The Guardian: UN suspends key witness in alleged sexual assault inquiry

MIRIAM MALUWA PUT ON ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE AFTER GIVING EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT CLAIMS AGAINST UNAIDS DEPUTY DIRECTOR

SOURCE: The Guardian
By Rebecca Ratcliffe
April 30, 2018

A key witness in a sexual assault investigation involving a UN assistant secretary general has been suspended from her job, in a move campaigners say is a show of “pure intimidation tactics”.

Miriam Maluwa, who has worked for the UN for more than 25 years, was placed on administrative leave from her post as country director for UNAids in Ethiopia on 27 March. In a letter from the agency she was told this action did not amount to disciplinary measures, but that UNAids would be conducting a management and operational review of the country’s office during her absence. 

The agency added that Maluwa, one of the most senior women within UNAids, was not allowed to enter the office or access the agency’s servers or documents without supervision. The following week, an email was sent to key partners, embassies and government ministries announcing that an interim country director had been appointed to her position.

Maluwa was also copied into emails stating that her contract had been terminated, though she said the agency later told her these were sent in error. 

The campaign group Code Blue, which is supporting Maluwa, said the agency had not explained the reasons for its actions and was not following the correct processes. “The standard procedure if there’s going to be an administrative and management review is that you tell the staff member why, tell them what the claims are against them, and you give them the opportunity to respond to those claims,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of Code Blue. 

Last year, Maluwa was a key witness in an investigation into sexual assault and harassment allegations involving the UNAids deputy director, Luiz Loures, who was alleged to have assaulted a colleague in a hotel lift. Maluwa, who spoke to the complainant after the alleged assault took place, told investigators that the alleged victim was distressed and asked to borrow a phone – evidence that supported the woman’s claims. 

Loures, who denies the allegations, was not suspended during the investigation.

Donovan said Maluwa was being targeted following her role as a witness, and her refusal to contribute towards internal efforts to defend the agency’s director, Michel Sidibé, who has faced widespread criticism over attempts to interfere with the inquiry.

Sidibé appeared to be trying to send a message to staff, Donovan said. “[The message seems to be] this is what will happen to you if I feel you have been disloyal or you are going to be problematic to me in my fight to hold on to my job,” she said.

The investigation found the claimsagainst Loures to be unsubstantiated, but its results have since been suspended. On Friday, it was announced the case would be reopened in light of additional allegations that had surfaced, and would be conducted by the UN’s investigations team, the office of internal oversight services. 

In February, the Guardian reported concerns relating to how the investigation was handled, along with testimonies from a group of women alleging they had also been assaulted or harassed by Loures, or that they had warned the agency’s director, Michel Sidibé, about his deputy’s behaviour. 

The alleged victim in the Loures case, Martina Brostrom, claims Sidibé attempted to bribe her to drop her complaint by offering a promotion. Sidibé denies this, but admitted to WHO investigators that he had met Brostrom to suggest they “see how we can really find a way out without making it a big problem for all the organisation and for the credibility of the organisation, for yourself”.

Brostrom said that she only heard the case was being reopened through the media. “A new internal investigation does not make any sense to me. Anything short of an investigation fully independent from the UN will not be enough,” she said.

Sidibé faced further criticism after details of an all-staff meeting were leaked to the Guardian, during which he suggested women who have spoken out “don’t have ethics” and appeared to make veiled threats to whistleblowers. 

Several HIV activist groups have called for an independent investigation into the agency, with the Aids Healthcare Foundation calling for Sidibé’s resignation.

In a letter sent to the UNAids staff this month, Sidibé appeared to backtrack from his earlier comments, writing: “I will do all in my power to ensure UNAids’s culture is one in which it is clear that no one should feel threatened – and in which no one is threatened … People who speak out and bring complaints forward help the organisation.”

Code Blue said that, despite such promises, Sidibé had continued to retaliate against staff. It added that a new UN investigation would be marred by continued conflicts of interest. In a statement, the campaign group called for member states to establish a temporary independent oversight panel to monitor closely the UN’s response to individual allegations of sexual offences, with the power to intervene immediately where actions could harm victims or witnesses. The panel would also make recommendations on UN policies and procedures.

UNAids said in a statement that it could not comment on its actions relating to Maluwa. It said: “We cannot provide specific information about the review to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the process. However, we can confirm that it is not related to the recent case of sexual harassment.”

##

(UN Photo / Manuel Elias)