First published in Project Syndicate
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For too long, nongovernmental organizations, global-governance institutions such as the United Nations, and others in the international community have failed to eliminate the culture of impunity surrounding sexual abuse and harassment. But that is now changing as the UN steps up its efforts to prevent and punish violations at all levels.

Geneva – Around the world, brave women (and some men) have been breaking the silence surrounding sexual harassment and abuse committed by those in positions of power. Their courage is paving the way for others to speak out about their own experiences.

Unfortunately, the experiences victims are describing have included sexual exploitation by staff of the United Nations. But it is not the responsibility of survivors to prevent abuse. That responsibility belongs to all UN staff members and leaders.

It is time to eradicate the culture of impunity that has prevailed for far too long within the international community. The priority should not be to protect those in power, but to ensure that survivors receive justice and the support to which they are entitled.

As members of the UN system, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual exploitation by our personnel against those we are assisting; the same is true for sexual harassment directed at colleagues.

OCHA and IOM are firmly committed to the global fight against sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in the humanitarian sector. To that end, we are taking decisive action across the domains of policymaking, advocacy, and operations to prevent and punish abuses.

The relationships between OCHA and IOM field staff and the vulnerable people they assist are built on trust. Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian and development workers of the very people they are meant to be helping is the gravest violation of that trust. It fundamentally contradicts our organizations’ core principles and obligations.

To protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse, we have adopted standard operating procedures for submitting and addressing complaints. We have established reporting, investigative, and disciplinary proceedings, as well as victim-assistance programs. And we are committed to mandating regular training for all staff members, and to making information about sexual-abuse prevention available to all personnel.

We have also reformed the OCHA and IOM human-resource structures to ensure better protection for aid beneficiaries across regional- and country-level offices. In field programs, UN Humanitarian Coordinators are charged with ensuring that effective prevention and response systems are in place, and they are expected to deliver annual progress reports to the Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Looking ahead, the leaders of all UN agencies and major nongovernmental organizations will need to maintain the current momentum on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, as previously agreed through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a key humanitarian coordination platform chaired by OCHA. After all, there is still a long way to go before we can say that sexual abuse is a thing of the past.

Progress toward creating a culture of accountability suffers when incidents go under- or unreported. That is why we must ensure that all survivors know how to report abuse, and that they receive the justice they deserve.

But the UN’s zero-tolerance approach cannot stop there. We must also protect our own staff from harm. Workplace sexual harassment is a violation of basic rights and the UN Charter. It also causes emotional and physical harm, and generally excludes women and gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex personnel from participating fully at every level of an organization.

In fact, achieving greater diversity is crucial for protecting staff from sexual harassment, which is why we have made it a high priority. Recruiting more women in all areas and at all levels would almost certainly accelerate the pace of progress. But, at the same time, we must not forget that men, too, can become targets of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.

In line with Secretary-General António Guterres’s UN-wide policy on workplace sexual harassment, we have imposed strict zero-tolerance policies in each of our organizations. And we have established reporting mechanisms and follow-up procedures to address abuses at the highest levels. Now, this progress needs to be matched with proactive policies to empower survivors and prevent abuses in the first place.

Sexual harassment in the workplace, like sexual exploitation of people in need, has no place in the United Nations, or anywhere else. As international officials, we feel a special responsibility to lead by example and continue to work every day to eliminate these scourges once and for all.


Mark Lowcock is UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs  |  William Lacy Swing is Director General of the International Organization for Migration