There has been a tide of stories in the international press and a definitive buzz surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct by aid workers at some of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, most notably Oxfam. People expressed anger that the very same organisations that advocate an end to human rights abuses, including sexual violence and the exploitation of vulnerable peoples, are engaging in these practices. Now this buzz has died down. The international media is consumed by the next salient issue. Yet this does not mean that the issue is no longer as important as it was several weeks ago. The business of humanitarian workers committing acts of sexual misconduct, exploitation and violence has been a problem for decades, a sinister part of both aid and peace efforts.
Sexual violence against women and girls, particularly in conflict, is a topic that has rooted itself firmly in academia and on the agendas of international bodies. The London School of Economics’ Centre for Women, Peace and Security was opened. The United Nations also contributed to work on sexual violence in conflict and since 2009 the Secretary-General includes the issue in the UN annual report. Yet the same attention has not been afforded to those on the supposedly ‘right’ side of these debates and initiatives. Brian Concannon who is executive director of the Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti claimed that Oxfam is just one of 23 organisations in Haiti that have allegedly engaged in sexual exploitation which hints at the scale of the problem. UN Peacekeepers across multiple missions including Cambodia, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have also come under fire for their role as perpetrators in the sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable peoples. Allegations have been made since the early 2000s but there has been little done to both stop it and punish those who are guilty. Ultimately, a dark shadow is cast over the positive work done by the UN and other humanitarian organisations.
In light of the recent allegations, Oxfam has established an internal safeguarding mission to address such serious reports. With regard to the UN, peacekeepers have been ‘expelled’ from missions in response to allegations against them although it is still the responsibility of their nation states to punish them. It would be wrong to say that the international community is making no effort to stem these continuous wrongdoings but they definitely are not doing enough. The actions of organisations should not just be reactive, punitive measures. There need to be concrete, regulatory mechanisms in place that disallow sexual misconduct and, in the unfortunate circumstance that it happens, justice must be meeted out. The international community needs to support these mechanisms and each nation should champion them, showing an awareness of the actions of their citizens overseas. A large part of the continuation of sexual exploitation and abuse is down to the lack of measures or the ineffectiveness of those that exist, especially if nation states do not actively support the regulation of peacekeepers or aid workers. The UN and indeed all these organisations have a responsibility to be vocal, to be firm and to take definitive action for the sake of those they seek to protect.