Support] follow up repeatedly with Member States on the disposition of cases that have been brought up to their notice. But very often justice in any society you know Due Process is entitled to those who stand accused. Those processes can take a very long time. But in the meantime, we do not have to take equally a long time to get emergency assistance to victims, get them psychosocial counselling, and get them the aid and assistance they need.
But the process of justice, and we’ve seen the processes move much more quickly in the wake of a number of changes and in the collaboration between the Member States and the leadership of peacekeeping to have rapid investigations under the Secretary-General, who has called for the shortening of investigative times from 180 days to 90 days, so that national investigative officers are deployed; that they conduct competent, impartial, judicially sufficient investigations with clear outcomes, and then we understand publicly what happened so that victims can have closure and justice can be done.
UN News Centre: There have been plenty of allegations and a lot of investigations over the past year. Has anyone accused of such behavior faced justice?
We have a number of units that have no incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse and this is because the standards have been made clear. They are supported in capitals through their military chains of command and commanders are held accountable for the programs that they have in place.
Jane Holl Lute: There have been a number of cases that have faced justice in peacekeeping. Egypt, for example, conducted a trial of an accused immediately. South Africa has conducted trials. Tanzania has conducted trials. The DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] as well. So we are beginning to see this kind of accountability because Member States, in the face of these accusations, understand that what people really want to know is what happened, was justice done, did your processes work. We are beginning to see more and more decisive action in that regard.
UN News Centre: It sounds as though some troop-contributing countries are doing enough but many are not?
Jane Holl Lute: Well, there can be no troop-contributing country that doesn’t understand the priority of this issue for us in peacekeeping, and in the UN more generally. We’ve spoken to every Member State a number of times in various gatherings, whether it’s through the General Assembly, specialized committees, the committees dedicated to peacekeeping, the troop-contributing countries, the financial contributing countries, in capitals – here, in New York, in the field – we’ve had continuing dialogues with them at every level, whether from peacekeeping, from development, from humanitarian, or from a human rights perspective, all of these together, to say more must be done. So no one can claim they don’t know what’s required. As and when serious allegations are occurring, investigations are being undertaken rapidly. And so I think we have seen a change in attitude and a change in effort.
UN News Centre: Will the UN refuse to take troops from a particular country if they don’t meet the high standards that are expected of them?
Jane Holl Lute: So this was a position that we took over 12 years ago, that if Member States were not prepared to uphold the standards of the United Nations, we were prepared to do without their services. These are decisions with the leadership of peacekeeping, for the leadership of the organization. My responsibilities really rest in coordinating the system’s response to strengthen the prevention activities and strengthen our response when allegations are received.
UN News Centre: Given that decision was made so long ago, it sounds as though the system hasn’t worked.
Jane Holl Lute: I don’t think this is an area with concise statements like that – “the system hasn’t worked.” We still have allegations, serious allegations of abuse, and again and again and again, we have Member States that are stepping up to do the necessary. This is an unpleasant topic for everyone but, frankly, that’s too bad because it’s most unpleasant for the victims. They’re the ones that we need to keep centre-most in our focus and effort, and that’s really we are trying to focus on in the coordinator’s office.
Again, together with Member States and with peacekeeping, what we’re finding is that this is an ever present danger everywhere. You have 16 prominent female politicians in France coming out and saying, “We will no longer be silent in the face of this behaviour, we will speak out.” You see leadership stories in the United States, elsewhere around the world in South America, in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Far East, everywhere this is a problem. And we are not yet at a place globally and socially where we can say our women, our children, and our vulnerable are free from this fear. So there is more work for all of us to do.
UN News Centre: Would having more women peacekeepers help?
Jane Holl Lute: So many people believe that it would. In fact, that it creates a more realistic environment where people find themselves in everyday lives surrounded by men, women, and others. We exist in vibrant, heterogeneous societies where respect for gender is increasingly demanded. Not only by women but by men, male leaders and others who are in positions of influence as well. We’ve made great strides in the basic regard for human life and for human dignity, but we haven’t clearly come far enough because we still have this problem.
UN News Centre: Is the UN doing enough for victims?
Jane Holl Lute: What we know about the most cases of victims, each case individually is horrific and scars an individual for a lifetime quite frankly and very often that effect extends more broadly to their family and their society. In the first instance, we have to step up our game and getting them the immediate assistance they need when they come forward – medical care, psychosocial counselling, protection from further danger if they speak out. Victims very often, we find, just want this to stop. They want to put this incident behind them and end it as rapidly as possible. We need to give them the assistance they can to recover and help them rebuild their lives. But many victims also want to see that justice is done.
So in addition to assistance, in addition to protection, they want to see justice and we need to do our part in working with Member States and working with the authorities, wherever legitimate judicial authorities exist, to help see that justice is done.
UN News Centre: Have you met victims?
Jane Holl Lute: Yes – it’s a searing experience for anyone. To sit and hold the hand of someone who’s had their person violated in the most intimate way. Some of these acts you can’t even imagine and they can describe it in graphic detail so you don’t have to imagine it, you can live it. In the reliving of it they’re victimized again. So what we have to do is have a system that minimizes the trauma that they have experienced in a sense, not to minimize or make light in any way, shape, or form, but not to re-victimize them through repeated interviews, repeated exposure to authority, tell your story again and again and again. They didn’t want to live it the first time. We should minimize the need to make them relive it again and again, but bring them aid, bring them protection, and bring them justice.