The #MeToo moment inside the UN

It's a hypocrisy so heinous it seems at first glance unbelievable. UNAIDS, an organization that works to sto...

Posted: Dec 17, 2018 5:57 AM
Updated: Dec 17, 2018 5:57 AM

It's a hypocrisy so heinous it seems at first glance unbelievable. UNAIDS, an organization that works to stop the spread of HIV worldwide by promoting safe sex, female empowerment and human rights is, itself, a cesspool of gender intolerance, sexual harassment and bullying, according to a new report issued by an independent panel of experts December 7.

The report makes for chilling reading. It states that UNAIDS' leadership is "in crisis," and asserts that UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, along with his secretariat staff, "fails to accept responsibility for a culture of impunity becoming prevalent in the organization, a culture that does not ensure a safe and dignified workplace for its staff, and one that fails to respect human rights in line with law and United Nations values."

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The leadership of UNAIDS, the panel states, has created a work culture "of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation against those who speak up about harassment and abuse of power."

More than 60% of the UNAIDS staff provided survey information and interviews to the expert panel, and many are hard to read. One submission says, "UNAIDS is like a predators' prey ground. ... You can use promises of jobs, contracts and all sorts of opportunities and abuse your power to get whatever you want. ... I have seen senior white male colleagues dating local young interns or using UNAIDS resources to access sex workers."

The report is filled with allegations of men in the secretariat using their power to receive sexual favors, covering up one another's indiscretions and functioning as a powerful old boys' club. The report is so alarming that the Swedish government -- the agency's second-largest donor -- threatened this week to withdraw all funds from the program unless Sidibé resigned. Unable to escape the controversy, Sidibé agreed to step down -- but not until June 2019.

Sidibé's spokesperson described his resignation as a "personal decision," and he promised to provide "an orderly transition of leadership," according to a news release issued by UNAIDS on Friday.

While Sidibé sent an email to staff acknowledging responsibility for the organizational culture after the report was published, he has not done so publicly or offered any public condolences to the women who have come forward with allegations of sexual assault.

Founded in 1994 to offset a weak, bumbling response to the AIDS pandemic at the World Health Organization, UNAIDS is today one of several international agencies dedicated to fighting the spread of HIV. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, UNAIDS is supposed to promote the human rights of sex workers, IV drug users, gay men and other populations at a higher risk for the virus. And it is supposed to take the lead in designing and promoting grand strategies to stop AIDS altogether.

In 2009, Sidibé was selected to lead the $220 million organization of 700 employees after Belgian physician-scientist Peter Piot retired. Sidibé quickly shook up the institution, pushing out some of Piot's appointees while elevating others -- particularly Brazilian Dr. Luiz Loures, who became Sidibé's top adviser.

Amid what the expert panel dubbed "an accountability vacuum," the report found the secretariat did not take sufficient action in response to complaints filed against Loures alleging sexual harassment in as early as 2011. And yet Loures was promoted at the end of 2012 to deputy executive director of UNAIDS in an announcement made by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

In 2015, UNAIDS employee Martina Brostrom was at a Bangkok AIDS conference with Loures, who she says forced himself upon her violently in a hotel elevator, forcibly kissed her and tried to drag her toward his room. He has denied the allegations. "I was pleading with him, and I was just bracing with all that I could just to not leave the elevator," Brostrom told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

As news of her alleged assault spread, other women came forward with similar stories, including Malayah Harper, a former UNAIDS employee of more than 10 years who said Loures assaulted her in a similar way at a hotel in 2014. Harper also told The Guardian that Loures sexually harassed her for years.

It became clear that Sidibé had not taken action against Loures despite UNAIDS' claim that he "always took complaints seriously and always acted in line with required procedures."

Loures has denied any wrongdoing. He told CNN he cooperated with a 14-month investigation that concluded Brostrom's claims were unsubstantiated. When the United Nations announced it would reopen an investigation into allegations against him in April, he did not respond to CNN's request for comment.

