Sex and Development: The Sordid History of the United Nations’ Inovlement in Sex Trafficking

When she reaches her final destination in Dubai, Tupa is forced to take part in a sex trafficking ring catering to high level officials from the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations.  This might sound shocking, but a closer look at the history of these organizations reveals another story.


The United Nations has an interesting sexual history that it probably wishes you knew nothing about.  It should not be particularly surprising, given that a large part of its mission involves stationing thousands of soldiers among highly vulnerable populations in conflict and post-conflict areas.  Since the time of Herodotus, historians have detailed the sexual exploits and abuses of soldiers in foreign lands.  Yet for a long time the “blue helmets” of the United Nations escaped notice in this regard, perhaps because they were deployed as “peacekeepers” and the idea that they could somehow betray or undermine that sacred charge was unthinkable.


This all changed in 2001, when the humanitarian world was rocked by a UNHCR/Save the Children report that revealed a systematic pattern of sexual exploitation of refugee children by aid workers and peacekeepers in West Africa.  In all, some 40 different agencies were implicated in several of the most established UN programs in the world.  Around the same time, investigators in Bosnia uncovered an immense human trafficking and prostitution racket where mostly UN personnel were involved in both the supply of and demand for sex workers.  To make matters worse, the Washington Postreported considerable evidence to suggest that the UN attempted a cover up when it sacked the main whistle-blower whose investigations highlighted a thriving sex trade among the tens of thousands of NATO peacekeepers, international bureaucrats, and aid workers stationed in the war-torn region.


By 2005, when yet another sexual abuse scandal within the ranks of the UN came to light in the Democratic Republic of Congo – to the point that serious consideration was given to the possibility of operations having been infiltrated by “organized pedophiles who recruit their friends” – then Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan was forced to admit “with shame and outrage” that sexual abuse was an endemic problem in some of its largest programs.  A sudden flurry of internal working groups, task forces, and codes of conduct ensued, capped off by an internal investigation by the Permanent Representative of Jordan to the UN, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, detailing the extent of the problem and strategies to eliminate it.  In 2006, a briefing by Zeid to the Security Council marked the first time that members acknowledged the severity of the problem in a formal session.  One after the other, representatives from around the world expressed their “moral outrage.”  The US representative stated that it was “one of the greatest stains on UN history” and added almost as an afterthought that he hoped it would not mar the next major operation planned for Darfur the following year.


But that is exactly what happened.  The United Nations mission in South Sudan (or UNMISS for short), which manages all activities in Darfur and South Sudan, has been plagued by sex scandals form the beginning.  Numerous investigations and reports have drawn a direct line between the huge number of UN peacekeepers and NGO workers in South Sudan’s capital city of Juba and the massive explosion of prostitution.  Among residents, stories of UN vehicles picking up young girls and boys off the streets are so common that it has become a bit of a local joke. Yet from early on the UN response has been less than earnest, as evident in 2007 in the infamously arrogant if not outright imbecilic reaction by James Ellery, British regional coordinator for UNMISS, to claims of sexual abuse against children by UN forces in South Sudan:


“I will refute all claims made on this issue. We investigated all allegations made and no evidence was forthcoming.  None of these claims can be substantiated.  This is the most backward country in Africa and there are lots of misunderstandings as to the UN’s role.  Over 90 per cent of people here are illiterate and rumors therefore spread very quickly.”


Despite the UN’s rather crude attempts to dismiss, deny, and/or ignore the problem, it is an easy matter to find allegations of sexual abuse by UN personnel in almost every one of its missions.  From Darfur and South Sudan to the Ivory Coast and Haiti, the organization is dogged by revelations involving almost every kind of sexual abuse imaginable. As most journalists will tell you, anyone who is shocked by revelations of sexual misconduct by UN staff has never set foot in a UN sponsored camp.  The organization’s top officials may express their moral outrage, but they have made little headway against the culture of silence and denial that permeates the organization and leads to a chronic pattern of underreporting of abuses. 


