Image above: UNHCR and UNICEF Joint Townhall meeting on the prevention and response to sexual misconduct with UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi and UNICEF Executive Director Henriette Fore.
UNHCR works systematically to identify and reduce 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. One of such systems is the recruitment of staff and vetting and reference checking.
Vetting and Reference Checking
UNHCR has taken measures, both internally and through interagency efforts, to ensure that perpetrators of sexual misconduct cannot move within the organization or from one UN organization to another.
We have amended our recruitment form to include specific questions on misconduct and self-certification that enablesus to sanction anyone trying to misrepresent him/herself. We were among the first agencies to roll out the United Nations “ClearCheck” trackers, launched in June 2018. ClearCheck is a screening database used to share information amongst UN entities, system-wide, on individuals (former UN staff and UN related personnel) who were found to have engaged in sexual misconduct, or who resigned or otherwise seperated from service while there were pending allegations against them related to, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. This process aims to prevent re-employing them within the UN system. This database is managed centrally by the UN’s Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, One HR Service. To learn more about ClearCheck, follow this link.
UNHCR is also seeking synergies with NGO partners on similar initiatives such as the “Misconduct disclosure scheme” developed by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response. In November 2021 UNHCR, together with OneHR and SCHR, embarked on the first phase of piloting the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme. Piloting will be crucial for UNHCR to better understand the impact and ensure that current vetting and reference checking procedures are properly prepared to absorb this important step in the recruitment process.
We strive to ensure that reporting mechanisms are known, accessible and trusted, and that victims who report sexual misconduct feel safe and protected. We have reinforced mechanisms to ensure that 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 UNHCR 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.
UNHCR Colleagues may also contact the Victim Care Officer as the first port-of-call in relation to concerns over sexual harassment. She provides confidential guidance on processes and services supports decision making, accompanies victims through the process, provides psychosocial support, coordinates action on their behalf, as well as assesses risks and individual needs. She also provides guidance to witnesses and advice to managers on support and risk mitigation for sexual harassment.
Messages written by women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are displayed in artwork on the walls of the Cotopaxi Reception House – a safe house for refugee and Ecuadorian women in the city of Salcedo, Ecuador.
© UNHCR/Jaime Giménez
We have strengthened the capacity and expertise of our investigative and disciplinary processes, to guarantee 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 Inspector General’s Office (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 specific training on how to handle sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment cases.
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.
The most severe disciplinary measures are imposed if allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse or sexual harassment are established following a disciplinary process. Any UNHCR personnel who engages in sexual misconduct can expect to have their employment terminated. In such cases, perpetrators' personal identifying information is also included in the “ClearCheck” database as having a final determination of SEA or sexual harassment, as appropriate, and they will be excluded from consideration for future positions with the UN.
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.
Protection of Witnesses and Victims
UNHCR’s policy on Protection against Retaliation includes all UNHCR personnel, has a wide scope of protected activities and allows for the extension of the timelines to request protection. The policy provides for preventive and interim measures to safeguard the interests of the complainant and it has strengthened corrective measures. These provisions ensure that UNHCR personnel are protected against being punished for reporting misconduct or for cooperating with an official audit or investigation.
By providing protection to staff who may otherwise be reluctant to come forward, UNHCR detects and can respond to misconduct. This strengthens accountability and maintains the integrity of our operations and programmes.
We are also strengthening survivor and witness protection, which we recognize is difficult in certain contexts in which we work. The well-being, protection and security of the victim, under the principles of "a Victim-Centred Approach” are the priority. This may entail the implementation of security measures to protect against retaliation, re-victimization, and re-traumatization.
For victims of SEA, UNHCR ensures that victims of sexual exploitation and abuse have access to all appropriate support and assistance provided by UN and other entities, including medical, psychosocial and legal assistance, as well as physical safety and security, in line with UNHCR’s Policy on a Victim-Centred Approach. Interventions to facilitate reintegration within the community should also be made available.
Victims of sexual harassment are supported by UNHCR’s Victim Care Officer. This support is automatically provided to victims unless they choose otherwise, shifting the responsibly of obtaining assistance from the individual to the organization. The Victim Care Officer, a Clinical Psychologist, provides psychosocial support, confidential guidance on processes and services, supports decision making, accompanies victims through the process, coordinates action on their behalf, and assesses risks and individual needs. This service also provides advice to managers on support and risk mitigation for sexual harassment.