21 June 2019 | Comment | Article by Alan Collins

HJ Talks About Abuse: Oxfam and child exploitation

Oxfam has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. It’s an internationally recognised charity famous for humanitarian work often in some of the most troubled and dangerous parts of the world.

Oxfam has been severely criticised by the Charity Commission for the way it dealt with claims of serious sexual misconduct by its staff in Haiti. Alan Collins and Sam Barker discuss these issues in this week's episode of HJ Talks About Abuse.

In 2018 Oxfam was accused of covering up claims staff sexually exploited victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Claims first emerged in The Times last year that Oxfam employees, including former country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, used young prostitutes while based in Haiti after the earthquake.

An internal Oxfam investigation in 2011 led to four people being sacked and three others resigning, including Mr Van Hauwermeiren. But a report published by Oxfam after the investigation failed to mention sexual exploitation.

The charity commission said the incidents in Haiti identified in 2011 were not "one-offs", with evidence of behavioural issues as early as June 2010.

The commission said there was a "culture of poor behaviour" at the charity, and issued it with an official warning over its "mismanagement".

Oxfam accepted the findings, saying what happened in Haiti was "shameful".

There were also issues at some of the charity's UK shops - the report highlighted 16 serious incidents involving volunteers under the age of 18.

"What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation," Charity Commission chief executive Helen Stephenson said.

"Over a period of years, Oxfam's internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for."

The Charity Commission said Oxfam should have tried harder to substantiate the claims at the time, despite the lack of evidence.

In our experience of representing victims of sexual exploitation in developing countries there simply is not the structure or mechanisms in place to enable them to report wrong-doing or simply to get advice. If you are in a refugee camp you are intent on survival and are unlikely to be thinking about legal issues. Those who find themselves on the margins of survival are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. There are sadly too many cases of food and water being bartered in return for sex.

We have also found that unfortunately in many developing countries there is a perception that those from the “west” and particularly men are “powerful” and should be obeyed. It has been said that this somehow legitimised illegal behaviour.

Geography and circumstances make investigation and accountability extraordinary difficult. When there are attempts made to investigate it is very challenging to trace witnesses and victims for example in refugee camps. Where do you start? In investigating a Ugandan case we were fortunate to have the assistance of a charity worker who knew where the witnesses were likely to be, but even so, we could only go so far because of safety and security implications.

The United Nations needs to have a greater role in ensuring there is a minimum standard of investigation and accountability which hopefully would be legally binding on the international community. Offenders and those responsible for them should be held to account in any country. Nationality and legal jurisdiction should be irrelevant so that a victim of abuse say in Haiti should be able to ask for example the authorities in any country to investigate and if appropriate prosecute. Likewise, he or she should be able to hold them to account in any country.

Oxfam's chair of trustees, Caroline Thomson, said the charity accepted the findings, describing them as "uncomfortable".

"What happened in Haiti was shameful and we are deeply sorry," she said.

"It was a terrible abuse of power and an affront to the values that Oxfam holds dear."

Oxfam has also not been able to bid for government funding pending the outcome of the 18-month Charity Commission investigation.

The Department for International Development said decisions over its funding relationship with the charity would be made "in due course".

International Development Secretary and Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart said the revelations about Oxfam had "shone a light on fundamental problems", adding that there were "no easy answers or room for complacency".

Maybe there are “no easy answers” but that should not prevent the UK government taking a lead on the international stage with an objective to ensuring that the vulnerable have enforceable legal rights no matter who they are or where they live.

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