In a March 2018 speech, Sidibé applauded Loures for "taking the high road" and instead slammed whistleblowers and women who had spoken out. He said, "We know there are people taking their golden handshake from us here and knowing that they have a job and then attacking us. We know all about that. We know every single thing. Time will come for everything. When I hear anything about abuse of our assets, abuse of our things, I ask for investigation."

Loures retired earlier this year, but the expert panel found that he was merely one of many alleged predators inside the supposedly "gender-sensitive" institution. Harper, who now heads World YWCA, told The Guardian that in addition to the sexual harassment and assault she experienced at the hands of Loures, she filed an earlier complaint about another member of staff for bullying and intimidation. She said, "I'm a feminist, I was the lead in the organization on gender -- and I had been bullied quite seriously, and then sexually harassed for years. The irony of it did not escape me. ... The UN is the custodian and standard setter for the human rights of women and girls."

The expert panel conducted a formal, confidential survey of UNAIDS employees in September 2018 and found that many men and women alike felt there was a culture of bullying by superiors, sexual harassment, and an unwillingness on the part of management to hear their complaints or exercise any form of discipline against the alleged perpetrators -- against both men and women. The panel's extensive report offered a long list of reforms necessary, it said, to ensure the credibility and survival of UNAIDS. Among them is the conclusion that "there is a credible body of opinion within the staff, and voices among civil society, that there needs to be a change in leadership."

The damning report goes on to state, "The panel believes that if UNAIDS is to recover from its current malaise, a trustworthy, energetic leader should be appointed who can earn the confidence of the staff and return UNAIDS to its fundamental commitment to non-discrimination, due process, and good governance."

This week, calls for Sidibé's resignation grew louder and many prominent global health leaders asked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to intervene and fire him.

Coincidentally, the UNAIDS' governing board, with representatives from 22 governments, was meeting in Geneva this week. By all accounts a tumultuous gathering, the board demanded accountability from Sidibé and recognized that the sex and bullying scandal is an existential crisis for UNAIDS.

In a news release, the board promised a full review of not only the internal culture of the organization but also its management and strategies.

"UNAIDS reiterates its commitment to lead by example in eliminating all forms of harassment, bullying and abuse of power by creating a respectful, transparent and accountable environment that enables all staff to contribute their full potential to deliver for the people they serve," the board stated.

It makes little sense that Sidibé, who has yet to apologize publicly for anything, should remain in power for another six months. With every passing day that he and his cabal of alleged predators and bullies remain at the helm of UNAIDS, the credibility of the organization crumbles. It is inconceivable that men who allegedly countenance sexual harassment and brutal behavior toward their own employees should be respected as voices on behalf of women's rights worldwide in the fight against AIDS. How can a leader publicly decry abuse of HIV positive sex workers and then defend alleged abusers in his own ranks?

There are already rumbles spreading across other Geneva-based UN agencies and allied multilateral organizations. If Sidibé remains the face of UNAIDS for half a year more, and staff air more of the agency's dirty laundry, it is only a matter of time before allegations of similar misconduct surface elsewhere.

The UNAIDS board and the office of the secretary-general should move with haste, demanding Sidibé and his cohort in the secretariat step down before the new year and placing a credible technocrat in temporary leadership. A formal hiring process should commence as early as possible in 2019.

Meanwhile, UNAIDS, as an organization, must define its mission clearly. Many well-known global health figures are already burning up Twitter and other social media with calls to reform the organization. It is a dangerous time in the fight against HIV, amid declining funding and interest in globalization and its causes. People with AIDS continue to need a strong voice fighting on their behalf.

Sadly, neither Michel Sidibé nor his coterie can provide that voice of credible strength and candor. If the institution they have besmirched hopes to survive this terrible moment intact as a valued voice on behalf of the more than 35 million people living with HIV infection, it must take swifter and more significant action immediately.

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