SOURCE: The Lancet
December 22, 2018

“In light of the Panel's conclusion that the executive director and the leadership of UNAIDS are responsible for a culture of impunity for abuse of office, bullying, and harassment, including sexual harassment, the panel recommends that the PCB [UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board] take urgent action to ensure a safe and respectful workplace”. These words—in the report of the independent expert panel on prevention of and response to harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power at UNAIDS Secretariat—marked a turning point in what has been a scandal for UNAIDS, as allegations that the agency's patriarchal culture tolerates harassment and abuse of authority were found to be true.

The fallout from this report was to become a test of accountability for UN agencies and global health governance as a whole. But the response has been underwhelming. Most disappointingly, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé took no personal responsibility for the panel's findings and it was Sidibé who informed the board that he would be stepping down, in 6 months' time.

It could be argued that nothing more could have been done. UNAIDS' governance structure, criticised by the panel for concentrating power in a few hands, means the PCB only holds programmatic oversight of UNAIDS. Moreover, as noted in this week's World Report, member states were divided on what should be done. But that would be forgetting that UN Secretary General António Guterres appointed Sidibé. It is his prerogative to intervene, to demonstrate that contravention of the governance standards set by the UN needs to be publicly met with accountability.

Guterres has often affirmed his personal commitment to zero tolerance for sexual harassment. But faced with the reality of this commitment, he failed to provide much-needed leadership. By being allowed to control the narrative of his departure from UNAIDS, Sidibé was given the power to protect his legacy—a legacy that includes many successes but that was built partly at the expense of those who were harassed or bullied. In Guterres' deafening silence, a pervasive unspoken truth is echoed to the global health community: in the name of a greater purpose, the culture of impunity can prevail.


(UN Photo / Cia Pak)