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LYON, FRANCE — In its largest ever partnership with the aid sector, INTERPOL has launched a new project aimed at cracking down on perpetrators of sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse (SEAH) working for humanitarian and development organizations.

Project Soteria, named after the Greek goddess of safety, has already enlisted the support of more than 20 prominent aid organizations, including Oxfam, Save the Children and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The globalized nature of humanitarian and development work, combined with the urgency with which staff often need to be recruited and deployed, presents challenges for aid organizations in conducting thorough screening of staff both before and after their hiring.

Too often, past sexual offenders are able to continue working and moving within the sector, putting children and vulnerable adults at risk.

“We must end sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the international development and humanitarian sectors,” said Foreign, Commonwealth and Development (FCDO) Minister with responsibility for safeguarding, Vicky Ford.

“That is why the UK is working with INTERPOL, NGOs and others involved in Project Soteria to identify and take action against sexual perpetrators. We are shining a spotlight on these abuses to keep vulnerable people safe from harm,” the Minister added.

Cross-sector partnership

“While aid sector organizations often provide a sanctuary for women, men and children in the midst of conflict or poverty, they have also been targeted by individuals seeking to abuse vulnerable victims,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.

“The broad cross-sector partnership that Project Soteria has built with the UK’s support demonstrates the common commitment from the aid sector and law enforcement to protect aid recipients and bring sexual offenders to justice, no matter the circumstances,” Secretary General Stock added.

Aid organizations play a vital role in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable, delivering development and humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable communities worldwide. Perpetrators of SEAH in the aid sector fundamentally undermine this mission, harming the very people they are meant to protect and assist.

Project Soteria seeks to build trust between aid organizations and law enforcement while working to strengthen their respective capacity to prevent and respond to cases of SEAH.

Leveraging its global databases and 195-country police network, INTERPOL will work with national law enforcement to reinforce their ability to investigate reports of SEAH and manage criminal records. The global police organization will also collaborate with the aid sector to facilitate information exchange and bolster their efforts to both detect past offenders and deter potential offenders.

“I see firsthand the devastating impact that sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers have on individuals, their families and communities,” said Jane Connors, UN Victims’ Rights Advocate. “Project Soteria promises to make perpetrators accountable and deter others from committing these wrongs.  This will reassure survivors that the abuses are taken seriously and that their rights are recognized and protected.”

Next steps

In the coming months, Project Soteria will be rolling out simultaneous workshops to train nearly 100 child protection and sexual or gender-based violence investigators in East Africa and South Asia to use INTERPOL capabilities and other tools to target offenders.

INTERPOL’s Project Soteria team will then launch in-country activities, including the organization’s first ever joint law enforcement and aid sector workshop on SEAH and a two-day training course for aid sector employees, volunteers and interns on what constitutes SEAH and how to respond to it.

A global ’search and check’ scheme will also be developed to enable selected pilot aid sector organizations to send INTERPOL information on candidates to identify individuals who could pose a threat to vulnerable adults and children.

Project Soteria is funded by the FCDO and benefits from technical support from the UK Criminal Records Office (ACRO). An advisory board of representatives from government, law enforcement, the UN, legal experts, the private sector, civil society and survivors of SEAH in the aid sector also informs the project.