The BBC programme The Whistle-blowers: Inside the UN’ will have shocked UNA members. It reported on scandalous cases of wrongdoing, corruption and especially sexual harassment of junior UN staff by their line managers or superiors. Several UN agencies were cited including the Human Rights Council, UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme and UNAIDS. Professor Purna Sen of the London Metropolitan University’s Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit anchored the programme. Ms Sen worked at UN Women (2015-2020) and in November 2021 was appointed as Special Advisor to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.
It is widely agreed that the United Nations has an ‘Impunity Problem’ but this has not come about by oversight or malice, rather by design. The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (1946) and another similar relating to the specialised agencies (1947), both agreed in London, set out to develop further the protocols first established by the League of Nations. The United Nations needed to be able to work in all Member States without hindrance and Article 104 of the Charter states that it ‘shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such legal capacity as may be necessary for the exercise of its functions and the fulfilment of its purposes.”
The Convention’s core provision with regard to immunity from jurisdiction states “The UN and assets wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process except when it has expressly waived its immunity.” However, staff disputes within the UN would be settled by its Administrative Tribunal. This structure was reformed in 2008 at the time that many of the incidents reported in the BBC TV programme took place. Clearly, senior staff members have hidden behind a wide interpretation of the Convention and the reforms have not been effective.
A useful case study of such organisational failures can be read in THE UNITED NATIONS’ IMPUNITY PROBLEM, published by Code Blue. This examined a pattern of sexual abuse committed by WHO personnel against women and girls in the DRC during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak. WHO set up a so-called “Independent Commission” to “investigate” the allegations but this was far from independent, reporting to WHO leadership with WHO staff determining what evidence the commissioners could access. The case study examined alternative routes to justice for a victim, concluding that her ability to access any legal remedy is contingent upon the UN choosing to clarify the immunity of its personnel and choosing to allow its employees to be held criminally accountable. Its closing observation is sobering, “If the Organization continues to misuse immunity to shield its personnel from all systems of criminal justice, those working under the UN flag will continue to commit rape and other sex crimes with impunity.” The BBC programme has clearly shown that the UN continues to fail in addressing issues which seventy-five years ago might have remained hidden but now, in the era of MeToo, can no longer be ignored.
UNA members must be in the forefront in challenging this outdated institutional mindset. Public support for the UN is vital and we must press for change.
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