Sexual predators joining aid sector because abuse is so rife, MPs told

Sexual predators are seeking roles in the international aid sector because abuse and harassment is so prevalent that they can get away with it, MPs have heard.

This meant funding to individual aid agencies should be withdrawn while claims of abuse were investigated or nothing would change, one expert giving evidence to the House of Commons International Development Committee said yesterday. 

The committee heard how the United Nations and other INGOs operated with a sense of impunity, how protections often favoured agencies and perpetrators over victims and whistleblowers, and that cases of abuse were often treated as safeguarding issues rather than legal matters.

Andrew MacLeod, visiting professor at King's College London and co-founder of Hear Their Cries, which supports law firms that find the perpetrators of sexual abuse, was among those giving evidence at a virtual hearing of the committee as part of its ongoing inquiry into sexual abuse and harassment in the international aid sector.

He said the National Crime Agency estimated the industry's problem to be on a scale larger than that of international sex tourism. 

“Predators now target the aid industry to join because they know they get away with it,” said MacLeod. 

He contended that an academic study was needed to fully understand the scale of sexual abuse and harassment in the international aid sector.

In response to a question on the challenges faced when taking legal actions against the UN or other organisations, MacLeod said: “There is no incentive for the UN to play ball in the interest of the victims, nor an incentive for the smaller NGOs that don’t have the same legal immunities that the UN does.

“The truth is the entire industry believes they are above the law, whether that’s criminal, civil, or the procedures involved.” 

He accused INGOs of calling the bluff of legislators on both sides of the Atlantic.

“At the end of the day you’ve got to cut their funding and send individuals to jail or nothing will change. You don't cut the funding to aid, you cut the funding to individual agencies.”

Any sexual abuse claim should result in a 100 per cent budget cut until the claim is disproved or justice has been served, said MacLeod

Sienna Merope-Synge, a human rights lawyer, said there were times when cuts in funding were necessary, but also pointed out that there was a perverse incentive that came with cutting funding in response to allegations coming to light that might cause the UN and aid agencies to hide those claims. 

Responding to a question about the challenges victims and whistleblowers face, Macleod said: “The system is set up to punish whistleblowers and shame victims while protecting the reputation of agencies. There’s been no change in 30 years, it’s really distressing.”

Edward Flaherty, founder and senior partner at the international law firm Schwab, Flaherty & Associés, said whistleblowers had no protection, particularly within the UN. 

He said there was a vicious cycle of individuals having to ask for protection from the organisation on which they were blowing the whistle.

Flaherty said one solution for dealing with the immunity of international organisations, based on a US funding mechanism, could involve organisations having their funding cut if they did not meet best practice on whistleblower protection. 

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