Our fight against sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment
Our position is clear, and has been reiterated on a number of occasions by our High Commissioner: sexual misconduct is unjustifiable and must be eradicated from UNHCR operations.
With over 17,000 staff and affiliated workforce based primarily in the field, in permanent and direct contact with vulnerable people, UNHCR is one of the biggest and most operational UN agencies. There were over 83.7 million people of concern to UNHCR last year, and our programmes were implemented together with more than 1,100 partners.
We work in an environment shaped by significant power differentials and deeply rooted inequalities, including gender inequalities, in which the conditions that can give rise to sexual misconduct exist.
"There is no place for sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment at UNHCR, an organization that is dedicated to serving and protecting others."
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi
The overwhelming majority of our staff are deeply committed professionals, many of whom are working in difficult environments, sometimes risking their own safety and well-being. But our organization is not immune, and – like others – we have seen instances in which our own colleagues or partner staff have used their positions of power to exploit others.
These actions inflict intolerable harm on the victims and their families, run counter to the very values for which UNHCR stands, and undermine the work and credibility of our organization.
For this reason, we have taken a series of decisive actions over recent years to reinforce our mechanisms for preventing and responding to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.
In March 2018, the High Commissioner appointed a Senior Coordinator to lead UNHCR efforts to tackle sexual misconduct. She is supported by a cross-functional working group, and reports to the Deputy High Commissioner, who leads a Director Level Task Force on this issue.
In May 2018, UNHCR issued a comprehensive Strategy with Action plan and in August 2020 UNHCR launched a new Strategy and Action Plan (2020-2022), building on achievements in 2018 and 2019 while recognizing that much remains to be done. This new Strategy and Action Plan also takes into account developments in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Central to UNHCR’s efforts to tackle sexual misconduct is a commitment to working in partnership, as it is only by capitalizing on interagency and broader partnerships that we can make a difference. UNHCR’s High Commissioner took up the role of Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Champion on Protection from SEA and SH in September 2019 and has launched a number of initiatives under his Championship which will continue until the end of the year. In addition, in September 2019 UNHCR’s Deputy High Commissioner took on the role of Interim Chair of the Chief Executives Board’s Task Force on Addressing Sexual Harassment within the organizations of the UN system.
There is a frequent confusion between sexual exploitation and abuse on the one hand, and sexual harassment on the other. The main difference relates to who is the victim (also called “survivor”).
- Sexual exploitation and abuse affects persons of concern.
- Sexual exploitation is defined as an actual or attempted abuse of someone’s position of vulnerability (such as a person depending on you for survival, food rations, school books, transport or other services), differential power or trust, to obtain sexual favours, including but not only, by offering money or other social, economic or political advantages. It includes trafficking and prostitution.
- Sexual abuse means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force, or under unequal or coercive conditions. It includes sexual slavery, pornography, child abuse and sexual assault.
- Sexual harassment affects personnel and is defined as any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that causes offense or humiliation. Sexual harassment may occur in the workplace or in connection with work. While typically involving a pattern of conduct, sexual harassment may take the form of a single incident. In assessing whether the conduct causes offense, the perspective of the victim shall be considered
UNHCR now has an effective safeguarding team with a global remit, which includes the Senior Coordinator on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Exploitation and, Abuse and Sexual Harassment, the Inspector General’s Office, the Ethics Office, the Legal Affairs Service and the Staff Welfare Services, among others.
While the organization continues to work hard to ensure that victims/survivors can report in a safe manner, in its new 2020-2022 Strategy and Action Plan on tackling sexual misconduct, UNHCR places stronger emphasis on theirs needs and wishes.
The 2020-2022 Strategy and Action Plan is guided by four core objectives:
- Ensure that victims are at the heart of everything we do when fighting sexual misconduct;
- Equip and empower UNHCR and partner personnel to prevent, identify and respond to sexual misconduct;
- Uphold organizational accountability in tackling sexual misconduct;
- Maintain UNHCR’s role as a key player engaging in inter-agency efforts against sexual misconduct.
Actions we are taking to tackle sexual misconduct:
- Prevention and awareness raising
UNHCR works systematically to identify and reduce risks, including risks of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, in all its operations.
