Advocating for the Rights of Victims of Sexual Misconduct

Jane Connors
November 22, 2022

Since its establishment, the United Nation’s role in conflict, crises and development has diversified and expanded. Over the years, unfortunately, cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations staff, non-staff personnel and those of humanitarian organizations have been reported by victims to the United Nations, civil society, the media, and others. For over 20 years, the United Nations and partner organizations have developed and implemented increasingly comprehensive standards and policies to prevent and respond to these wrongs.

Early in his first term, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres launched a new strategy to confront sexual exploitation and abuse, pledging to elevate the voices of victims and put their rights and dignity at the forefront of prevention and response. He appointed a system-wide Victims’ Rights Advocate to work with states, United Nations entities and civil society to ensure that reliable, gender-sensitive pathways are in place for every victim to complain, receive timely assistance and support, and access accountability processes and remedies. I have been the Victims’ Rights Advocate since September 2017.

I advocate with states, United Nations partners, international, regional and sub-regional bodies and networks. I give visibility to victims, making clear that these wrongs harm a woman, girl, man or boy who is hurt, fearful, often subject to intersectional discrimination, stigma and abandonment. Often, they are left with a child; and resolution of paternity/child maintenance claims is a large part of my work. 

I urge that our interventions be designed and implemented as rights-based and empowering. I promote the application of the victims’ rights approach. This requires engaging with a victim in a way that respects their rights, needs, wishes and dignity, protects them from retaliation, re-traumatization and discrimination, keeps them informed, and supported. This is essential to guarantee respect for the victim and to empower them. I promoted this approach as I led development of core principles of the victim-centred approach, now applicable across the United Nations system. I am encouraging the United Nations internal legal officers and judges to apply a victims’ rights approach in cases involving sexual misconduct through suggested best practices.

A statement on the rights of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations staff or non-staff personnel directed to building victims’ confidence is close to finalization. It elaborates the rights to be treated with respect; receive assistance and support; justice and accountability; decide how involved to be; get information; be heard; to privacy and confidentiality; be protected; to a remedy; and complain of the treatment you received from the United Nations.

I visit countries and talk to victims myself, but interaction with them is led by Senior Victims’ Rights Officers who operate in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and South Sudan. Their role is fully dedicated to supporting the realization of the rights of victims. They develop victim-centric policies, procedures and programmes and engage in awareness-raising and outreach activities for communities, United Nations colleagues, and international and local civil society organizations. They aim to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse by highlighting the standards of conduct required of United Nations personnel, clarifying reporting pathways and flagging available support and assistance for victims. They also encourage victims to come forward.

Crucially, the Senior Victims’ Rights Officers maintain direct and regular contact with victims, ensuring they access assistance, accompanying them through United Nations and other investigations and accountability processes and keeping them updated on their cases. They collaborate and coordinate closely with United Nations missions and country teams and support referrals for victims and provide information on available services to ensure that they are treated with dignity, including by making it clear that their choice and consent are preconditions to their participation in those services, and in investigations. The Senior Victims’ Rights Officers work with United Nations and local partners to create projects which provide medical, psychosocial, and educational support, capacity-building for income-generating activities and legal assistance for victims. These actions help to restore victims’ trust in the United Nations.

Although the Senior Victims’ Rights Officers have shown that the presence of a champion for victims on the ground makes a real difference to them, they face challenges. Most importantly, one officer working alone in countries as large as South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo cannot respond to the needs of all the victims who come forward, nor advocate successfully for the incorporation of victims’ rights perspectives into the prevention and response initiatives of all United Nations entities operating in the country.

My aim is to secure the application of the victims’ rights approach across the United Nations so their rights and dignity are recognized and respected.  I advocate the deployment of victims’ rights officers wherever they are needed across the development, humanitarian, and peace settings where the United Nations operates. The new focus on victims’ rights and dignity, in particular through the efforts of the Senior Victims’ Rights Officers, has inspired the confidence of many victims and helped them rebuild their lives. The network of such officers in the field and beyond must be expanded and consolidated. All who interact with victims of United Nations and related personnel should also take a victims’ rights approach, so its implementation is second-nature in United Nations operations everywhere.

About the Author:

Assistant Secretary-General Jane Connors is the United Nations Victims’ Rights Advocate on sexual exploitation and abuse. Previously, she served as the Director of International Advocacy for Amnesty International. From 1996 to 2015 she held various positions at the United Nations, including at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Before joining the UN, she held academic posts in the United Kingdom and Australia, including 14 years at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Ms. Connors has published widely on UN human rights mechanisms, the human rights of women and children, in particular, gender-based violence. @UN_OVRA

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.