Monday, September 29, 2008

The Role of NGOs in Making the Protection from SEA in Conflict Zones a Norm

The nature of this issue area, the norm that is trying to be promoted and the actors who are blamed to be the ‘violators’ diverges the way in which this issue area has developed from many other issues that have found salience at the global agenda.

The issue became a part of the global agenda following a report prepared by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children-UK. This collaborative effort that initiated the process makes it difficult to identify the “political entrepreneurs” behind the agenda-setting process. Although it is difficult to isolate the level of NGO contribution, it is safe to argue that NGOs especially Save the Children-UK) played a role of “political entrepreneur” in this issue area.

Following immediately after the outburst of news on misconducts of UN personnel, a confidential report (which was released in the beginning of 2002) titled “Note for Implementing and Operational Partners by UNHCR and Save the Children-UK on Sexual Violence & Exploitation” was prepared by the UNHCR and Save the Children-UK.

According to the report, the assessment was initiated “due to growing concerns, based on their field experience, about the nature and extent of sexual violence and exploitation of refugee children and other children of concern to UNHCR in the countries of the Mano River Sub Region in West Africa.”1

The report mentions “allegations of sexual exploitation against 67 individual employees and “widespread” sexual abuse in the camps and surrounding communities, including by humanitarian workers, UN Peacekeepers, local national security staff, loggers and diamond miners, among others. Among “humanitarian workers,” the report said that most sexual exploiters were the locally hired employees of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations (IOs), including refugees and IDPs [internally displaced persons].”2

Since the very initiation of this agenda-setting process involved the UN itself (who is both responsible for the violations and the ultimate international organization that has the capacity to establish a norm) the questions of “to whom the idea was pitched” and “who the gatekeepers are” are difficult to answer in terms of identifying the role of NGOs. After the release of the report a UN Task Force was established, therefore, it can be argued that agenda-setting process continued within the UN and the UN institutions in general and the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in particular assumed the role of the “gatekeeper”. However, as it will be explained, NGOs have also played and are still playing a central role in the process.

Following the release of the report, the InterAction – “a voluntary membership alliance of 160 US-based international development and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations – assumed a central role in the process. As an initial step, they established The Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Displaced Children in March 2002. The task force was not mandated to “investigate the allegations themselves but rather looked for actions that humanitarian agencies, particularly InterAction members, should take to prevent the abuse of displaced children.”3

With the idea of the need for “concerted efforts by all players in the international humanitarian community” the InterAction also took part in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises “whose members include the CEOs of sixteen UN and other international humanitarian agencies and several international non-governmental organizations (NGO) consortia (including InterAction).”4 More specifically, the Task Force is co-chaired by OCHA and UNICEF and comprises WFP, UNHCR, OHCHR, DPKO, UNOPS, UNDP, OSAGI, InterAction and SCHR (Oxfam and Save the Children/UK).5 which was also established in March 2002. The Task Force “advised the UN on specific measures, developed agreed definitions of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and adopted six standards of behavior to be included in UN and NGO codes of conduct” (OCHA). Therefore, I believe it is plausible to argue that NGOs, especially InterAction, played the role of a “gatekeeper” although they are not the only ones who assumed this role.

In addition to those widely cited efforts, I come across with information about another contribution that NGOs made to the issue. In 2003, according to a magazine article “a coalition of religious organizations sent a letter to Secretary of Colin Powell urging the United States to send more human rights monitors into Congo”. It is argued that “the U.N. then [following this letter] introduced a "code of conduct" to help prevent future abuses, including prohibitions against sexual activity between staff and children and the exchange of money or food for sex”. Thus, it is possible to suggest that the NGOs also followed a “boomerang” pattern to advocate the issue. (However, I am cautious about reaching this conclusion based on this information, since it did not appear in any other document that I have covered so far).

Although the protection of civilians from sexual exploitation and abuse in conflict zones is a norm that is accepted, promoted and investigated by the UN itself, the NGOs are still playing active roles both through working on developing measures to hold NGOs accountable and through following the UN actions closely to make sure that the codes of conducts are followed. The repeating outbursts of news regarding violations in multiple of cases such as humanitarian missions in Burundi, Haiti, Liberia and Congo6 encouraged continues NGO involvement.

The Building Safer Organizations (BSO) project is an example of active NGO involvement. It “is an important collaborative effort by nongovernmental organizations to address the problem of SEA. The BSO project strengthens NGOs’ capacity to receive and investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse brought by persons of concern – including refugees, displaced persons and local host populations. To achieve this, BSO, which is housed by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) in Geneva, developed learning materials and field-based trainings. In March 2005 it began pilot skills-building trainings.”7

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom for instance, keeps track of steps taken by the UN and NGO under the title of “Peacekeeping Watch: Monitoring Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers and the Efforts of the International Community to Respond”.8 Although these kinds of attempts illustrate continues active NGO involvement in the issue area, it is important to note that, the earliest reports are dated only back to the report prepared by UNHCR and Save the Children-UK.

It can be concluded that it is difficult to decide the extent to which NGOs played the role of ‘political entrepreneur’ in isolation from the initiation of and/or contribution from the UN. The active involvement of the UN in general and the Kofi Annan in particular made it easier for the issue to be ‘pitched’ into the international agenda. It can be argued with more certainty that NGOs especially InterAction acted as a ‘gatekeeper’ with its active involvement in the process. However, again, active UN involvement makes it difficult to assess the extent to which NGOs played a crucial role in this issue area.

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