       In 2008, Save the Children followed up on its original bombshell report with yet another one, which slammed the UN for its lack of accountability, culture of silence, abject failure to report sexual abuses perpetrated by its rank and file, and total unwillingness to support either victims or whistleblowers.  It highlighted how most cases of sexual abuse are left unresolved, even a year or more after the original allegation, and suggested that a slew of procedural and bureaucratic responses to the problem had led to exactly no criminal prosecutions. It exposed the fallibility of the UN and the unwieldy nature of internal policy-making in an organization where most personnel fell under the jurisdictions of their own national governments and laws, rather than lengthy codes of conduct backed by a healthy dose of moral outrage.  UN officials could do little beyond shipping some of the worst offenders back to their home countries in the hopes that their own governments did something about it, which of course few did.  For the many victims and others who were supposedly “under the protection of peacekeepers,” it began to feel like they had been given new wine to put in old colonial wineskins.


       In the end, the secretive world of sex work and sexual abuse are just as much a part of UN culture as anything else.  To expect codes of good conduct and expressions of moral outrage to make a substantive impact on the behavior of what is effectively an occupying army is a puny if not delusionary response to an age-old problem.


       But there is another element to the UN’s history of sexual abuse and exploitation that is often overlooked.  It involves the tens of thousands of individuals who work for the multitude of specialized agencies, funds, and programs that make up the non-military, humanitarian component of UN operations around the world. The professional, humanitarian wing of the UN includes such agencies as the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), and the World Food Program (WFP), among many others. Anyone who has worked in a country where the UN has a presence will be familiar with the acronyms of these organizations and the labyrinthine bureaucracy they represent (not to mention how their seemingly endless array of vehicles account for most of the traffic in some capital cities).   They would also know that UN agencies spearhead a much more massive network of contractors, sub-contractors, and partner NGO’s in order to carry out their mission.  The WFP alone boasts close to 15,000 staff (90 percent of whom work in field settings) and 3,000 partner NGO’s in order to carry out its mission of distributing food to the hungry poor of the world.  In fact, the UN’s blue helmets represent only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to a particular mission in any given country; there is a much larger occupying army of humanitarian workers – the notorious ex-pat aid worker crowd – who serve under the same conditions and are stationed among the same vulnerable communities. 


When it comes down to it, the sexual lives – and abuses – of humanitarian workers in foreign countries is an even murkier and more secretive area than those of military peacekeepers, despite the fact that non-military personnel have made up a substantial portion of those who were accused and investigated of sexual abuse in some of the more infamous cases associated with the UN in recent years.  And of course one only has to bring to mind such high profile cases as Dominique Strauss-Kahn (former Director of the International Monetary Fund) and Ruud Lubbers (former UN High Commissioner for Refugees) to note that allegations of sexual misconduct seem to dog UN aid agencies at every level.  Yet UN officials immediately dismiss even the slightest hint that the problem might be widespread.  At the very least, allegations of sexual abuse are discussed as something that can be “treated quietly” and “without much fuss” (as Prince Zeid put it when he presented his report to the UN Security Council). Usually, it is attributed to a few bad apples who are confined to the military wing of the organization rather than something even remotely linked to its humanitarian aid agencies.  And in general, few if any are willing to talk openly about the sex lives of their workers, which seems odd given that they are embedded among some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.


In the wake of all the recent scandals,The Guardian newspaper ran an article that did attempt to acknowledge these issues while specifically discussing the need for humanitarian aid agencies to talk more openly about the sex lives of their workers.  It was met with a rather stiff and defensive response by directors of the International Rescue Committee – one of the largest and most well-known humanitarian aid agencies in the world – who immediately dismissed the issue as having nothing to do with ethics, morals, work environment, or organizational culture, claiming instead that it was strictly a policy issue and suggesting that all that was needed was a handful of written guidelines.  Sweeping sex under the rug by relegating it to the dusty archives of the human resources department is the order of the day for most humanitarian agencies. Meanwhile, their own employees are searching for solutions, as reflected in the explosive growth of websites like, a site that one aid worker began in 2007 as a joke to vent his frustrations until he realized that the fake ads for singles he created were receiving an enormous number of hits.  The site now boasts thousands of humanitarian workers looking to hook up. 


