The head of the United Nations’ body spearheading the fight against Aids is facing increasing pressure to step down after one of its biggest donors said it would be withholding funding.
Last week an independent panel investigating allegations of bullying and sexual harassment at UNAIDS issued a damning report into the organisation and its leadership.
The report described UNAIDS as an institution in crisis, one that was threatening its vital work. It said the body had failed to prevent or respond to allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power and that there was overwhelming evidence of a “broken organisational culture”.
It continued: “The leadership of the UNAIDS secretariat fails to accept responsibility for a culture of impunity becoming prevalent in the organisation, 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.”
Michel Sidibé, who has led the organisation as executive director since 2009, came in for particular criticism. Whilst the report praised his passion and commitment to fighting HIV/Aids it said that his “personalised, patriarchal management style” had enabled a culture of harassment in the organisation.
The crisis comes at a critical juncture in the HIV/Aids epidemic when UNAIDS' own figures show that the number of new HIV infections is rising in around 50 countries and resources to tackle the epidemic have flatlined.
To add to the body’s woes Sweden has said it will withhold its funding for 2019 until Mr Sidibé steps down. In 2017, Sweden donated just over $30m (around £23m), the second largest donor to UNAIDS after the United States.
Isabella Lovin, Sweden’s minister for international development, told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, that Mr Sidibé should go.
“We have made clear on several occasions that we have no confidence in Sidibé. I have also said this to him in person,” she said.
The UK, the fourth largest donor to UNAIDS, giving just over $19m (£15m) in 2017, was critical of the body but stopped short of calling for Mr Sidibé's resignation.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Development said: “The sector has been very clear that we cannot tolerate practices which don’t reach the standards we require. We expect immediate and far-reaching action from UNAIDS.”
At a meeting of UNAIDS' governing body in Geneva this week Mr Sidibé said he would step down next June, six months before his term of office is due to end
But Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and a leading voice in the fight against abuse by United Nations staff, said Mr Sidibé should go immediately, not at a time of his choosing.
"A leader of any other major institution who was accused of the wrongdoing described in the report would have been summarily fired. Mr Sidibé has taken advantage of a failure of leadership by the [UN] secretary-general and the governing body of UNAIDS. This is the culmination of the abuse of power and authority that has marked Mr Sidibé's tenure," she said.
Christine Stegling, executive director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, said the report came at a critical time in the fight against HIV/Aids.
"We are at a tipping point both epidemiologically and politically. Infections and mortality have decreased but, as UNAIDS itself noted in July, the response is off track. Many of us are fearful that HIV is slipping down the global health agenda.
"We need a credible, intelligent and inclusive UN agency that gives voice to the fact that Aids is not over and that a well-resourced response remains vital," she said.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)