Friday, June 27, 2008

Save the Children report on aid worker/peacekeeper abuses

A topic that I have been meaning to blog on for a while now, the UK-based NGO Save the Children recently produced a report on a topic of huge importance, and with major areas of overlap with the GAL project: the abuse of power by the officials of international organizations engaged in humanitarian or peacekeeping functions. The report, entitled "No One to Turn To: The under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers", is, as the subtitle suggests, confined to cases of the sexual abuse of children; however, many of the issues that arise in that context are of broader relevance for the question of the accountability of international organizations and their staff to third parties for rights violations.

The report makes three sets of general recommendations, two of which are of interest from a GAL perspective. Firstly, it proposes that wherever aid workers or peacekeepers are deployed, an "effective local complaints mechanism" should be established by the UN, with the participation of the national government in question and leading NGOs. This would ensure that those wishing to make a complaint could do so; that any such complaints were being investigated; and that all possible action was taken against the alleged perpetrator.

The second set of recommendations - and those that caught the imagination of the media - relate to the establishment of a new "global watchdog", located within the existing international structures (the Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs, the Executive Committee on Peace and Security, and the UN and NGO Task Force on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse). The proposed watchdog would have two main functions: firstly, to "monitor and evaluate the quality" of efforts by Task Force members to address the problem of child sexual abuse committed by members of their own organizations; and secondly to report back to the task force "on progress made and the challenges faced" in combatting such abuse.

Almost despite the subject matter, then, it seems plausible to suggest that the report and its recommendations fall largely within the realm of global administrative law; indeed, aside from the proposed creation of two administrative accountability mechanisms at different levels, the report does call for, for example, increased transparency from UN agencies and NGOs in sharing their internal statistics on reported abuse, and the responses taken (even if this information, in the first instance at least, is to remain confidential within the Task Force - p. 24). The elephant in the report, as it were, is, however, the vexed but important question of criminal liability, which is addressed only in passing, if at all. Instead, the issue of abuse is by and large treated as an administrative - indeed managerial - problem for the organizations involved; and it is in this that the report is ultimately a little disappointing.

Thus, the complaints mechanism remain a tool of essentially administrative oversight because it "would not in itself respond to allegations, but rather monitor and pursue the actions of others to ensure that the response was timely and effective" (p. 23) - including the local judicial system, but "only where it has jurisdiction". The issue of immunity is left entirely unaddressed; instead, where the local judiciary is unavailable or ineffective (as will often be the case in post-conflict or crisis settings), the international organizations present are encouraged simply "to take whatever steps are necessary to either create or strengthen a minimum protection response". This strikes me as neither a particularly robust nor far reaching "solution" to what is clearly an important and widespread problem.

Likewise, the global watchdog would not have any powers to actually investigate claims of abuse, but rather is simply there to monitor and evaluate the efforts of organizations in responding to the problem of child sexual abuse. In this, then, it remains an administrative oversight mechanism (if itself an administrative body); indeed, it's proposed role seems structurally identical to that of the individual complaints mechanism, simply extended from the micro- to the macro-level. There is, of course, the now ubiquitous "reporting requirement", along with the somewhat curious admonition that the watchdog should not simply point to deficiencies, but also "commend progress" - with perhaps even an annual award to the agency that has achieved most in this regard. Again, we might question here whether the proposals are robust and far-reaching enough to confront the gravity and urgency of the issue at hand.

This general feeling - that robust legal mechanisms and criminal liability - plays second fiddle throughout the report to a more managerial approach is confirmed by the tone and content of many of the justificatory passages. For example, in introducing the proposal for the new global watchdog, the report states that

[a] watchdog is a proven method of quality control in other sectors. It could help motivate international organisations to prioritise this issue by acknowledging progress and exposing inadequacies. It would trigger the leadership and managerial courage needed to put policies and guidance into practice.

And on the reporting mechanism:

Publishing data on allegations of abuse, and how they are responded to, international organisations would be open to evaluation by the general public, who they depend on for political and financial support. The conduct of staff would become a measure of organisational performance, much in the way that good financial management is within current reporting procedures in many international agencies.

No-one, of course, could deny that good managerial practice is important in all organisations, and that administrative agencies are not - or, at least, should not be - any exception in this regard; yet we are entitled to inquire as to whether framing a response to the issue of child sexual abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers entirely in these terms is appropriate. This holds even if we are concerned merely with the under-reporting of instances of abuse; however, as the third set of recommendations ("Tackling the root causes or drivers of abuse)" makes clear, the focus of the report is in fact much broader than its subtitle would suggest. They begin "To address the overall prevalence of child sexual exploitation and abuse in fragile states and emergencies...", and are perhaps the most disappointing element of the report, containing the vaguest formulations of such international organisation "staple recommendations" as "legal reform and policy development"; "capacity-building"; "awareness-raising"; "government-civil society partnership"; and so forth (pp. 25-26).

It is already becoming clear that the blanket immunity of international organisations is already being eroded by national courts where effective alternative means of redress are not provided (see, for more detail, this IILJ Working Paper by August Reinisch). While this is, at present, limited to internal employment disputes, the explicit human rights rationale animating these judgments will make it difficult, if not impossible, to refuse to set immunities aside in cases involving abuses of the rights of third parties, and a fortiori violations of the human rights of children. The Save the Children report has been useful in drawing attention to the issue it addresses as a whole; and it contains some interesting, if limited, GAL-related proposals for combatting it. Managerial improvements clearly have a part to play; however, it seems clear that far more robust administrative law mechanisms - not to mention effective provision made for individual criminal liability of those involved - have a much more important role to play in developing an overall strategy to confront the problem in question.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have a very interesting take on this topic. I, similarly, had qualms about the Save the Children report.