I first visited the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1994 during the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. In Goma’s emergency hospital, I witnessed rows and rows of rape survivors who had fled across the border.
A quarter-century later, it is hurting again in the same place, for the same reason: sexual violence. But what is different is that the alleged perpetrators are humanitarians, sent to save the community from a deadly Ebola outbreak. The humanitarian workers are said to have demanded sexual favours from women and girls trying to make a few dollars from low-level work in international agencies.
The initial exposé in 2019, including testimony by victims, pushed the World Health Organization to investigate its DRC operations belatedly in 2020. The consequent Independent Commission report took yet another year. It identified at least 83 alleged perpetrators, mostly Congolese but also foreign employees. This is just the tip as survivors are usually reticent to come forward.
Many women were forced to have sex without condoms, several had children and others were coerced to get abortions. The psychosocial impacts and stigmatisation of affected women ruined families.
The report paints an appalling wider picture of prevailing sexual exploitation and abuse. Sexual exploitation is the misuse of power and trust to take sexual advantage of a more vulnerable or dependent person. When this leads to actual or threatened physical intrusion, it constitutes sexual abuse (including rape).
Sexual violence and attacks on healthcare were rife in the eastern DRC. Undeterred, the WHO resolved to do better in its Ebola response after heavy criticism of its poor performance in the 2014-16 West African Ebola outbreak. So, it expanded rapidly – eventually deploying 2,800 personnel.
These factors explain the context but not excuse the WHO’s careless deployment of unvetted, untrained staff, and management systems that initially played down complaints of sexual misdeeds, created bureaucratic obstacles for victims to be heard, and delayed timely investigation and correction.
This appalling failure has re-focused wider attention on the sexual misconduct that surfaces with disgraceful regularity in humanitarian, development, and peacekeeping operations worldwide. They get away with it because victims are routinely ignored, there is little accountability of perpetrators, and there are few costs for institutions that shield them.
Regular incidents in the aid sector
Sexual exploitation and abuse are widely prevalent. Egregious examples included criminal abuse by Oxfam staff in Haiti, some of whom moved from one country to another including Chad and DRC. There was also senior-level sexual misconduct at Save the Children. The Red Cross Red Crescent has not been immune with allegations of misconduct among its 192 National Societies and at the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent.
Other UN bodies – including the UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme -– were among 40 agencies implicated in a food-for-sex scandal in West Africa.
The response is almost standard: the organisation apologises, promises to do better, and appoints sexual exploitation and abuse focal points. They make more regulations, design further guidelines, push gender equality, and institute greater staff training.
These are all recommended good practices. But, to avoid public embarrassment that undermines donor funding, the culprits are often not prosecuted. Instead, they are quietly fired or contracts are not extended.
Indeed, non-disclosure exit agreements or privacy rights mean that data on offenders are often not shared, allowing perpetrators to join another unsuspecting organisation and re-offend. Negligent managers on whose watch such things happen may get a mild rap or move to another role. They may even be promoted. The circle of impunity is thereby completed.
Peacekeeping operations have a long history of predatory sexual culture. Underage girls were kidnapped, raped and prostituted by UN and NATO personnel in Kosovo. In Bosnia, UN police officers operated a sex trafficking ring. More recently, peacekeepers from Gabon and France behaved horribly in the Central African Republic. But the record for rape and abuse by UN peacekeepers is in Congo: 700 of 2,000 worldwide allegations over 12 years.
The UN’s database shows that abusers come from all continents. Africans are prominent as both victims and abusers, indicating the high prevalence of both peacekeeping missions on the continent and African force contributions to them.
The UN is not short on rhetoric around sexual abuse and exploitation. It has a zero tolerance policy, a high-level Special Coordinator, a much-hyped strategy complete with its “circle of leadership”, a Conduct and Discipline Service, and many risk management tools and training. There is also as a do-no-harm Voluntary Compact signed by 103 states.
Set up to fail
The system has commendable intent but is set up to fail. The UN has little authority other than to send home the errant peacekeepers. Few get disciplined by their home authorities; often cases are simply not investigated or are closed for “lack of evidence”.
The UN is usually reluctant to offend its Member States on whom it depends for peacekeepers. Serial abusers can get recycled from operation to operation. Cash-strapped nations can get their ill-trained and ill-disciplined militaries subsidised through deployment fees from the massive UN peacekeeping budget. Fragile states may also prefer to keep their soldiers abroad rather than making coups at home.
Meanwhile, the victim is left high and dry, without even the consolation of seeing her abuser held to account. Fearing that it would open the floodgates, the UN does not compensate victims who have suffered at the hands of its agents. The injustice is self-evident. The irony is that she has more likelihood of redress from a domestic court in a poorly governed nation with a weak legal system, than in the zone of international operations governed by immunity and impunity.
That is why what the WHO does now is of crucial importance. Its director general is commended for commissioning his own independent probe. He also earned trust by releasing its findings openly, without editing. He has boldly taken ultimate responsibility for his employees’ misdeeds.
What must change
The WHO remains under the microscope as it brings longer-term internal changes to prevent recurrence. Meanwhile, it must not tarry to make immediate amends. Three elements are crucial.
First and foremost, the victims must receive meaningful financial compensation, beyond medical and psychosocial support.
Second, everything must be done to trace the perpetrators and bring them to court.
Third, WHO managers who did not ensure a safe work environment must be held publicly accountable and incur penalties commensurate with their share of the responsibility for failure.
The DRC Ebola operation will not be the last time that vulnerable people are sexually preyed upon by people sent to help or protect them. But strengthening accountability, bringing justice and giving redress can raise the costs of offending. That will also show that “saying sorry” carries meaning and “zero tolerance” is more than a slogan.