Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Inter-agency cooperation in community-based complaint mechanisms: Global Standard Operating Procedures (May 2016)



1.1. Background on SEA and Inter-Agency Cooperation

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by aid workers directly contradicts the principles upon which humanitarian action is based and represents a protection failure on the part of the aid community. SEA inflicts harm on those whom the humanitarian community is obligated to protect, as well as jeopardizes the credibility of all assistance agencies. Humanitarian workers are expected to uphold the highest standards of personal and professional conduct at all times to protect beneficiaries of assistance. Sexual exploitation and abuse of affected populations constitutes gross misconduct and will result in disciplinary action, including immediate termination of employment and referral for criminal prosecution, where appropriate.

In recognition of the global concern over SEA, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has prioritized efforts to prevent and respond to these abuses at both the agency level and through collective efforts in the field. In 2002 the IASC adopted six core principles intended to set forth standards to prevent SEA:

Six Core Principles Relating to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

1. Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of employment.

2. Sexual activity with children (persons under the age of 18) is prohibited regardless of the age of majority or age of consent locally. Mistaken belief regarding the age of a child is not a defense.

3. Exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour is prohibited. This includes exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries.

4. Sexual relationships between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries are strongly discouraged since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics. Such relationships undermine the credibility and integrity of humanitarian aid work.

5. Where a humanitarian worker develops concerns or suspicions regarding sexual abuse or exploitation by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not, he or she must report such concerns via established agency reporting mechanisms.

6. Humanitarian workers are obliged to create and maintain an environment which prevents sexual exploitation and abuse and promotes the implementation of their code of conduct.

These principles were incorporated into the UN Secretary General’s Bulletin on SEA in 2003. The bulletin outlines a zero-tolerance policy toward SEA, obliges UN staff to report incidents of abuse, and is binding on all UN staff, including all agencies and individuals who have cooperative agreements with the UN. Subsequent voluntary agency commitments, such as the 2006 Statement of Commitment on Eliminating Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN and Non-UN Personnel, as well as internal agency policies, have substantially broadened the international commitment to fight SEA and have established standards of conduct that are applicable to all “personnel” and at all times, including when off duty and on leave. However, the initial core standards set forth by the IASC in 2002 are reflected in all subsequent commitments on prohibited staff conduct, both by UN agencies and the broader humanitarian community.

PSEA is directly linked to agency Accountability to Affected Populations, including commitments to engage in consultations and share 2-way feedback. In December 2011 the IASC Principals set forth the Transformative Agenda and a series of Protocols, including the Accountability to Affected Populations Operational Framework, in effort to improve collective humanitarian response. The Accountability Framework acknowledges that preventing SEA is considered integral to all operations, and one of the key objectives is to “systematically communicate with affected populations using relevant feedback and communication mechanisms” throughout all phases of the programme cycle. The Principals also endorsed five Commitments to Accountability to Affected Populations (CAAP) and agreed to incorporate them into the policies and operational guidelines of their organizations and promote them with operational partners, within Humanitarian Country Teams, and amongst cluster members. Commitment Three - relating to Feedback and Complaints - actively commits agencies to “seek the views of affected populations to improve policy and practice in programming, ensuring that feedback and complaints mechanisms are streamlined, appropriate and robust enough to deal with (communicate, receive, process, respond to and learn from) complaints about breaches in policy and stakeholder dissatisfaction.”

Despite this collective articulation of commitment, abuses by aid workers continue. The 2015 independent Whole of System Review of Protection in Humanitarian Action noted that despite progress, “systematized engagement with affected populations and peer-to-peer accountability is still lacking.” Researchers noted concerns that PSEA requires a specialized approach, including confidential complaints and investigations procedures at both the system and individual agency level. In 2012 the IASC Task Force on PSEA identified inter-agency cooperation in the creation and maintenance of community-based complaints mechanisms (CBCMs) as a key component in the prevention and response to SEA. For complaints to come forward, local communities need to be informed that humanitarian assistance is free and never conditioned on sexual favors. Beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance and humanitarian staff both need to be informed how to access the appropriate complaints mechanism if SEA occurs, especially in a humanitarian response situation where multiple agencies are present. Furthermore, an effective CBCM requires inter-agency coordination to ensure consistent messaging and that access to the mechanism is as broad and straightforward as possible for potential complainants.