Eradicating sexual misconduct requires us to pay attention to the values and attitudes that underpin our behaviours, and the structures or systems that support or reinforce these behaviours. In 2002, we introduced a UNHCR Code of Conduct, which all personnel are required to sign. This code is the subject of mandatory refresher training each year, with a strong focus on values and inclusion, diversity and gender and is available in nine languages (English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Farsi, Thai, Urdu and Turkish).
Two online courses on the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment are likewise mandatory for all personnel. Management training courses also include a focus on how to create and lead an inclusive and respectful work environment, with specific modules on the prevention of sexual misconduct.
We also have a network of 400 protection and other staff in our field offices with specific focal point responsibilities related to prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, including through carrying out training and awareness raising activities and engaging with partners. We believe that their presence on the ground is a key factor in helping identify and support victims. In addition, a global Peer Advisor network, consisting of 400 colleagues, act as a point of contact in their respective offices for workplace grievances, ethical dilemmas and psychosocial concerns, including sexual harassment.
- Encouraging survivors to come forward
We are acutely aware of the enormous difficulties that survivors of sexual exploitation or abuse, or sexual harassment, face in coming forward, and of the deep professional and personal considerations – and even fears – that may prevent them from doing so.
We are striving to address these concerns, by ensuring that reporting mechanisms are known, accessible and trusted, and that victims who report sexual misconduct feel safe and protected.
To achieve this, we have adopted a survivor-centred approach that places the rights and protection of victims, or survivors, and persons directly affected at the centre of our actions. Actions include improving the experience of recourse, providing proper medical and psychosocial support, strengthening our policies, and developing additional protective measures for those who have experienced or witnessed such abuses.
We have reinforced mechanisms to ensure that all cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are reported, using a range of complaints mechanisms, including face to face engagement, mobile phone technology and call centres. The SpeakUp! Helpline is a confidential independent helpline available to all colleagues who wish to report misconduct or obtain advice on what to do when in doubt. The helpline is managed by an external provider and is available 24/7 by phone, through a web form and a mobile application. It offers the possibility to report in complete anonymity.
The High Commissioner and other senior managers have consistently and strongly encouraged victims to speak out and underscored the mandatory obligation for all colleagues to report on situations or interactions that may give rise to concerns of sexual exploitation or abuse.
Information on disciplinary measures taken is shared with all colleagues. We firmly believe this information, together with a robust follow-up on allegations, helps inspire confidence in the system and demonstrating accountability in action.
UNHCR’s policy on Protection against Retaliation includes our affiliate workforce, has a wide scope of activities considered as protected and extends the timeline to report. It also provides interim measures to safeguard the interests of the complainant and strengthens corrective measures.
We are also strengthening survivor and witness protection, which we recognize is difficult in certain contexts in which we work. Psychosocial and medical support is made available, along with interventions to facilitate reintegration within the community.
- Investigations and disciplinary actions
In recent years, we have strengthened the capacity and expertise of our investigative and disciplinary processes, to ensure timely and effective handling of sexual misconduct cases, which is crucial to ensure accountability. Sexual misconduct cases are prioritized in both the investigatory and disciplinary processes.
UNHCR’s Office of the Inspector General (IGO) is an independent internal body responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct that involve people or entities with a direct contractual link with UNHCR. The IGO is staffed with professional investigators, including senior female investigators, who all have previous and extensive experience in the police or the military, or who worked for international tribunals or in similar functions for other international organizations. Investigators have received a specific training on how to handle sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment cases.
The IGO also provides training to our field operations to raise awareness of procedures, build confidence in the system and share best practices. It also provides training on sexual misconduct to our partners.
UNHCR also has a dedicated team of professional lawyers in its Legal Affairs Service, including employment law specialists who are experienced in advising on sexual misconduct.
Following investigation, if the allegations are substantiated, UNHCR personnel found to have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse have their employment terminated, in line with our ‘zero tolerance’ approach. Perpetrators of sexual harassment are also normally separated from service.
We work closely with the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations in New York to ensure that credible allegations of sexual misconduct that may amount to criminal conduct are referred to the national authorities for criminal prosecution. The United Nations systematically cooperates with national authorities on referrals, including through appropriate waivers of immunity of UN personnel. Both UNHCR and the UN Office of Legal Affairs regularly follow up on the status of cases referred to national authorities.
