Report Describes Culture Of Sexual Abuse At The United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is having its #MeToo moment. British newspaper The Guardian released an expansive report on January 18 detailing a toxic mix of sexual harassment and assault coupled with dysfunctional mechanisms of investigating victims’ claims across the organization’s agencies.  15 female employees told reporters they had experienced gender-based violence, ranging from verbal harassment to rape, within the past five years.

Victims described fear of losing their jobs if they reported the abuse. One woman who did lodge a formal complaint said [that] “[t]he assault was obviously terribly distressing but the aftermath and the ongoing systemic bullying is what really destroys you. There is no justice for women victims like myself.” The report cited glaring issues within the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigations into sexual assault complaints, including failing to interview key witnesses and allowing alleged perpetrators to remain in senior positions with power to influence the investigations. Peter Gallo, a former OIOS investigator, said of his role that “the only rule is not to publicly embarrass the organization.”

Other women interviewed by The Guardian described being forced out of their jobs after submitting complaints to their respective UN agencies. The employees spoke anonymously, citing UN rules that prohibit them from speaking publicly. Many such women count on the organization for more than employment, relying on it to provide visas, or cover school fees. Employees cited in the news report mentioned that in many UN agencies the leadership is mainly male with women only on short-term contracts, leaving them even more vulnerable.

These comments are echoed in a December 22, 2017, report by PassBlue – an independent news outlet that covers the UN – on sexual assault at the organization. The article quotes one female employee saying, “[w]ithin the United Nations, the corporate structure favors men, it’s built on patriarchy. It is a structure that is open to harassment, misogyny and gender-based pay inequalities.”

The current UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has created gender parity in top positions of the Secretariat (the UN’s executive arm) since being appointed to the position in 2016. But PassBlue reports that middle-management positions are still heavily male-dominated, creating an opening for sexual abuse towards subordinates. The report also says entry-level cohorts of UN employees are usually at gender parity, but the path to management positions is fraught for women.

The UN first instituted guidelines to define sexual harassment and formal procedures for handling complaints in 1992, after a case of abuse of a female employee went public. Breaking the story that year, The New York Times described “widespread acceptance of sexual harassment and sex discrimination at the U.N.” in an article remarkably similar to The Guardian’s recent exposé.

The UN is also facing sexual abuse controversies on other fronts. Frank La Rue, Assistant Director-General of UNESCO, the UN’S cultural arm, is currently under investigation by his organization on sexual harassment charges. More seriously, the UN has a history of failing to properly investigate reports of sexual abuse by its peacekeeping forces. An Associated Press investigation found that in the last 12 years up to March 2017, an estimated 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation have been leveled at UN peacekeepers and personnel. Notably, peacekeepers are accused of running a child sex ring in Haiti over a period of several years. Similar allegations also implicate peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic.

The day after The Guardian’s report was published, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, said the UN’s institutional culture is not unique. “No one believes that the UN is different from any other organization, public or private that has seen sexual harassment,” she told reporters. “It would be of no surprise that the issue may very well be underreported within the UN.” Dujarric also said the UN was focused on accountability and would establish an interagency taskforce on sexual harassment to review policies, as well as carry out an internal survey to measure the extent of the problem.

Some have called for more stringent measures. On December 15, 2017, Paula Donovan and Stephen Lewis, co-directors of the organization AIDS-Free World, published an open letter to Secretary General Guterres demanding a large-scale survey of UN staff conducted by a third-party organization to address concerns about sexual violence at the organization. Their ‘Code Blue Campaign’ aims to “end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel” according to its website.

The UN has disagreed with some claims made in The Guardian article, namely that sexual abuse complaints are restricted by a six-month statute of limitations within some agencies. Jan Beagle, Under-secretary-general for management at the UN, added in a follow-up letter published in The Guardian on January 21 that “[o]ur policy [at the UN] is zero tolerance. Even one case of sexual harassment, anywhere, is one too many. But contrary to the article, the United Nations does not prevent staff from speaking to the media, and UN staff accused of crimes do not enjoy diplomatic immunity. We seek to facilitate criminal proceedings by waiving immunity in such cases.”

These points of disagreement aside, The Guardian’s reporting made clear the vulnerabilities felt by female employees at the UN across the organization. One women interviewed for the story provided a concise summary: “It’s atrocious, because this is an organization that’s supposed to stand up for everyone’s rights … We’re such hypocrites.”

Lucas Smolcic Larson
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