Monday July 27, 2015

Canadian aid worker says she was sexually assaulted on UN base and agency refused to investigate

A makeshift camp for the displaced at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in the town of Bentiu, South Sudan. International human rights lawyer Megan Nobert believes she was drugged and raped by a UN contractor on the base, but says authorities have done nothing to investigate.

A makeshift camp for the displaced at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in the town of Bentiu, South Sudan. International human rights lawyer Megan Nobert believes she was drugged and raped by a UN contractor on the base, but says authorities have done nothing to investigate. (The Associated Press)

Listen 7:55

UPDATE: After this interview with Megan Nobert aired, As It Happens talked to UN spokesperson St├ęphane Dujarric about Nobert's case. LISTEN to his response below.

Saskatchewan's Megan Nobert went to South Sudan to help break the cycle of sexual violence. And then the international human rights activist says she was drugged and sexually assaulted herself. 

"I lost about five hours that night," says the activist, who grew up on a farm near Swift Current. 

She believes it happened on the United Nations base where she was living - and that her attacker worked for a UN contractor. But when she demanded the UN investigate, little happened.

It was devastating. 

"It's kind of a cruel irony; that what I was going to help other women [in South Sudan] deal with, had happened to me. It was horrible," Nobert tells As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch. 

In February, she'd been having dinner and drinks with several friends on the base. "I was dancing, I had a couple glasses of wine; enough to make me tipsy but not enough to make me drunk. And I was sitting at the table, I turned to my friend, then I turned to my left, and  ... that's the last thing I remember."

Nobert woke up in the metal container in which she was living, feeling violently ill. But that wasn't the worst of it; she had a troubling feeling that she couldn't shake. She was naked in her bed; with no idea how she got there. Or how she got undressed. 

"Something felt wrong. It felt like I had had some sort of sexual activity that night, which was very disturbing." - Megan Nobert

"Something felt wrong. It felt like I had had some sort of sexual activity that night, which was very disturbing."

It took several days to piece together what happened. She spoke to a colleague who told her she had left with a man named Ahmed. At the time, she had no idea who he was. 

"That was on the Sunday. On Monday, Ahmed wrote me a letter saying that I had asked for him to have sex with me, that I was never to tell anybody, and asked if we could be friends."

She didn't remember any of it. Nobert took a urine sample to a doctor, and learned why: the doctor found traces of cocaine, oxycodone, morphine, and codeine in her system - drugs she never consented to taking. 

"Everything clicked together. Simply put, something happened and I didn't say that it was okay."

Still, Nobert feels like one of the lucky ones. She is educated about sexual assaults. She knew what to do. She got a post-exposure prophylaxis from the health clinic. It's a powerful drug cocktail that can prevent the spread of HIV if taken within 72 hours of sexual contact. She knew enough to get drug testing done, not only for answers, but also to help build a case against her attacker.

Megan Nobert

International human rights lawyer Megan Nobert (Courtesy: Megan Nobert)

Ahmed denies that he raped Nobert. But she's not buying it. The day after the incident, he wrote her a letter. 

"He admitted that he had sex with me. And at the end of the day, I wasn't capable of consenting. I was given drugs without my knowledge. And even if he didn't give me the drugs, it's irrelevant. I wasn't capable of consenting. It was non-consensual sex."

Nobert did not report the incident to police in South Sudan. Instead, she went to the United Nations itself, which she felt was better equipped to investigate the incident. She contacted the UN agency she thought her attacker worked for, but it turned out he worked for an independent vendor contracted by the agency. 

"At first they were phenomenal," she said of the UN agency, which she has not named publicly. "And then they realized it wasn't one of their employees and they didn't have to handle this. They pushed me off, sent me to the vendor."

"He admitted he had sex with me. I wasn't capable of consenting. I was given drugs without my knowledge. - Megan Nobert

She says the vendor, Ahmed's employer, wasn't interested in an investigation either. "They didn't want to deal with the problem. Eventually they told me that they had fired him and therefore I had no recourse."

But that wasn't good enough. Ms. Nobert says she wanted an investigation, and not just for her sake. "There should have been questions asked. I should have been able to present my version of events. And he should be allowed to present his version of events," she explains. "Maybe it sounds a little strange, but I do believe we both deserved that opportunity."

She says the UN agency told her that it is responsible for the actions of its own employees, but not the actions of its vendors`employees. Nobert sees it as a gap that needs to be closed. 

"I'm willing to bet this is not the first time an employee of a vendor has behaved inappropriately. If not with a humanitarian, then with a local individual. A situation like this can happen."

She also spoke to the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, which looks into complaints against UN employees. But according to the Buzzfeed news website  - which did an extensive investigation into Nobert's case - that office also said her alleged attacker was outside its jurisdiction, since he didn't work for the UN directly. 

Nobert says she's not sure what will happen to her career now that she's spoken publicly. She's currently staying with her parents in Saskatchewan, recovering from her ordeal. But she wants to eventually continue her field work. She's just not sure she'll be able to. 

"I don't know. I'm not sure if I'll be shut out of the humanitarian world; if I'll be able to find work again. I'm hopeful that [my ordeal] can start a dialogue, that there'll be a change and I can go back in the field soon. I am hopeful." 

UPDATE:

Wed., July 29: As It Happens talks to St├ęphane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about Nobert's case.