“Zero tolerance” to sexual exploitation and abuse by UN staff in South Sudan: Victims’ Rights Advocate
United Nations peacekeepers, police, and civilians work hard to provide security, sanctuary, and peace for the vulnerable people of war-torn South Sudan.
The relationship between the two groups should be one of mutual trust and confidence but, at times, it breaks down when the power imbalance results in local people being subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel.
“It is conduct which is absolutely abhorrent and a conduct which is extraordinarily painful to its victims and undermines the UN itself and, of course, dents the trust that communities should have in the UN,” says UN Assistant Secretary-General Jane Connors.
Appointed by the UN Secretary-General, Jane Connors is the UN’s first Victims’ Rights Advocate (VRA). This puts her at the forefront of efforts to prevent, respond to, and ultimately eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse. Her role ensures that victims are at the center of the UN’s approach.
“It is about dignity for the victims, compassion, a real feeling of empathy, a feeling that they are not forgotten - that victims feel they can tell their story to someone like myself and, if they’re lucky, to the Secretary-General as some have been able to do,” she said. “That their hurt, their pain is acknowledged, and we do as much as we possibly can do to make their situation better.”
The Victims’ Rights Advocate is visiting South Sudan to promote the importance of the “no excuses, zero tolerance” approach to UN personnel, whether they are peacekeepers or humanitarian workers. She has also met with victims and local authorities and spent time listening to the concerns of internally displaced people in protection of civilians’ sites.
“There should be no victims. Women and girls should not feel pain,” she told crowds of people at the Malakal camp, in the north of the country. “All I can say is the UN entities, funds, programmes, agencies and the Mission stand with you but you are in the lead to say no and act.”
Globally there were 103 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse reported against UN peacekeepers last year with four in South Sudan. While the numbers seem low, explained the VRA, this may be because the stigma attached to this kind of behavior makes victims reluctant to report it. That is why it is vital to encouraging reporting so that perpetrators are held accountable.
“Many victims are focused on their lives, as you know, legal processes take a long time and many victims wish to move on. They are interested in justice, but at the same time, they wish to rebuild their lives, move into a scenario whereby they feel valued, they are not stigmatized, and that is the approach we need to take,” said Jane Connors. “We need to ask the victim what she or he wants and not substitute our judgement, not say you need to do this, you need to do the other.”
Jane Connors’ visit to South Sudan’s follows the launch of a new campaign by the UN Mission to build on the “zero tolerance” and “no excuses” stance taken by the Secretary-General. At the recent launch of a new pocket-sized card designed to remind all UN personnel of their responsibility to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, the Head of the Mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, said there would be “no second chance” for any offenders in the country.