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Q&A: How to fix the UN’s sex abuse problem?

‘If we’re going to be successful in combating sexual exploitation and abuse, we need to leave our logos and egos at the door.’

A mid-shot of Christian Saunders behind a podium speaking into a microphone. In the back is a flag of the UN. Lev Radin/Sipa USA
Christian Saunders attends a ceremony in May 2022, two months before he became the UN's special adviser on responding to sexual exploitation and abuse.

The UN has been dogged by a steady stream of sex abuse scandals over the years, from peacekeepers in Central African Republic to World Health Organization staff accused of luring women into sex-for-work schemes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


With such headlines, it’s easy to overlook progress that has been made to prevent such abuses, according to Christian Saunders, the British national who in July 2022 became the UN’s special coordinator on improving its response to sexual exploitation and abuse.


In a 19 April interview, Saunders told The New Humanitarian he believes in “radical transparency”, he doesn’t think the UN should be investigating itself, and he agrees it’s time to retire the phrase “zero tolerance”.


After 30 years working for NGOs and the UN – including at the Department of Operational Support (DOS), UNRWA, UNHCR, and UNFPA – Saunders said he is ideally placed to push through much-needed reforms on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA). “I know this organisation very well,” he told The New Humanitarian. “I know which buttons to press to try and make things work.” 



The New Humanitarian spoke with Saunders shortly after his visit to South Sudan, where allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation surfaced again last year at a UN-run camp for civilians in the northern city of Malakal. Since then, Saunders said he has seen improvements in the task force dealing with PSEA in the Malakal camp, as well as in the community reporting mechanisms – even if risks from overcrowding (the camp was built for 13,000 people but now houses nearly 40,000) remain. 


Saunders listed a number of improvements since Secretary-General António Guterres vowed to stamp out UN sexual abuse and exploitation in 2017: closer partnerships with civil society partners; the appointment of senior victims rights officers in high-risk missions; the establishment of a victims trust fund that is now at $4 million; and better coordination, particularly the introduction of ClearCheck and the misconduct disclosure scheme – both aimed at preventing offenders from simply being recycled through the system and being able to move on to different UN or aid sector jobs.


Saunders said more is also being done to improve training materials by translating them into different languages to make them more accessible. “There is no silver bullet or magic wand when it comes to sexual exploitation and abuse,” Saunders said. “You have a toolbox, and part of that toolbox is training.”

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.


The New Humanitarian: What have been some of your successes since stepping into your role last year? 

Christian Saunders: I come from an operational background, and so, for example, in South Sudan and other missions and countries I’ve visited, I’ve put forward practical suggestions to reduce duplication, to improve coordination, and to improve the coherence of our response. 


I think I’ve also improved coordination between the UN system and the NGO community. 


It is my firm belief that if we’re going to be successful in combating sexual exploitation and abuse, we need to leave our logos and egos at the door and work as one team.



Where I think we have not succeeded is at the field level to respond to sexual exploitation and abuse. And that’s something that is very high on my agenda.


The New Humanitarian: What are some of the blockers you’ve hit when it comes to suggesting and tackling reforms? 

Saunders: I think probably the biggest blocker is the issue itself. It’s been around for thousands of years, and it's endemic in every society. It has many different drivers. You have a culture of silence in many countries. You have stigma attached. 


I think another blocker is perhaps cultural and generational. We’re conditioned not to talk about these issues. And even though managers and leaders are committed to having a zero tolerance to sexual exploitation and abuse, and to eliminating it from inside the United Nations, I think the sort of conditioning at a young age not to talk about sex and things like that is a blocker.


I think resources are an issue in many respects, but in particular, ensuring predictable and sustainable resources to have people at the field level. Right now, you have PSEA coordinators who are being funded by one agency for six months and then there's a gap for three months or another six months. I think we need predictable and sustainable funding for tackling SEA on the ground. 


I think resourcing in terms of donor funding is a blocker. I just returned from South Sudan. In 2017, there was close to $15 million being spent on gender-based violence services. The figure today is about $8 million. So the breadth and type of services have been reduced. 



I think underfunding of peacekeeping operations is also an issue in terms of providing decent accommodation for soldiers and internet access so they can call home. There also needs to be the rotation of soldiers and regular intervals so they're not left in rural areas that are cut off for months at a time. Take a country like Central African Republic, which is a vast country with very little infrastructure and where during eight months of the year, you have the rainy season, you cannot go anywhere. I think member states are aware that the resourcing is a huge issue, but budgets get tighter every year.


I think there is also the fact that we’re dealing with many, many different entities – we have 35+ UN entities, many international and national NGOs. They’re all independent organisations, all fiercely independent. Getting people to work together is a challenge. 



And then there are the member states. I think they’re a blocker because of legislation on sexual violence, and because I don’t believe they address investigations, particularly when it’s military uniformed personnel. I don't think they address the investigation process to the degree it needs to be done, and I don’t think they address accountability when it comes to soldiers accused of SEA. And when they do address the issue, I don't think punishment is meted out to fit the crime.


The New Humanitarian: Some were surprised that a white guy from the Global North was appointed to tackle UN sexual abuse against women and girls in the Global South. What would you say to them? 

Saunders: I can understand why there would be criticisms. I would hope that I was appointed based on merit and I competed in an open process. 


I would agree that most of these abuses are perpetrated by men, so having men speak out on this issue is very important. And I think it sends a strong message. We need more men to speak out about this issue. I’ve talked about this being one of the blockers. 


