The United Nations has developed a series of policies concerning sexual exploitation and abuse in response to allegations that such acts had been committed by peacekeeping and humanitarian personnel. Allegations of this nature arose in regions including the Balkans, Cambodia and Timor Leste during the 1990s, in West Africa in 2002 and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004.
In his report to the General Assembly on the Investigation into sexual exploitation of refugees by aid workers in West Africa (2002), former Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian staff cannot be tolerated. It violates everything the United Nations stands for. Men, women and children displaced by conflict or other disasters are among the most vulnerable people on earth. They look to the United Nations and its humanitarian partners for shelter and protection. Anyone employed by or affiliated with the United Nations who breaks that sacred trust must be held accountable and, when the circumstances so warrant, prosecuted."
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises, composed of UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), was established in March 2002. It developed agreed definitions of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and adopted standards of behaviour to be included in UN and NGO codes of conduct.
This led to the Secretary-General’s bulletin Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in October 2003. This document reiterates specific prohibitions and standards for all UN personnel. Sexual exploitation is defined as "any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another". Sexual abuse is defined as "the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions".
Reiterating obligations under United Nations Staff Regulations and Rules, the Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse bulletin provides that:
||Sexual exploitation and sexual abuse constitute acts of serious misconduct and are therefore grounds for disciplinary measures, including summary dismissal;|
||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 in the age of a child is not a defence;|
||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 any exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries of assistance;|
||Sexual relationships between United Nations staff and beneficiaries of assistance, since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics, undermine the credibility and integrity of the work of the United Nations and are strongly discouraged;|
||Where a United Nations staff member develops concerns or suspicions regarding sexual exploitation or sexual abuse by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not and whether or not within the United Nations system, he or she must report such concerns via established reporting mechanisms;|
||United Nations staff are obliged to create and maintain an environment that prevents sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. Managers at all levels have a particular responsibility to support and develop systems that maintain this environment.|
These and other types of sexually exploitive or sexually abusive behaviour may be grounds for administrative action or disciplinary measures, including summary dismissal, pursuant to the United Nations Staff Regulations and Rules.
The UN has also issued a series of disciplinary directives for military members of national contingents, civilian police officers and military observers. The Secretary-General’s bulletin Observance by United Nations forces of international humanitarian law prohibits UN forces conducting operations under UN command and control from committing acts of sexual exploitation and abuse, and stipulates a particular duty of care towards women and children.