Throughout this knowledge module, reference to certain provisions or sections of a piece of legislation, part of a legal judgment, or aspect of a practice does not imply that the legislation, judgment, or practice is considered in its entirety to be a good example or a promising practice.

Some of the laws cited herein may contain provisions which authorize the death penalty. In light of the United Nations General Assembly resolutions 62/14963/16865/206, and 67/176 calling for a moratorium on and ultimate abolition of capital punishment, the death penalty should not be included in sentencing provisions for crimes of violence against women and girls.

Other Provisions Related to Domestic Violence LawsResources for Developing Legislation on Domestic Violence
Sexual Harassment in Sport Tools for Drafting Sexual Harassment Laws and Policies
Immigration Provisions Resources for developing legislation on sex trafficking of women and girls
Child Protection Provisions Resources on Forced and Child Marriage
Other provisions related to dowry-related and domestic violence laws
Related Tools

Humanitarian Relief and Peacekeeping Operations

Last edited: January 13, 2011

This content is available in


One main area of concern related to sexual harassment in the provision of goods and services is in the humanitarian and peacekeeping realms. Sexual exploitation of some the world’s most vulnerable populations has raised an international outcry and has become an important area of advocacy for international NGOs and intergovernmental organizations.

In 2002, a report from UNHCR and Save The Children – UK brought the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of children by peacekeepers and humanitarian workers to the forefront of international attention. The report implicated 42 aid agencies, including the UNHCR, as being involved in sexual exploitation of women and children. UN peacekeepers were also implicated.

Agency workers from local and international NGOs as well as UN agencies are among the prime sexual exploiters of refugee children often using the very humanitarian assistance and services intended to benefit refugees as a tool of exploitation. Male national staff were reported to trade humanitarian commodities and services, including medication, oil, bulgur wheat, plastic sheeting, education courses, skills-training, school supplies etc., in exchange for sex with girls under 18. The practice appeared particularly pronounced in locations with significant and established aid programmes.

(See: UNHCR/Save The Children–UK, Sexual Violence and Exploitation: The Experience of Refugee Children in Liberia Guinea and Sierra Leone, 8, 2002.)

The report cited lack of effective complaint mechanisms, inadequate codes of conduct and training for staff, as well as inadequate local laws to hold perpetrators accountable. The problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers and peacekeepers has been documented elsewhere in Africa and around the world. See: Humanitarian Exchange Network, ‘It is difficult to escape what is linked to survival’: sexual exploitation and food distribution in Burundi, 2006; Human Rights Watch, Trapped by Inequality, sec. V, 2003; UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sexual Exploitation and Abuse End of Assignment Report, 2005.


Basic Principles for Laws on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

National laws should:

  • Require that non-governmental organizations operating in the country have a sexual exploitation policy and that their staff are trained on prevention of sexual exploitation;
  • Include criminal penalties for sexual exploitation of women and children; and
  • Provide for a national body to receive and investigate complaints of sexual exploitation.

In reality, however, much sexual exploitation and abuse occurs when national legal protections, if they exist, have entirely broken down. Accordingly, it is the primary responsibility of the nations and international organizations providing assistance to ensure that their employees carry out the mission of humanitarian assistance while at the same time effectively protecting the rights of women and girls. For example, Sweden’s law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services extends to peacekeeping forces stationed abroad. Three military officers stationed abroad were charged and convicted under the law in 2002, and were subsequently dismissed from the military. Gunilla Ekberg, The Swedish Law that Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services, 10 Viol. Against Women 1187, 1198 (2004).


NGO Checklist for Developing or Revising Codes of Conduct (Humanitarian Accountability Project, 2010)

Building Safer Organizations Handbook: Training materials on receiving and investigating allegations of abuse and exploitation by humanitarian workers (ICVA, n.d.)


United Nations Action to Combat Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

The issue of sexual exploitation in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations has been on the United Nations agenda at the highest levels. Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security:

Calls on all parties to armed conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, and all other forms of violence in situations of armed conflict;

Calls upon all parties to armed conflict to respect the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements, and to take into account the particular needs of women and girls, including in their design, and recalls its resolution 1208 (1998) of 19 November 1998 and 1296 (2000) of 19 April 2000.