But what does this brief and admittedly meandering stroll through the sexual history of the UN and the humanitarian world have to do with Dubai?  The answer lies in Sheikh Mohammed’s quest, which is quickly being realized, to make Dubai the humanitarian logistics and administrative hub of the world.  Towards that end, the Sheikh paved the way for the establishment of the International Humanitarian City (IHC), an independent free zone authority (the only such entity for NGOs in the world) that seeks to become the largest aid and humanitarian hub in history by housing under one roof as many UN agencies, international aid and development organizations, and related stakeholders as possible.   The IHC offers a long list of incentives, including massive facilities specifically geared towards consolidating and streamlining humanitarian activities so organizations can more efficiently respond to any global crisis.  There are other reasons for humanitarian agencies to come to Dubai, including taking advantage of the emirate’s massive maritime and air transport hubs to distribute supplies to the world’s needy and reach disaster-prone areas. As the IHC likes to claim, Dubai is advantageous from a strictly geographic and demographic sense because it is located within eight hours by air to two-thirds of the world’s population. Since its founding in 2003, the IHC has met all growth expectations and has in fact become the world’s largest and busiest logistics hub for humanitarian aid in the world, housing no less than nine UN agencies and approximately 50 NGOs and commercial entities. Subsequently, Dubai is now the logistical headquarters for the UN and many of the largest and most critical humanitarian organizations in the world, and there is every indication that it will continue to expand its activities in this area for many years to come.


The success of the IHC translate into a huge presence of UN personnel and humanitarian workers, contractors, and bureaucrats who live and work in Dubai. In fact, those who work for the UN or in the humanitarian and international aid sector in general now form the backbone of the emirate’s massive ex-pat population. In light of the unprecedented growth of this community, it should not be surprising to find that they make up a growing proportion of the clientele for Dubai’s infamous sex industry.  More than anything else in Dubai, the sex industry represents the vulnerable, highly exploited community that sits side by side with an ever-expanding UN and humanitarian workforce. 


It almost goes without saying that the sex industry is a ubiquitous part of life in Dubai; go to any bar or nightclub in any hotel lobby and you can rest assured that you will be smacked in the face with it.  Within the male-dominated humanitarian community, Dubai’s sex industry is either an in-country perk if you happen to work there or a favorite weekend retreat if you work in countries like Afghanistan or South Sudan. Brothels and nightclubs directly cater to them or else signify in a rather tongue and cheek manner their association with the humanitarian community.  One well-known brothel even describes itself as the ‘United Nations of Prostitution.’ They also employ various descriptors to signal whether or not they cater to a higher end clientele, describing the women they have on offer as “sophisticated” and “discreet” and as able to satisfy the demanding needs of global professionals and corporate bluebloods. It is common practice for companies to provide their clients with girls in order to get contracts signed, close deals, and conclude business transactions.  


Current estimates place the number of prostitutes in Dubai alone at around 30,000, an enormous number in a place about the size of Rhode Island.  But counting “prostitutes” is a rather difficult endeavor in part because the term itself does not adequately highlight the many differences between women who choose to engage in sex work and those who are forced into it by circumstances beyond their control.  In Dubai, the varying nuances and forces at play when it comes to power, choice, and the sex industry are fairly obvious to those who take the time to look.  Unfortunately, few do, so for most people – especially the clientele – a prostitute is a prostitute is a prostitute.  The idea that women and girls might be forced into the sex industry receives much less attention than it deserves.


Even Dubai’s leaders maintain a laissez-faire, shrug-of-the-shoulders, non-approach to the ever-expanding sex industry under their own roof.  More than one observer has noted the irony here, given that prostitution is deemed haram(“forbidden”) according to Muslim law, which in almost every other way is applied rigorously to the point that you will find big black blobs censoring any hint of cleavage or curvature on the models pictured on the back of your morning cereal box (and good luck going to an R-rated movie).  Yet Dubai’s leaders choose to look the other way when it comes to the many thousands of single women in their twenties who apply to the Directorate of Residence and Foreigners Affairs for a “tourist” visa each month.  Like everyone else, they know that the sex industry is an integral part of the hedonistic lifestyle that makes up Brand Dubai for tourists, foreign businessmen, and the thousands of humanitarian workers pouring into the IHC and breathing new life into Dubai’s expat community, allowing the city to claim yet another accolade in its long list of world’s largest/biggest/greatest things: largest pool of potential Johns.