GENEVA - The United Nations has set up a 24-hour helpline to fight sexual harassment among its staff in the workplace as part of its Zero Tolerance policy regarding sexual exploitation and abuse.
The so-called “Speak Up” hotline is part of the U.N. Secretary-General’s wider initiative to fight sexual harassment and to support victims and witnesses. U.N. spokeswoman in Geneva, Alessandra Vellucci, explains U.N. staff can call the helpline 24 hours a day to speak confidentially to a trained, impartial person about problems of sexual abuse and to provide information.
She says the United Nations also is creating a specialized team to investigate cases of sexual harassment.
“Particular attention of this would be on increasing the number of female investigators," she said. "So, basically we are strengthening our tools to answer to this problem and put victims at the core of our action.”
While the United Nations can deal with internal problems of sexual harassment, Vellucci says the organization has no control over the behavior of U.N. peacekeepers. She says it is ultimately the responsibility of the member state of the soldiers accused of sexual misconduct to investigate and prosecute these crimes.
Officials from U.N. agencies condemned the recent reports that local workers and private charities were trading food and other assistance for sexual favors from Syrian women. U.N. refugee spokesman Andrej Mahecic calls the practice despicable and dehumanizing.
“But the mere suggestion that the U.N. can somehow control the situation in a war zone and the implied conclusion that we can somehow turn this on and off is rather simplistic," said Mahecic. "It is disconnected from the reality of what an aid operation looks like in an open and fierce conflict.”
The UNHCR and other U.N. aid agencies say their partners must adhere to a strict code of conduct, which covers sexual exploitation and abuse. They say any U.N. personnel found to be in breach of the code would be subject to disciplinary measures, including dismissal from service.