Eight leading feminist and women’s rights organizations and networks, including the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), wrote to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in April 2018, calling his attention to disturbing reports of sexual harassment and assault of staff within the UN and its agencies. The signatories are especially appalled by the manner in which those who have reported harassment have been treated by persons in position of leadership, and demand the urgent action necessary to end impunity for harassment and abuse within the UN system.
April 23, 2018
H.E. Antonio Guterres
Secretary-General of the United Nations
Cc: H.E. Michel Sidibe
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
Executive Director, UNAIDS
Ana Maria Menendez
Senior Advisor on Policy
Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti
Chef de Cabinet
Chair, UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board
Re: UNAIDS and the UN System’s Response to Sexual Harassment
As feminist and women’s rights organizations and networks, we are writing to express our deep concern about the ongoing and very disturbing reports of sexual harassment and assault of staff within the UN and its agencies. We are appalled by the manner in which those who have reported harassment have been treated by persons in position of leadership. We harbor serious doubts about the few steps announced so far, as they appear to fall seriously short of the action necessary to end impunity for harassment and abuse within the UN System.
The unfolding case of UNAIDS provides an alarming example. We believe and stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward with allegations of abuse by Luiz Loures and others within the organization. Yet, instead of acknowledging responsibility for the abuses and taking action to stop them, the leadership of UNAIDS have lauded perpetrators for their work, promoted or moved them within the agency, or allowed them retire without any repercussions for their behavior. The denigrating comments made by Michel Sidibe in an all-staff meeting about one staff person who has come forward with allegations send a clear and chilling message to UNAIDS staff that if they report harassment or abuse, they will be the ones investigated.
We are also concerned about what appears to be a lack of political will to address this issue moving forward. Women’s rights organizations have received a letter from Michel Sidibe outlining a five-point plan to address sexual harassment within UNAIDS. Unfortunately, the strategies proposed are simply not sufficient to address the systemic nature of the problem. There is no proposal for an independent mechanism to review past or future cases; the proposed independent panel would provide only overall recommendations on policy and procedure to the Programme Coordinating Board that are not binding. Further, leaders of agencies and departments continue to have the power to review cases in which they or their senior staff are implicated. The swirl of open letters in recent days about the UNAIDS situation makes clear the disarray, anger and confusion experienced by everyone who cares about the agency and its mission, and the damage that lack of clear and principled action will continue to cause.
This is a problem that obviously extends beyond UNAIDS. Harassment and abuse within the UN secretariat and UN Agencies therefore requires an urgent and systemic response. In light of this, we call on you to take the following immediate actions:
1. Take all appropriate action to establish an independent commission under the auspices of the relevant committee of the General Assembly to conduct an inquiry into all current and past allegations of harassment and abuse within the UN system, including UN agencies such as UNAIDS. This includes waiving immunity protections for individuals and the UN to ensure that justice can be served and individuals held accountable for their actions. The commission should have the support and resources necessary to independently review past allegations and issue binding recommendations for action directly to appropriate governing boards. It should be comprised of legal experts with a record of investigating sexual harassment cases, as well as civil society experts on sexual violence and gender equality. It should report directly to member states.
2. Establish a standing independent mechanism to oversee the UN system’s receipt and investigation of all future complaints, such as the Independent Oversight Panel proposed by Code Blue. The independent mechanism should be fully staffed and have the authority to issue recommendations to appropriate governing bodies. Independent legal and civil society experts on sexual violence and gender equality should advise the mechanism.
3. Require that the leadership of UN agencies recuse themselves from any involvement in the arbitration of current and future harassment and abuse cases in their agency. We are convinced that these actions are necessary to put an end to the impunity at the UN and create a working environment that is safe for all.
Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development
Diverse Voices and Action for Equality
FEMNET, The African Women’s Development and Communications Network
Feminist UN Campaign
International Women’s Health Coalition
Sonke Gender Justice
Women Engage for a Common Future
Women’s Environment and Development Organization