Employees claim they were implored to sign letter vouching for senior UNAids figure, amid calls for the UK government to establish an independent inquiry into harassment allegations
SOURCE: The Guardian
By Rebecca Ratcliffe
February 14, 2018
Staff within a UN agency say they are being approached at their desks and asked to sign a letter in support of a senior official at the centre of a recent sexual harassment and assault investigation.
The letter asks employees to testify that Luiz Loures, deputy executive director of UNAids, behaves respectfully and is committed to advancing women’s rights.
UNAids has been accused of mishandling a recent investigation into Loures. Loures, who is also an assistant secretary general, was accused of sexually harassing an employee and assaulting her in a lift. The investigation found the allegations were not substantiated, but campaigners say that the investigation process was flawed and should have been handled externally.
“The letter said that as a staff member working at UNAids I can attest that I’ve only ever seen irreproachable and respectful behaviour from Luiz and that he has always supported the meaningful participation of women’s rights organisations,” one employee said.
“This is not an anonymous request,” said another staff member. “If you don’t sign it then your loyalty to this person could be questioned. People feel compelled to do it. You question whether there would be retaliation [if you don’t sign it], especially from the top.”
The letter comes amid a growing crisis over claims of sexual misconduct across charities and aid agencies. Last week, it was alleged that Oxfam staff in Chad and Haiti used sex workers. Inadequate sanctions and poor reference checks across the sector allowed those involved to find jobs with other charities.
Britain’s secretary of state for international development is being urged to call for an independent inquiry into allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct against senior officials at UNAids.
In a letter to Penny Mordaunt, the Labour MP Gareth Thomas warned of “inadequate processes” for dealing with complaints at the UN agency. There has been “a decade’s concern about a declining culture in the organisation, described to me as misogynistic and patriarchal”, wrote Thomas, a former minister at the Department for International Development.
The UK, as chair of the UNAids governing body, should immediately establish an external investigation into abuses of power, harassment, assault and bullying, he said.
“It is essential that this investigation is fully independent so that ... there will be no recriminations or interference by those in senior roles whose conduct has been questioned,” the letter said.
UNAids said in a statement that it was unable to comment on the contents of Thomas’ letter.
It added that it had received only one complaint regarding an allegation of sexual harassment in recent years, and that this investigation was independent and had “followed due process and complied with applicable procedures, both in letter and spirit”.
“It was carried out by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) office of Internal Oversight Services. Other than providing requested information to investigators, UNAids had no role in the independent investigation.
“The IOS report concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated, and the IOS recommended that the case be closed,” it said. A three-member panel within UNAids agreed with this decision and, along with a deputy executive director within the agency, recommended the investigation should be closed, it added.
“The UNAids executive director had no role in the issuance of the independent IOS report or in the final decision of this case.”
The agency said it had not seen a letter of support in connection with the allegations concerning Luiz Loures, adding: “However, staff are free to associate and express their views. UNAids has robust policies and procedures, including a whistle-blower policy to ensure staff are protected from any type of retaliation.”
UNAids has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, it said, adding that there are numerous confidential channels available to staff. “This includes the Ethics Office and the anonymous and confidential Integrity Hotline, which is open 24 hours a day, every day, to report complaints.”
(UN Photo / Michal Novotny)