- Vetting and reference checking
In terms of vetting and reference checking, we have taken new measures, both internally and through interagency efforts, to ensure that perpetrators cannot move within the organization or from one organization to another. We were among the first agencies to roll out the United Nations “Clear Check” trackers, launched in June 2018, and have undertaken a mapping of vetting mechanisms with a view to improving our own internal processes. We have amended our recruitment form to include specific questions on misconduct and self-certification that allows us to sanction anyone trying to misrepresent him/herself.
So far this year, UNHCR has received 19 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving its personnel. Additional information on the number of allegations in previous years, their status and the related investigations can be found here.
In 2021, UNHCR has dismissed four personnel on grounds of sexual exploitation and abuse (as of November). In one other case, sexual exploitation and abuse was established, and the individual separated prior to completion of the disciplinary process; the individual has been recorded in the UN Clear check database to prevent their re-hire in any UN entity. In 2020, UNHCR dismissed two personnel on grounds of sexual exploitation and abuse. In two other cases, SEA was established, and the individuals left the organization prior to completion of the disciplinary process; they have both been recorded in the UN Clear check database to prevent their re-hire in any UN entity. In 2019, one case was substantiated but the disciplinary process was not completed as the contract of the UNHCR personnel expired. This case was registered in the UN Clear check database to avoid this person being rehired in any UN entity. In addition, three members of our workforce left the organization before the allegations were received, and therefore an investigation was not possible. A note has been placed in their personnel file.
So far this year, UNHCR has received 87 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving its implementing partner personnel. Additional information on previous years, the status of various SEA allegations and the investigations involving the personnel our implementing partners can be found here.
Note: these statistics change on a regular basis as the investigative and disciplinary processes continue.
- Working in Partnership
UNHCR is fully committed to working in partnership to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. We have a zero tolerance approach to sexual exploitation and abuse by our partners and have embedded robust measures in the management of our relationships with them to address risks and ensure accountability.
All Project Partnership Agreements make specific reference to values and standards of professional conduct, and require that procedures are in place to prevent, detect, investigate and report on misconduct, with specific reference to sexual exploitation and abuse. Breaches are grounds for termination of the partnership.
We are also actively engaged in the strengthening of their awareness and capacity. Since 2013, UNHCR’s Office of the Inspector General has organized more than 14 regional workshops for partners across the world, covering investigations carried out by NGOs, how to report sexual exploitation and abuse, and zero-tolerance.
UNHCR is also participating fully in inter-agency efforts to eradicate sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. This includes participating to the work of the Special Coordinator on Improving the UN Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, the Victim’s Rights Advocate for the United Nations, and the UN Chief Executives Board (CEB) Task Force on Sexual Harassment. UNHCR also co-chairs a task team on sexual exploitation and abuse set up by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), an inter-agency forum for coordination, policy development and decision-making involving key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners.
Since September 2019, the High Commissioner has been the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Champion on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment.
Recent key achievements under the High Commissioner’s Championship include:
- The establishment of a community outreach and communications fund: UNHCR and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) launched an Interagency Community Outreach and Communications Fund on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in April 2020. The fund provides support to smaller non‑governmental organizations (with over 1,600 applications received) with developing information, education and communications materials to raise community‑awareness and ensure that victims know where, and how, to safely report incidents.
- The development of an interagency training for partners on protection from sexual misconduct: UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Food Programme, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and other partners, have jointly developed a learning package, “Saying NO to Sexual Misconduct”, and was launched in May 2020.
Find out more on his three key priorities to help strengthen the fight against sexual misconduct.
- Tackling sexual misconduct: 2020-2022 Strategy and Action Plan
- Policy on Victim-Centred Approach in UNHCR's response to Sexual Misconduct 2020 (Also available in French)
- The High Commissioner's IASC Championship on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment (Also available in French | Spanish)
- Find more information on UNHCR's Inspector General and how to report abuse
- Written Evidence submitted by UNHCR to the UK's International Development Committee
- Inquiry on Sexual Exploitation in the Aid Sector: Next Steps
- Statement by Diane Goodman at Standing Committee, 20 September 2018
- Mobile SGBV Prevention and Response Services in Lebanon
- Sector Gender Focal Points Network in Jordan
- Male rape and sexual torture widespread in Syria crisis
- Emergency shelters for women and girls in Lebanon
- Dialogues with Refugee Women
- Survivors, Protectors, Providers: Refugee Women Speak Out