In 2002 in response to the UNHCR/SCUK report, the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which is the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance by UN and non-UN organizations, established a Task Force on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises. On June 13, 2002, the IASC released its report on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises in response to allegations of abuse in West Africa. Adopting recommendations from the report, in 2003, the Secretary General issued a bulletin on Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13), which applies to all staff of the UN, including separately administered organs and programs. The bulletin states that:

(a) Sexual exploitation and sexual abuse constitute acts of serious misconduct and are therefore grounds for disciplinary measures, including summary dismissal;

(b) 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;

(c) 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;

(d) 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;

(e) 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;

(f) 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.

In 2006, the UN held a high-level conference on eliminating sexual exploitation and abuse, which resulted in a Statement of Commitment that included the following action points:

1. Develop organization-specific strategies to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse. These would include time-bound, measurable indicators of progress to enable our organizations and others to monitor our performance.

2. Incorporate our standards on sexual exploitation and abuse in induction materials and training courses for our personnel.

3. Prevent perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse from being (re-)hired or (re) deployed. This could include use of background and criminal reference checks.

4. Ensure that complaint mechanisms for reporting sexual exploitation and abuse are accessible and that focal points for receiving complaints understand how to discharge their duties.

5. Take appropriate action to the best of our abilities to protect persons from retaliation where allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse are reported involving our personnel.

6. Investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in a timely and professional manner. This includes the use of appropriate interviewing practice with complainants and witnesses, particularly with children.

7. Take swift and appropriate action against our personnel who commit sexual exploitation and abuse. This may include administrative or disciplinary action, and/or referral to the relevant authorities for appropriate action, including criminal prosecution.

8. Provide basic emergency assistance to complainants of sexual exploitation and abuse.

9. Regularly inform our personnel and communities on measures taken to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse. Such information should be developed and disseminated in-country in cooperation with other relevant agencies and should include details on complaints mechanisms, the status and outcome of investigations in general terms, feedback on actions taken against perpetrators and follow-up measures taken as well as assistance available to complainants and victims.

10. Engage the support of communities and governments to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse by our personnel. 

Twenty-two UN and 24 non-UN entities endorsed the statement. Despite these efforts, concerns about sexual exploitation and abuse remain. (See: U.S. General Accounting Office, Humanitarian Assistance: Protecting Refugee Women and Girls Remains a Significant Challenge, 2003; Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, The West Africa sex scandal, 2003)


Codes of Conduct, Training, and Prevention

Several UN and non-UN entities have established codes of conduct on sexual exploitation and abuse. The code of conduct for “Blue Helmets”, as UN Peacekeepers are known, specifically prohibits sexual exploitation of women and girls. (See: Ten Rules: Code of Personal Conduct for Blue Helmets, 1998) Non-UN entities also have codes of conduct regulating their employees. For example, War Child‘s code reflects the Secretary General’s Bulletin. The SPHERE humanitarian charter and minimum standards for disaster response, also include prohibitions of sexual exploitation.

Training on sexual exploitation is becoming more widespread. Materials developed for use in Sierra Leone have been widely used throughout UN agencies and in other parts of the world. (See: Coordination Committee for the prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CCSEA), Understanding Humanitarian Aid Worker Responsibilities: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Prevention) The International Council of Voluntary Agencies has also developed a training handbook specifically on receiving and investigating complaints of sexual exploitation and abuse. Finally, UNHCR has developed an extensive set of guidelines related to prevention and response to gender-related violence against refugee and IDP women and girls which includes broad-based strategies for prevention of gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse. (See: UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons. Guidelines for Prevention and Response). The UN also maintains a resource page on prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) with training materials and policy guidance.

The United Nations has promulgated model investigation procedures as well as adopting a policy for support to victims. All civilian personnel were required to adopt documents promulgated by the Inter-Agency Task Force including an information sheet for local communities, a complaint referral form, and training scenarios. (See: Final Report of the IASC Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises, para. 14, 2004)

The UN policy on assistance establishes that both complainants (those whose allegations are under investigation) and victims (those whose allegations of sexual exploitation have been documented) are entitled to assistance, as are children who are born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse. (See: Report of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Working Group on Assistance and Support to Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, UN Doc. A/62/595, 2005)