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Analyzing the Impact of Voluntary Compacts on SEA Prevention

30 April 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

an team in an office with their hands in a teamwork circle

On 1 May 2023, the UN General Assembly’s Fifth Committee starts its second resumed session. That afternoon it also starts discussion of several cross-cutting issues, including the report on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) (A/77/748), which presents a UN system update of allegations and activities. Earlier this year, the UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS, UNICEF and UNWomen Executive Boards all also received a briefing on measures to prevent and address SEA from their respective organizations.

Given the interest of accountability mechanisms in protection from SEA, it is the focus of this week’s newsletter. More specifically, we spotlight a relatively new initiative, the Voluntary Compact on Preventing and Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, which has met with skepticism from advocates due to its voluntary nature. Recently published research from the University of Arizona, however, has some surprising insights into the impact of the Compact.

Complexities regarding immunities, jurisdictional authority over different types of personnel and national legislation have consistently stymied accountability efforts in the case of sexual exploitation and abuse - for the the UN and for member states. As Audrey Comstock of the University of Arizona highlights:

"A striking gap exists between allegations and punishments [between 2007 and 2019]. In no year do punishments reach the number of allegations reported, though 2012 was the closest. The two punishment variables [by the UN and Troop Contributing Countries (TCCs) respectively] follow similar trend lines, with the UN punishing more. After 2012 there is an increased distance between substantiated allegations, which hold constant or increase and UN and TCC Punishment which declined." – A. Comstock, The UN voluntary compact and peacekeeping abuse: assessing a soft law solution for sexual exploitation and abuse, 2022

In 2017, the current Secretary-General established the Voluntary Compact on Preventing and Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse as a public, non-binding agreement between the UN and member states to take sexual exploitation and abuse seriously through preventive and accountability measures. It is described as a tool of ‘mutual accountability’.

Critics have been skeptical whether a voluntary tool can actually achieve accountability. NGOs and advocates have also questioned the fact that member states can adjust the language in the standard Compact agreement template, and neither the template nor the amendments by member states have been made publicly available. Even the SG’s own report being considered by the Fifth Committee this week only devotes one of its 68 paragraphs to the Compact (para. 47).

Dr. Audrey Comstock therefore examined whether signing the Voluntary Compact actually has any relationship with the levels of reported abuse, punishing accused SEA perpetrators, and funding victim relief efforts and found some interesting patterns.

When a peacekeeping operations’ leading TCC signed the Voluntary Compact, there was a visible increase in SEA allegations in that mission. The research project did not have sufficient data to determine whether this reflected an increase in incidents or an increase in reporting due to greater awareness and confidence that reports would be addressed. If the latter that would be a helpful step in increasing accountability, and this is certainly worth further investigation.

Even more intriguing were the findings related to national level punishments. TCCs that signed the compact unfortunately did not show a greater propensity for punishing allegations of SEA, and in fact national punishments as compared to the total number of SEA allegations often decreased.

However, when the types of allegations were disaggregated, the data showed that TCCs who signed the Compact were more likely to issue national level punishments in the case of severe abuse allegations as compared to less serious exploitation offenses. These findings suggest that more severe SEA allegations may trigger TCC sense of obligation toward the Compact, which is line with human rights research which shows that more severe abuses have a higher likelihood of eliciting a response from the public and organizations.

Finally, Dr. Comstock also found that if a TCC state signed the Voluntary Compact, then it was significantly more likely to contribute to the Trust Fund in Support of Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. The higher the TCC GDP per capita, the more likely the TCC would donate. However, TCCs involved in longer missions were less likely to donate.

The Voluntary Compact is by no means a panacea, and doesn’t seem to help much with prevention of SEA. But this new research shows that it does potentially have some positive impact in addressing some of the challenges related to accountability, at least for the most serious cases. The data on increased reports of SEA for signatories of the Compact may also be positive, if this reflects greater awareness and confidence in reporting systems.

Thus, the Compact does seem to add value as part of a larger ‘toolbox’ to tackle SEA. This new research therefore not only provides concrete insights into how this tool can be leveraged better going forward, for instance through targeted resource mobilization strategies, further investigation of reporting patterns or focused information campaigns highlighting trends related to national punishments by type of SEA allegation. This is one of many examples we have seen at ReformWorks where greater exchange between practitioners and researchers can enhance performance and impact of international organizations.

At a more strategic level, we find that Dr. Comstock’s research also highlights that it is worth trying to apply new solutions to intractable problems - sometimes the results can surprise you. As this research has demonstrated, the Compact can be helpful in promoting national accountability for the most serious abuses, adding useful insights to the points raised in the SG's report. Further investigation by researchers of other innovations, such as safeguarding initiatives which have a stronger focus on prevention could be useful for practitioners. (If safeguarding is a new term, please see our 15 January newsletter for more info.)

Dr. Comstock’s research also implicitly reinforces another theme coming out of the newest research on international organizations - strong performance and positive outcomes are dependent on the interaction between member states and the organizations, not just on the actions taken by staff within the international organization. (See our 26 Feb. spotlight on the newest research on performance of international organizations).

Further reading on sexual exploitation and abuse or SEA:

For those readers, who would like more information on the varying viewpoints and latest research on efforts to prevent and address SEA in the UN system, we recommend:


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • The UN General Assembly's Fifth Committee resumes the second part of its spring session on 1 May 2023. The focus of this session is on the programme and budget documents for each of the UN peacekeeping operations, as well as cross-cutting issues, including Contingent-Owned Equipment (COE) and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (see spotlight). In the absence of a decision on 'investing in preventing and peacebuilding' at the last session, the discussion of assessed funding for peacebuilding will also be taken up again on 8 May.

  • The UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board holds an informal consultation to discuss the Annual Report of the Administrator on the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) programme.


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