I think my background helps with NGOs and working with different UN entities in many diverse different functions, whether that was operations, building and running refugee camps, emergency responses, development programmes, peacekeeping, and in different areas from everything from procurement to supply chain issues to safety and security. You name it, I’ve been fortunate to have a very diverse career. I think we also live in a patriarchal world, and sometimes it's easier, perhaps, for me to get my foot through the door than somebody else.


The New Humanitarian: You’ve been critical about the time it takes to conduct investigations, and of the process itself. What’s the recipe for fixing it?

Saunders: I think, ideally, and this is just a personal viewpoint, I think we should take investigations outside of the UN entities. I don't think it is right that the UN should be investigating itself. I would like to see a separate agency, a separate inspector general's office, that undertook investigations on behalf of the whole UN system.


In an ideal world, that is what should happen. Will it happen? I would hope that at some point in the UN’s history it will happen, but it will probably take quite a while, and for something like that to happen it would need support from all of the organisations and from member states.


In the interim, I think a lot has been done to improve investigations. The Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) now has 16 (investigators) that are now specialised in victim-centred investigations. 


The biggest problem for most agencies is resources, and the reason investigations take so long is twofold. One is because of a lack of resources. The environment in which they investigate is also challenging. For example, you have a rainy season in Central African Republic where people are cut off for long periods of time. We work in humanitarian settings and in conflict-related settings, and people are on the move. And often victims choose to stay silent for long periods of time, and then they come forward. And conducting investigations like this with victims – because of the trauma and the stigma – can be a protracted process. We would all like to see investigations completed much quicker. The other thing we would like to see is better information-sharing during the course of investigations.


There is a lot going on, but this is certainly an area where we have to improve on. 


The New Humanitarian: Some rights groups say not enough is being done to help victims. What’s your response to this? 

Saunders: It’s not a simple issue. I think with some acts of sexual exploitation and abuse it’s not possible to put people back to where they were. 


Victim assistance has to be holistic. It can’t just be monetary. It’s multi-dimensional and multifunctional. I think it has to involve psychosocial support, medical support, skills development, and perhaps microfinance and legal assistance. 


I think, in many of the countries where we work, even though justice is important, it’s probably not the first thing on the minds of the victims. 


Because of the stigma, because they get ostracised from their families and communities, it’s socio-economic opportunities and ability to support themselves and to support any children brought out of sexual exploitation. Paternity claims is another issue that frankly we have not been very successful with, and we now have a senior task force looking at how we can improve on that. A lot of it, to a certain extent, has been stonewalled by member states, though some – like Nigeria and South Africa – have started to step forward in this regard. 


The New Humanitarian: What are you doing to tackle the lingering issue of impunity, and isn’t it time that the UN retire the phrase “zero-tolerance” given that very few perpetrators ever face punishment or prosecution? 

Saunders: Obviously having accountability and having no impunity is hugely important, not only because perpetrators need to be held to account, but also in terms of prevention. We haven't been as successful as we would like in this respect. I talked a little bit about member states and the need for member states to step up, but it’s not just in terms of uniformed personnel, and in terms of investigating and holding uniformed personnel to account, but also in terms of civilian personnel. 


Obviously, I would like to see more accountability. As for retiring the phrase zero tolerance, most of us have retired it anyway. We now refer to it as “zero tolerance to inaction”. I think that is a more important way of saying things. 


What we really do need to be focusing on, to my mind – and sometimes that gets lost in the dialogue – is prevention. Our primary focus has to be preventing this from happening.


The New Humanitarian: Our reporting has shown that the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation is a well-known secret, but it seems aid workers are still reluctant to report these allegations. What is the UN doing to tackle this problem? 

Saunders: We conducted a survey annually. Last year, we had about 37,000 responses. About 14% of those said they would not report SEA for fear of retaliation. Another, smaller percentage said they wouldn’t because they didn’t know how to report it. And another equally small percentage, around 10%, said they didn’t want to report it because they didn’t want to get involved or because they thought someone else would report it. So we’re looking right now at a bystander initiative to get people to understand why it’s important to report. The culture change to improve trust and to reduce fear is going to take longer. But it’s something that we have to work on. People have to come forward if they know something or hear something.


The New Humanitarian: You mentioned the need for better transparency, but not all UN entities report allegations in a very detailed way. What can be done to tackle this and rebuild trust?

Saunders: This is obviously something we discuss quite a lot.


I think with UN peacekeeping operations, it's easier because you've got thousands of troops, so there is anonymity to a certain extent. With UN entities, the concern – and I think it's a valid concern – is that in some UN offices, you only have very few people, so if you report, then there is the potential that the alleged perpetrator can be identified, and that could compromise the due process of that individual. 


That has been the principal reason why the country is not mentioned, but, as I said, we're looking at ways to improve transparency through additional data and also by improving the way we collect data. 


I do think we need radical transparency on these types of issues to ensure we do have trust.


But the UN is a political organisation. So, sometimes, if a senior official has not done what they’re supposed to do and, let’s say, with respect to SEA, then you’re not going to see that senior official handcuffed and marched out the front door: Their contract will not be renewed; they will quietly be let go – recognising that the UN is a political organisation, and sometimes you cannot do things in the most direct way. 


The New Humanitarian: Is there anything you would like to add? 

Saunders: Many organisations approach PSEA a bit like a special measure or a project, but I think we need to institutionalise PSEA across every organisation much the same way that you have safety and security. SEA is not going away. I don't think we will ever eliminate it, but I think with the tools we're developing, and by having a constant focus on it, we can get the numbers down to as close to zero.


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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