Oxfam sex abuse scandal is tip of the iceberg

THIS month has been an explosive one for the international aid sector, with the Oxfam scandal quickly expanding to the rest of the aid industry.

But with accusations of sexual abuse in aid going back 30 years, why did this scandal take off when so many before did not?

I worked in aid for many years, firstly for the International Committee of the Red Cross in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s and later for the United Nations in countries such as Pakistan and the Philippines.

It was in the late 1990s that I first heard rumours of UN contractors trafficking girls into Bosnia to be caged specifically for the use of UN and contractor staff. A brave US policewoman on loan to the UN named Kathryn Bolkovac blew the whistle on that shame. But instead of being listened to and the perpetrators jailed for child sex crimes, she was hounded out of the system. That later became the film The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz.

UK charity Oxfam has plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct by aid workers in Haiti. (Pic: Nick Ansell)
UK charity Oxfam has plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct by aid workers in Haiti. (Pic: Nick Ansell)

In the early 2000s the "food for sex" scandal broke, during which it was established by Save the Children that UN soldiers in Liberia were demanding sex in return for food from girls as young as eight. The victims of that scandal included children from Burundi, Ivory Coast, Congo, and others.
I left the aid world in 2009 citing its lack of effectiveness, efficiency and accountability as key reasons for my departure. It was also the failure of the aid system to crack down on institutionalised paedophilia that made me leave and write my book A Life Half Lived.

Rachel Weisz played Kathy Bolkovac in The Whistleblower, a film about exposing UN contractors’ sex crimes. (Pic: Supplied)
Rachel Weisz played Kathy Bolkovac in The Whistleblower, a film about exposing UN contractors’ sex crimes. (Pic: Supplied)

But I did not leave the issue of sex crimes. I lobbied where I could, including asking then Prime Minister Julia Gillard to include the UN in the terms of the Child Abuse Inquiry - which she was unable to do, even though she wanted to.

Over the past few years, rapes of children by UN soldiers have continued. Crimes funded by our donations and taxpayer dollars have been carried out in Central African Republic and Congo, with one 11-year-old girl in Bangui saying: "I didn't even have breasts yet, but he still raped me."

Yet this is no surprise to people in the industry. Kofi Anan lists as one of his regrets not cracking down on the paedophilia in the UN. So does Ban Ki Moon. Between those two men there have been 20 years of ineffective action.

On February 28 last year UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres confirmed that UN peacekeepers and civilian staff perpetrated 145 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse impacting on 311 victims in 2016 alone. Many of the victims, by the UN's own admission, are children. Even the UN recognised that those numbers, while huge, are likely to be the tip of the iceberg and represent only the crimes that have been reported, involving mainly just one part of the UN: peacekeeping.

I have argued for years that the problem is not just of peacekeeping, where blame can be passed to largely African and Asian countries for not disciplining their troops. I have argued that the problem actually lies with the civilian staff, including Australian aid workers.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was unable to stamp out abuse within the UN during his time as leader. (Pic: Fadel Senna)
Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was unable to stamp out abuse within the UN during his time as leader. (Pic: Fadel Senna)

Last year, with former whistleblowers and friends I formed www.HearTheirCries.org, an organisation designed to "hear the cries" of whistleblowers like Kathryn Bolkovac and to "hear the cries" of the child victims.

We worked closely with the UK minister in charge of Foreign Aid, Priti Patel, to increase efforts to hold the UN to account. We provided a dossier to her of information, facts and background and she made it a personal priority to make change.

At a high-level meeting in the wings of the 2017 United Nations General Assembly meeting, we gained an admission from the Secretary-general that: "Contrary to the information spreading that this is a question related to our peacekeeping operations, it is necessary to say that the majority of the cases of sexual exploitation and abuse are done by the civilian organisations of the United Nations."

This was a vital admission that put western governments on notice to start using the child sex tourism laws to hold their own nationals to account. While we can't hold aid workers to account in Australian courts for adult sex crimes committed overseas, with the extraterritorial impact of child sex laws, with child victims, we can.

ANDREW MACLEOD
ANDREW MACLEOD

We also worked closely with the media. Over the past 30 years most stories have been "victim centric", like the 11-year-old girl in Bangui. But it was too easy for readers to say, "that happens in war over there".

We asked the media to look at perpetrator centric stories, like the Oxfam scandal. This change was vital to put pressure on the UN and politicians as voters realised that these crimes, even if done "over there" were being done by our people and on our dime.

And that is why the Oxfam crisis has exploded, as not only were the Haitian women victimised, but our trust, hope and belief was betrayed. We too felt like victims.

To fix the system now we need to have prosecutions. All Australian aid agencies should immediately hand any information of historical sex crimes to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.

Further, I have proposed to Australian Charities that a new protocol should be set up so that any Australian accused of a child sex crime while working in aid is immediately reported to the AFP for investigation. Only when people go to jail will we see real change.

Andrew MacLeod is a former CEO of the Committee for Melbourne and currently is a Visiting Professor at Kings College London and on the advisory board of International Lawyers for Africa.



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