The Guardian: UN 'grossly mishandled' inquiry into alleged sexual assault, say campaigners

Group claims UNAids investigation into senior official undermined by conflict of interest and calls for independent review of allegations


SOURCE: The Guardian
By Rebecca Ratcliffe
February 7, 2018

A UN agency has “grossly mishandled” an investigation into claims of sexual harassment and assault by a high-ranking official, claims the campaign group Code Blue in an open letter to António Guterres, the UN’s secretary general.

Last week, UNAids concluded that allegations against Luiz Loures, an assistant secretary general of the UN, and deputy executive director of programme at UNAids, were not substantiated.

It is understood that the complainant alleged Loures sexually harassed her, and sexually assaulted her in a lift while away on work travel.

In a letter addressed to Guterres, Code Blue alleged that the investigation was undermined by a conflict of interest, with the executive director of UNAids, Michel Sidibé, acting both as a witness and as the “final decision-maker” in the case. The group called for Guterres to review the allegations and hand the investigation over to an “external, neutral and independent body”.

A recent Guardian investigation found that many UN employees who have experienced sexual harassment or a sexual assault do not trust the UN’s internal investigations process, which is perceived as biased and ineffective. Many also fear that if they report a complaint they will face retaliation for speaking out, especially if the alleged perpetrator is a senior member of staff.

Following the investigation, the Guardian has been contacted by dozens of current and former UN employees, including at UNAids, who allege that they experienced sexual harassment or assault but did not receive justice.

The UN said it has a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and that it is taking steps to increase the support given to victims.

Code Blue called the investigation at UNAids a “gross miscarriage of justice”. Complaints made by UNAids employees are dealt with by the Office of Internal Oversight Services, the UN’s investigations team, which produces a report to be reviewed by a three-person panel within the agency. The panel then presents recommendations to the agency’s executive director, to make a final decision.

Code Blue said that Sidibé acted as a witness in the case and that the allegations should have been handled by an external body. In the letter, it said that Sidibé stepped down from his role in convening the panel after he was challenged by the complainant’s lawyer. Instead, he appointed a subordinate to the role, while maintaining his position as “the final decision-maker”.

It added that Sidibé was also “questioned by investigators regarding allegations of his intrusion in the case”.

The letter described a climate of fear within the agency, where employees are scared to speak out because they fear losing their jobs.

In a recent letter to the Guardian Jan Beagle, under secretary general for management who is leading the organisation’s new taskforce on sexual harassment, said that the UN does not “prevent staff from speaking to the media”.

Last month, UNAids sent an email to staff advising that they should not respond directly to media enquires, or “circulate emails, web links, tweets, social media links or any other material containing information that is not authenticated by UNAids”. The warning, seen by the Guardian, told staff: “This will protect yourself and the organisation from any possible claims of defamation or libel.” It also provided employees with suggested responses to queries relating to sexual harassment, in case they are approached by partners or stakeholders.

Code Blue said the UN’s response to sexual harassment allegations was inadequate. “Every other institution called to account through the movement sparked by #MeToo is rushing to give survivors the benefit of the doubt; only in the United Nationsare the victims hounded into resignation and despair.”

In a statement, UNAids said that it has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment, with clear guidelines and procedures to address allegations and complaints.

“The executive director of UNAids has established a special task force entrusted with ensuring an enabling environment for all people to work with dignity and integrity,” it said. All staff and managers undertake a course on preventing and addressing harassment, including sexual harassment, while additional sessions have recently been introduced.

It added that UNAids operates a 24-hour, confidential integrity hotline, and that support is also available through the human resources department, the ethics office, staff health and wellbeing services and the office of the ombudsman.

UNAids said that staff are not restricted from speaking to the media. It added in a statement: “Guidance to staff was sent while the case was ongoing to avoid compromising the independent investigation and to reinforce the message that UNAids has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and that all formal complaints are thoroughly investigated.”

In a statement, the deputy spokesman for the secretary general added that the concerns raised by Code Blue were being taken seriously. Guterres, however, is not directly involved in the case. “The investigation of the alleged conduct and relevant steps to be taken to address such conduct are being handled by the World Health Organization (WHO). This is because employees of UNAids involved in this matter are appointed by the WHO.”

The statement added that the secretary general had engaged the heads of UN organisations and had taken steps to prevent and deal with sexual harassment. “These include the launch of a helpline for staff within the secretariat to seek confidential advice, strengthening the protection of whistleblowers, providing more information to staff about how to report sexual harassment, and undertaking a survey among staff to obtain a better information on prevalence and reporting rates.”

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(UN Photo / Kim Haughton)