LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The aid sector is rife with sexual abuse, British lawmakers said on Thursday, calling it “the last safe haven for perpetrators” despite a slew of scandals that prompted promises of a cleanup.
Lawmakers rounded on the international aid sector, saying abusers were too often allowed to act with impunity while victims felt frustrated in their search for justice.
“Our inquiry has found that abuse of beneficiaries is rife, and that the sector has effectively become the last safe haven for perpetrators,” said Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee.
“We heard repeatedly of abusers acting with impunity, whistle-blowers being hounded out of their jobs and victims finding it impossible to secure justice,” Champion said in a statement as her committee released its report on the sector.
The aid world came under scrutiny after it emerged in 2018 that Oxfam staff had used prostitutes in Haiti during an earthquake relief mission in 2010.
Despite high-profile pledges of action, an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian in September found sex-for-jobs abuse of women by aid workers was an “open secret” during the 2018-20 Ebola response in Congo.
Aid organisations have made improvements in tackling sexual abuse in recent years, said lawmakers, including introducing new staff training and tightening whistle-blower protections.
But the Congo case highlighted that despite “warm words”, many agencies were too often failing to get a handle on abuse, the report found, with victims left unaware of reporting mechanisms and mistrustful of aid groups.
Organisations should work with communities where the aid is delivered to develop schemes for reporting any abuse, it said.
The report also raised concerns that allegations were not always effectively investigated or reported to police, meaning abusers might escape punishment and move on to new jobs.
Lawmakers said that increasing the use of local justice systems could deter abuse and increase prosecutions.
It also singled out the United Nations, saying it should not use rights of immunity from prosecution during missions as a shield to protect abuse perpetrators.
“The UN does not consider immunity to be a barrier to national investigation or national court litigation in cases of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse,” a U.N. spokesman said in comments emailed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The Organization remains ready to continue to cooperate with relevant authorities regarding this and other matters.”
The report was welcomed by Bond, a network for international development agencies, which called on the sector to prioritise the vulnerable people it is there to help.
“The aid sector should put these groups at the heart of developing programmes and reporting mechanisms and ensure communities know their rights,” said its chief executive Stephanie Draper.
Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org
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