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Home » Home, UN NEWS » Survey on UN Sexual Abuse Shifts Focus on Virtual Fugitives from Justice

Survey on UN Sexual Abuse Shifts Focus on Virtual Fugitives from Justice

Violence against women (Art courtesy photo for education only)

Violence against women (Art courtesy photo for education only)

By Thalif Deen - UNITED NATIONS  - A survey of sexual harassment at the United Nations has uncomfortably shifted the focus to some of the senior UN officials who have either escaped censure – or punishment– despite a rash of charges against them, including abuse and misconduct.

Paula Donovan, a women’s rights activist and co-Director of AIDS-Free World and Code Blue Campaign, told IPS it is interesting that the wires (Reuters, AFP), in citing the fact that Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS, will step down in June, appear to be implying that the UN, and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in particular, have held senior staff accountable.

But the reality, she pointed out, is that the Secretary-General has never uttered a word about Sidibé, even after a six-month inquiry by an Independent Expert Panel reported last month that he “created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority” at UNAIDS and recommended his removal.

“Radio silence from the Secretary-General, who allowed Sidibé to decide when and whether he’d leave — and then let him return to the workplace, uncensured, to continue his documented behavior,” said Donovan, a former UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa.

The panel called for his dismissal. But Guterres has not suspended Sidibé, asked for his resignation, nor made any comment, according to Donovan.

The survey, which was carried out by the consulting firm Deloite Touche Tomhatsu, hired by the UN, said that 10,032 UN employees had reported that they had suffered harassment. They were among the 30,364 of the UN system’s total global workforce of 105,000 who responded to the survey.

The survey, released January 15, found that 12 percent of the harassers were senior leaders in the UN.

Donovan said that in April 2018, Guterres announced that he was initiating a new investigation, through UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), into sexual assault and harassment charges lodged against the former Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS, Luiz Loures. Nothing has been announced since about this “new investigation.”

She said the Secretary-General has also never commented on any of the recent public reports of sexual misconduct in several other UN organizations —including the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) while the Secretary-General’s senior-level Task Force is headed by Jan Beagle, who was promoted to Under-Secretary-General by Guterres while she herself was under investigation for workplace harassment at UNAIDS.

Meanwhile, the UN’s heavily-hyped “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse was reduced to mockery with the abrupt resignation in mid-December of the head of the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) who faced charges of sexual harassment and was the subject of an inquiry by the OIOS.

The resignation of the ICSC chairman, Under-Secretary-General (USG) Kingston Rhodes, who held one of the highest ranking jobs in the UN system, followed the release of the OIOS report to the ICSC. But the contents of the report are still under wraps since neither the OIOS nor ICSC have announced plans to go public with the results of the months-long investigations.

The official stance was that neither the UN nor the Secretary-General could intervene because the ICSC and its staff are the creation of the General Assembly.

Senior UN Official Resigns Undermining Sexual Abuse Charges

Asked to respond to the survey, which found that 12 percent of the harassers were senior leaders in the UN, Peter A. Gallo, a former investigator at the Investigations Division of OIOS, told IPS the whole thing is an exercise in the usual UN hypocrisy.

He said there is nothing materially wrong with the regulations (ST/SGB/2008/5) but the problem is in the enforcement:

– most staff members are (understandably) unwilling to report sexual harassment, and
– the “investigations” are carried out by the deaf, dumb, blind and stupid, and they do not want to find misconduct, because that would reflect badly on the Organization, he added.

“The result is that the UN is quite happy because they can claim that the low level of reporting is a sign of there being no problem, and the even lower rate of investigations actually substantiating the complaint reinforces this image of there not being a problem,” he noted.

In cases of “sexual exploitation and abuse” there is an obligation on the UN to report the numbers to the General Assembly (GA) every year. (They manipulate those numbers, but never mind.)

In the case of sexual harassment however, Under ST/SGB/2008/5 section 6 – the staff member is told to send a copy of the complaint to the ASG/OHRM (assistant secretary-general for human resources) for “monitoring” purposes, “but I do not believe they ever report the number of complaints publicly to the GA, said Gallo, an Attorney and director of the non-governmental organization ”Hear Their Cries”.

Antonia Kirkland, Legal Equality Global Lead at Equality Now, a non-governmental organization advocating women’s rights, told IPS that the survey points out, proactive measures to prevent sexual harassment, as well as the way the UN responds when staff members report allegations, are good indicators that a zero tolerance policy is in place and actually being effectively implemented.

But she pointed out that “proactive measures to prevent and respond to sexual harassment should be undertaken with regard to all who work with UN staff members regardless of their position, including appointees of the General Assembly, on the pay roll of the United Nations.”

Meanwhile, when the proposed survey was announced, Donovan wrote a letter to the Secretary-General expressing concerns about the validity of the UN’s Safe Space survey data.

In it, she informed Guterres that staff had alerted the UN that it was possible for anyone to take the survey, and to take it as many times as they wished, so long as they used a unique device each time. Some concerned staff had succeeded in doing that.

Guterres’ office sent a one-line email acknowledging receipt, “and we heard nothing more — which at a minimum, seems to fall short of “civility”, but also demonstrates the seriousness with which this Secretary-General undertakes efforts to solve this longstanding crisis.”

“We are left with the indisputable fact that the design of the system-wide Safe Space survey does not prevent external parties from responding and does not protect against multiple entries from respondents with malign motives. Whether or not the survey has been compromised enough times by enough people to render it statistically invalid is uncertain. The risk that data has been manipulate significantly seems high enough to invalidate this survey,” the letter said.

Ian Richards, President, of the 60,000-strong Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), told IPS that a survey, conducted in December by the CCISUA on harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse of authority, differed from the current UN survey, in that it covers all forms of prohibited conduct.

“We believe that focusing on sexual harassment, the tip of the iceberg in terms of prohibited conduct at the UN, avoids discussion of other types of abuse of power and prevents accountability at senior levels,” he added.

The key findings of the CCISUA survey were:

      • Sexual harassment, while abhorrent, constitutes only 16 percent of all forms of harassment and abuse of authority.

 

      • The results show a worrying trend in terms of complaints not investigated. Where an investigation was conducted, a significant proportion of staff was kept waiting more than six months to get the results. Most who complained were not kept informed of progress on the investigation.

 

    • Twenty percent of staff felt they were retaliated against for reporting misconduct.

“While the UN’s actions are very much focused on sexual harassment, which is important, this shouldn’t divert energies away from addressing the UN’s broader problem with abuse of authority,” declared Richards.

He also said: ” We feel the Deloitte survey missed an important opportunity’

”By restricting itself to sexual harassment, abhorrent in itself, it neatly avoided topics such as discrimination, bullying and abuse of power that would have raised serious questions about how our organisations are managed and run”.

This, Richards said, would also address the biggest finding, that staff continue, perhaps rightfully, to fear retaliation for reporting such behaviours and are far from satisfied with how complaints are treated.

“These are fundamental to the problems of international organizations, which operate something of a legal vacuum.”

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