In the wake of revelations that some Oxfam aid workers may have committed sexual crimes while working in Haiti after the 2011 earthquake, questions are being asked about how the staff involved managed to avoid prosecution and whether NGO and United Nations staff are in effect above the law when they carry out development or humanitarian work.

The revelations have led to widespread calls, including from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, for an overhaul of the way the aid sector recruits and vets candidates. But it has also shone a light on a broader legal vacuum within the sector in which alleged perpetrators are able to avoid investigation from prosecuting authorities for crimes committed while working in humanitarian settings.

Sienna Merope-Synge, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a U.S. NGO which brings together Haitian and U.S. human rights lawyers, described the Oxfam case as “the tip of the iceberg” and said it was “emblematic of broader lack of accountability and an ability to be above the law among these actors.”

This lack of accountability is even more prevalent within the United Nations, Merope-Synge and others say, where personnel have explicit legal immunity. However, while the U.N. says this does not apply to those who commit sex crimes, in practice only a handful of staff have ever been prosecuted, according to New York-based advocacy group AIDS-Free World, which is campaigning to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel.

In response, experts are calling for an independent way of policing the humanitarian sector, including the creation of a “Special Court Mechanism,” as proposed by Code Blue, and an international ombudsman.

Read the full article about accountability in the humanitarian aid sector by Sophie Edwards at Devex International Development.