2016 Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Conference Shares Recommendations for Conducting Investigations

9 September 2016

The 2016 protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) conference brought together over 40 participants in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this week to explore ways to improve investigations into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by aid workers.

SEA occurs in all societies but it’s a particular challenge for the humanitarian sector because of the difficult environments we work in and the vulnerability of the people we aim to assist, said the CHS Alliance’s former Capacity Development Team Leader Karen Glisson. Victims of SEA are ‘hurt twice’ – first by disaster or conflict and then hurt again by the very people who are supposed to be helping them. Investigating allegations of SEA by aid workers presents ethical, practical and reputational challenges to organisations.

“SEA by aid workers is a very serious problem and it deserves very serious attention,” said CHS Alliance Executive Director Judith F. Greenwood in her conference welcome statement.

Judith highlighted that it was encouraging to see many of the conference participants from local and national organisations, given the increasing importance of localisation in the sector.

A panel of PSEA experts representing UN agencies and national and international NGOs then shared case studies on the different aspects of investigations.

Menaca Calyaneratne, International Child Safeguarding Director, Save the Children International

Menaca shared her experience of collaborating with different partners during an investigation. Traditionally, the responsibility for investigations lies with human resources (HR) as it involves personnel. However, investigations have implications for a wide range of organisational areas so it’s important to gain support from different departments such as social workers or counselors, IT, safety and security, logistics and administration, counter fraud, media and communications, and external bodies e.g. donors, other agencies and state authorities.

An organisation’s first obligation and duty of care should be to the affected victim. This should come into play at the very start of an investigation, according to Menaca. “The safety of the victim is paramount as they may be at risk of further harm from their family or community,” she said.

Menaca also highlighted the importance of creating an organisation culture that works towards preventing SEA all the time

Paul Nolan, Founder/Director, GCPS Consulting

Paul expanded on the tension between investigations needing to be confidential and the need to communicate to the stakeholders involved. He recommended putting a communications strategy in place that carefully manages communications to contain confidential information as much as possible.

Paul’s recommends that investigations are:

  • Thorough: well-planned and gather and test as much evidence as possible.
  • Impartial: find someone objective/independent who is removed from the situation. Investigators need to be aware of their own personal bias/prejudice.
  • Protective: recognise the safety issues of everyone involved. “We have to constantly balance the needs of the investigation against the best interests of everyone involved,” he said.

Aungkie Sopinpornraksana, Independent consultant

Aungkie shared the following good practices based on her experience working with NGOs in Thailand on SEA investigations:

  1. Management commitment -organisations need to be sincere, understanding and make appropriate decisions.
  2. The investigations manager needs to be trained, responsible and able to support the investigation process in terms of resources.
  3. Revise and review policies as needed.
  4. Investigators need skills and experience.
  5. Continue to provide training and awareness to staff and partners.

Aungkie suggested that management is the major team that has to be responsible and take action on SEA cases.

“They should not just have many policies on the shelf but equip their staff so if cases happen they have a response immediately,” she said.

“Prepare the people who will take action and practice beforehand. It’s not enough to wait until something happens and do it at that time.”

Aurélie Martin, Senior Investigation Specialist, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Aurélie shared a case study on UNHCR’s cooperation on investigations with partner NGOs. In 2012, UNHCR began discussions with its partners, who implement 40% of its operational budget, on strengthening investigative cooperation. The project involved setting up a standard clause on investigations and ethical considerations, terms of reference for joint investigations, standard operating procedures for referral of cases, standard operating procedures for sharing of material of a sensitive nature and case information, and regional workshops.

Aurélie highlighted that the safety of the alleged victim is paramount and should be a priority for investigators. In the case study given, the investigators decided not to conduct an interview with the alleged victim after receiving reliable evidence that it would put them in danger.

“The role of the investigator is to find the best evidence possible and to respect the rights of all persons concerned,” she concluded.

Morgan Pillay, Investigations Specialist, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Morgan shared the specific challenges of SEA investigations in peacekeeping contexts, with the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002 when allegations of SEA were made.

Challenges, at the time, included:

  • No complaints mechanism. Complaints received from the NGO sector and those working at the local level. Even if they had information, they often did not know who to pass it on to.
  • Very inaccessible and large country. There was a long time span (sometimes months) between an incident occurring and the information being received by the UN.
  • Survivors of SEA were often the most vulnerable and they often had no comprehension that SEA was prohibited. Survivors were sometimes reluctant to share information as they feared it would affect their livelihood when involving transactional sex.
  • Under-reporting and non-reporting due to fear, intimidation, stigmatism etc. – particularly amongst young boys and men.
  • No dedicated full time investigations unit in the peacekeeping mission at the time and without the necessary skill-set to investigate SEA.
  • No standardised pre-deployment training for troops from troop-contributing countries.
  • The Status of Forces Agreement at the time meant the only action the UN could take was for troops to be repatriated. This led to justice not being seen to be done; some countries unwilling or unable to take action took token legal action.

Strengths of investigations today within UNFPA:

  • Dedicated investigations unit reaching over 120 countries worldwide.
  • Can conduct joint investigations and has the mandate to investigate implementing partners.
  • Letters of Understanding state that partners have a duty to cooperate with UNFPA investigations.
  • Community-based complaints mechanisms being worked on by the UN, INGOs etc. to make them more accessible to people locally.

Morgan concluded: “Investigators need to make sure a report communicates the results of an investigation clearly and succinctly and that the investigation satisfied the requirements of due process.” He also reminded participants to pay attention to their own safety and security when conducting investigations.

In the afternoon, conference participants worked together in groups on recommendations for investigations challenges. These will be shared in a conference report to be made available in the coming weeks.

Download the final report here