Sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector has become widespread and systemic with little recognition of the problem. It's time to lift the lid.

It has been a year of one crisis after another for humanitarian agencies as reports have cascaded into the media detailing sexual abuse and exploitation by employees from Oxfam to UN Women.

And it’s only August.

In February, The Times, with award-winning reporting by Sean O’Neill, broke news of Oxfam’s protection of Roland van Hauwermeiren, who used humanitarian employment across continents over many years to sexually exploit vulnerable populations.

In April, Peter Dalglish, former director of UN Habitat in Afghanistan, was arrested in Nepal on child sex trafficking charges. In June a celebrated UN “youth leader,” Joel Davis, was arrested in New York on child pornography and exploitation charges. In July, the International Development Committee of the British Parliament released Sexual Abuse and Exploitation in the Aid Sector headlining the “horror of sexual exploitation.” 

The UN Sex Abuse Scandal, produced by Ramita Navai and Sam Collyns, also aired in July detailing rampant crimes. In August, James LaPorta and Rory Laverty, for Newsweek, broke news of a senior UN Women staffer, Ravi Karkara, who used his position to sexually exploit youth he was supposed to be mentoring. These are only a few highlights. UNAIDS, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF and many others have made news with accounts of male employees, often white and in senior positions, involved in sexual misconduct and abuse

Of course, none of this is new. 

Sexual abuse and misconduct among humanitarians has been reported long before this year. Congo has been one of the epicentres. 

In 2017, the Associated Press (AP) called the Democratic Republic of Congo a hotbed of misconduct writing, “If the UN sexual abuse crisis has an epicentre, it is the Congo.”  AP reported of the “2,000 sexual abuse and exploitation complaints made against UN peacekeepers and personnel worldwide over the past 12 years, more than 700 occurred in Congo.” 

These numbers, while shocking, represent a fraction of humanitarians abusing vulnerable populations and their own colleagues worldwide. Most victims are never given the opportunity to file a complaint. Survivors and whistleblowers who do file reports are commonly ignored or forced out of the profession. 

Is Congo an epicentre in the humanitarian sex abuse crisis? It’s impossible to know as accurate numbers of lives destroyed by predators posing as humanitarians — from UN peacekeepers to NGO staff — do not exist. Rewind to 2005, when news of a “network of pedophiles at the UN mission in Congo” was widely reported. Return to 1992, when the New York Times featured, “U.N. Furor: Harassment Is Investigated,” detailing an employment-for-sex atmosphere that has persisted up to 2018, when staff told The Guardian sexual harassment and assault is flourishing, not just in New York, but in “offices around the world.” 

There have been innumerable accounts over the decades from locations all over the globe. It’s entirely possible that Nepal, Kenya, Haiti or New York are as likely hubs for predators as the Congo. For as long as I’ve been a humanitarian worker, now nearly 30 years, there have been reports of sexual abuse and exploitation by men in my profession

Standard procedure when an account emerges has been to batten down the hatches and for staff who won't stay mute – terminate, smear or marginalise – and wait out the “bad press.” So much abuse has been suppressed. So many abusers have been promoted and protected. 

Discussions of crimes in the Congo should begin with accusations of a “network of pedophiles”  that surfaced in 2005. Did predators transfer to other war zones and natural disasters to prey on newly vulnerable women and children and fresh-young humanitarian staff – similar to Oxfam’s Roland van Hauwermeiren's glide from one country to the next despite reports of misconduct. 

What happened to the alleged UN pedophile network in the Congo? As the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on the Catholic Church demonstrates, predators are highly networked. They collectively engage in abuse, share women and children they have access to, tip each other off on where to locate vulnerable populations and protect each other from arrest and prosecution. 

They “mark” vulnerable children for easy identification such as how the priests gave children they raped gold crosses to wear, identifying them as easy-access. Grooming, networking, abusing, marking of vulnerable populations as well as protection and promotion for the predators is ongoing not only within UN peacekeeping units but also with “civilian” humanitarian organisations from Oxfam to UN Women, from the Congo to New York. 

In the Congo, Didier Bourguet, a former UN employee, described networked child trafficking. Bourguet was sentenced, in 2008, to nine years in French prison for his crimes.  As a result of Navai and Collyns’ July documentary, "UN Sex Abuse Scandal," investigators have re-opened Bourguet’s case and additional charges might be brought. What about the others involved? Will there be an investigation into Bourguet’s claims of a network? While media accounts of individual abusers are important, contextual analysis of the structures that have allowed these crimes to fester for decades is critical.  

Due to a sector-wide failure to understand how predators operate, constructs within institutions enabling abuse have, largely, been ignored.  Just as criminals exploited institutional arrangements within the Catholic Church – both for protection and to gain access to a secure-supply of vulnerable children – so have predators exploited our humanitarian institutions. Because we, collectively, have refused to confront the scope of abuse within our profession, edifices protecting predators have remained firm despite decades of media reports exposing humanitarian abuse.  

As a result, many lives have been irreversibly damaged. While the Congo may be a hub for humanitarian abuse, humanitarian workers are the roving epicentre. From New York to Kenya, South Sudan, Bosnia, Chad, Haiti and beyond, there are detailed reports of predators using humanitarian employment as cover for crimes and a vehicle to access vulnerable populations. These are networked crimes. 

In Haiti, like Congo, it was widely reported that the UN mission allowed employees to operate a “child sex ring.” UN Women’s Ravi Karkara’s behaviour suggests youth were targeted, groomed and brought into the UN system, and offered employment and opportunities in exchange for sexual exploitation. Joel Davis, widely lauded by top UN officials, was part of a pedophile network where men traded children, including infants, for rape. His participation in child sex trafficking may have been his ticket to the top of the humanitarian world. Peter Dalglish gave poor children scholarships in exchange for submitting to his abuse. 

With every new report, it is more and more evident that we, as a profession, are the centre of abuse. We are bringing predators to disasters and “developing” countries where we arrive purporting to serve and protect vulnerable populations. Given the unprecedented reporting by journalists this year on abuse among humanitarians, it is obvious the humanitarian promise of “do no harm” is being violated around the world. 

There are networks of predators in our profession. Not just one or two “bad apples.” We must understand how predators operate – within networks, not as individuals. We must request international criminal investigations of individual predators and of their networks. Bourguet’s network in the Congo must be investigated. Networks that Joel Davis, Peter Dalglish and Ravi Karkara operated in must also be criminally investigated. It’s only August. How many more reports of humanitarian abuse might be forthcoming in the fall of 2018? What will it take to finally safeguard our humanitarian community from sexual predators?

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