Inquiry urges leadership change amid claims UNAids chief Michel Sidibé has presided over culture of favouritism, bullying and retaliation
SOURCE: The Guardian
By Rebecca Ratcliffe
December 7, 2018
A culture of favouritism that tolerated harassment and bullying has been allowed to fester within a major UN agency, according to a damning independent assessment that calls for a change of leadership.
The independent report, commissioned following multiple allegations of sexual harassment and bullying by senior staff at UNAids, said Michel Sidibé, the agency’s executive director, had created “a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority”.
After one submission made to the panel described the agency as “a predators’ prey ground”, experts warned of ineffective processes for dealing with complaints, inadequate policies to prevent abuse of power, and a cult of personality at the top of the organisation.
Evidence collected by the panel suggested Sidibé had set a tone of “favouritism, preferment, opaqueness, license for wrongdoing, and retaliation against those who speak up against such practices”.
The report added: “The failure of leadership to meet its responsibilities is reflected in repeated examples of favouritism, preferment, and ethical blindness.”
The independent four-member panel that conducted the assessment were fiercely critical of the agency’s approach to handling complaints, describing its processes as “confusing, non-confidential, slow and ineffective”. Such methods were not free from interference of management, the report added.
Sidibé’s central role during the complaints process “compromises the autonomy and independence of the resolution mechanism to the point of invalidity,” said the panel.
The high standard of proof required by the World Health Organization’s internal oversight services was also cited as a major concern. The panel described the requirement for misconduct to be proved beyond reasonable doubt as “erroneous and misplaced”.
The panel was tasked with reviewing the agency’s prevention and response to harassment and abuses of power. Over a four-month period, they interviewed staff, conducted a confidential online survey and reviewed UNAids’ policies.
Emphasising the predatory nature of UNAids’ workplace culture, one submission made to the panel said: “You have access to all sorts of people especially the vulnerable: you can use promises of jobs, contracts, and all sorts of opportunities and abuse your power to get whatever you want especially in terms of sexual favours. I have seen senior white male colleagues dating local young interns or using UNAids resources to access sex workers.”
Staff cited concerns about conflict of interest, abuse of funds, improper use of drivers, and the failure of some senior employees to come to work at all. When such incidents were reported, there was either no outcome, or the accused was transferred or promoted, the panel was told.
Others reported witnessing sexist incidents that they were unable to report because those responsible claimed to be friends with Sidibé.
“There is an insidious culture within the organisation where staff are encouraged/rewarded to exhibit any type of behaviour, however low or unethical, to curry favour with the executive director in the name of loyalty,” another submission told the panel.
A recent staff survey, conducted by the UNAids staff association and cited by the report, found 18 individuals (3.8%) of the 465 respondents reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months. This included, among other behaviour, physical conduct of a sexual nature, request for sexual favours and unwelcome or unwanted sexual advances.
Almost half of all staff, interns and consultants (44%) did not agree that the UNAids culture is effective in preventing harassment and abuse, according to a confidential survey conducted by the panel report. Many described a “culture of fear” where those who speak up suffer retaliation. Those working in isolated country offices, away from the agency’s headquarters in Geneva, are even more vulnerable.
The report added that, during interviews with panel members, Sidibé “accepted no responsibility for actions”. Recent initiatives, such as the agency’s five-point plan aimed at tackling sexual harassment, were “little more than band aids”, the panel concluded.
Warning that the agency is in crisis and its vital HIV-prevention work under threat, the report concluded: “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.”
Martina Brostrom, who alleged she was sexually assaulted by Luiz Loures, Sidibé’s former deputy, welcomed the report’s finding.
“This report echoes what staff and partners knew all along,” she said. “Abuse of power and harassment, including sexual harassment, have been highly prevalent in UNAids throughout Michel Sidibé’s tenure as executive director.”
Brostrom called on the governing body of UNAids, the Programme Coordinating Board, to help reform the agency, and called for the resignation of Sidibé.
In an email to staff on Friday, Sidibé said he had taken on board the criticism made by the report, adding that he would spend the next year implementing an agenda to change the culture at UNAids.
The agenda includes commitments to work with survivors and women’s rights experts to establish an external investigation system. He also pledged to introduce inclusive active bystander training to ensure that everyone is equipped to call out abuse, and a confidential referral system for survivor-centred counselling.
“I am eager to be held accountable for making meaningful progress on this agenda, just as I am held accountable for making meaningful progress on the Aids response,” he said in a management response to the report.
Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, which aims to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel, said: “In 30 years, I have never heard of an independent report that delivered such a scathing indictment of internal UN leadership.
“The report points to one brutally obvious conclusion: abuse of power reigns when the UN is allowed to police itself. The UN system must be overhauled to put oversight in the hands of authorities who are truly independent.”
(UN Photo / Mark Garten)