Time’s Up Again: Ending abuse in Humanitarian Emergencies

February 16, 2018

This is not new. Disgraceful, damaging, and a host of other adjectives have been deployed to describe the conduct of some employees of OXFAM, but new? Not at all.

There have been multiple revelations of sexual misconduct in humanitarian situations: Bosnia, DRC, CAR, Chad, Haiti… the list is long and frankly, there probably isn’t a single country where deployment has taken place which has not seen some form of exploitation. Whether it be the UN, the peacekeepers, private contractors, aid workers or diplomats, there is a history of abuse of authority and advantage taken as a result of the enormous imbalance of power that exists between a population made vulnerable by war or natural disaster, and those who ostensibly come to protect or assist. In reality, this is the macrocosm of our own societies. Look to who holds power within the family, government, media, business and so on, and the pattern of inequality and consequent abuse is glaringly obvious. Patriarchy writ large.

All of which means there is an absolute need for a cultural, and thereby, a structural shift away from male privilege and assumptions of entitlement to one where equality is the norm; where there is respect for women regardless of status within the organisation or in the community, regardless of her race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, and that those who abuse are the ones ostracised and held accountable.

We should be absolutely clear that this has nothing to do with the UK Aid budget which those on the extreme right of the Tory party would like to see decimated as a matter of principle. It does, however, have relevance in that the Aid budget could and should be used to address inequalities, in particular violence against women and children, in all DFiD projects.


Actions that need to be taken

There are a series of actions that need to be taken and none of them should be done in haste simply to be seen to be doing something in the face of a scandal. Calm consideration of options is always preferable, so let’s calmly consider the following:

Most organisations have codes of conduct for staff. Many have staff sign documents promising they will not misbehave, some have training on gender and some on conduct. What is clear is that there is no uniform approach and I would venture that trying to find gender sensitivity in the personnel manuals of private security firms would be a quixotic task!  What is needed is clarity as to legal obligation, legal consequences and the implementation of those obligations and consequences. For aid workers, the legal situation is fairly simple in that there are no issues of immunity so any criminal act should be investigated and prosecuted in the country where the offence takes place.

If sexual crimes are committed against children then the UK has extraterritorial jurisdiction and offenders can be prosecuted in the UK. So far, so simple, but it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen because there is no compulsion to make it happen. The OXFAM employees could, and probably should have been investigated in Haiti. It might have been that the crime was that of engaging women who were working in prostitution, which probably would not have had serious consequences, but it might also have been that they committed crimes against minors. No compulsion, so we will never know. No chance now of finding the “victims” to provide any sort of support or reparation. Absent too any obligation to make known the offences – and we now know that colleagues provided references (not officially sanctioned), which enabled the perpetrators to continue to work in the sector.


We need a legally enforceable code of conduct

So what if we suggested this. That DFiD and representatives of contracted organisations get together with those who have experience and expertise on how to address these issues and work out an effective and legally enforceable “Code of Conduct” which contains the following basic elements:

  • Vetting of all employees before and during employment.
  • Training on the dynamics of gender in crisis situations, including the importance of local women`s participation in the design and implementation of humanitarian support.
  • Clearly set out processes relating to investigation and post-investigation prosecution including on any jurisdictional options.
  • Whistleblower protection, or better put, obligations not to collude in wrongdoing and sanction for so doing (with coercive circumstances being taken into account).
  • Such a basic structure would enable contractors to have similarly drafted policies which make it easier to monitor and report on. DFiD should insist that there be annual reporting on compliance, much as they do for audits. It means also that failure to comply would lead to the termination of the contract with the contractor. Obviously, safeguards would need to be in place to prevent politically motivated interference, but essentially all we need is legal clarity and its implementation. At its best, law is just basic common sense.
  • That would help, but it won’t work if the UN remains unwilling to ensure similar controls thereby feeding a culture in which abuse can occur. On numerous occasions, we have provided the UN with legal analysis of what they could do but all Secretary Generals have taken the softest of options and enable the Member States to avoid sanction. All troop-contributing countries must be compelled to adhere to legal processes, similar to those set out above, or they must not be allowed to send peacekeeping or civilian forces. Full stop. The argument that this will mean states will not contribute is specious. Do we want men with power in vulnerable communities without any sort of legal obligations and accountabilities? Of course not. What sort of peace would they be keeping? Same for private security companies, they cannot be outwith status of forces agreements and must be subject to legal controls.
  • Lastly, that cultural shift will not be possible until the majority of men who are dedicated, committed and are most definitely part of the solution, do not take responsibility for making that change. We do need more women in senior positions but we also need men who will take a stand against privilege and entitlement, not just in words but in their conduct and attitudes to power.

Edifices of male privilege are crumbling, #metoo and #timesup are real and important. Men need to embrace them as movements for change that will benefit all of us. (Imbalances in power have a negative impact on men and boys too). The UN, contractors and the government must take seriously the demands that are contained within them, across all sectors and across all governance structures.  Out of this mess there is an opportunity to finally get a grip on the abuse that some men have so signally failed to understand, or failed to care about. Time’s up indeed!


Madeleine Rees
WILPF Secretary General





Prior publications by WILPF:



Feminist Foreign Policy Gender Gender Based Violence Health Human Rights Sexual Violence Women's Human Rights Press Release Statement

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