7 December 2018

Africa: Breaking - 'Boys Club' At UNAIDS Allowed for Sexual Harassment and Bullying - Report

The investigation of an independent panel recommends reviewing whether executive director Michel Sidibé should continue in his role.

An independent body has found "overwhelming evidence" that organisational culture at the United Nations's HIV body, UNAids, allowed for abuses of power, bullying and sexual harassment.

"UNAids mirrors the whole UN as a 'boys club' with hierarchical and patriarchal culture of discrimination, lack of transparency and accountability that enables harassment," said one official with ties to senior management at the UN body's Geneva secretariat.

"The leadership has a rhetoric for a harassment-free zone but do not push for it instead they are aware of sexist and sexualised remarks as if women were sexual objects."

The official, quoted in a report released Friday, was one of several hundred that participated in review of the body following years of allegations regarding sexual harassment. In response, the agency convened an independent panel of experts including gender activists to investigate claims. As part of this, the committee interacted with about 60% of UNAids secretariat staff either through in-person interviews, written submissions or via an online survey.

"The UNAids Secretariat is in crisis, a crisis which threatens its vital work", the panel found.

"The leaders, policies and processes at UNAids have failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power in UNAids."

The report is especially damaging when it comes to UNAids executive director Michel Sidibe. The panel credits Sidibe with being a passionate and effective advocate for groups, such as young women, who remain at a high risk for HIV infection.

But the committee says that his "personalised, patriarchal management style has, however, come at a significant cost to transparent due process within the UNAids secretariat and enabled a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power".

Sidibe may now be at risk of losing his job if the HIV body implements the panel's recommendation for a change of leadership. It adds that it has "no confidence that the current leadership can deliver cultural change" when it has been mostly responsible for the current situation.

The release of the report comes less than a day after the organisation issued a statement denying that it had ever offered economic compensation to complainants of sexual harassment in exchange for non-disclosure agreements.

In response to the report, UNAids says it is putting together what it describes as an agenda to transform the organisation into a "model working environment for all staff that ensures safety and inclusivity and upholds the highest standards of accountability and integrity."

Sidibe, in a 62-page response by management to the panel's findings, said he is committed to using this as an opportunity to strengthen engagement with staff.

"I know that not all of our staff, in all their diversity, are experiencing the inclusive work culture to which we aspire. And, as UNAids' most senior leader, I know that I am the most important role model. The ultimate responsibility for creating the culture we want is mine. Model behaviour starts with me", he wrote.

"I am committed to using this opportunity to reinforce the dialogue with our staff. And I am committed to using our own change going forward to show what is possible and inspire others, just as we are looking to others to inspire and inform our own efforts now."

Public health expert and activist Paula Donovan works with the organisation Aids-free World started by former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis. She called on UN General Secretary António Guterres to take action on the report and for increased independent oversight of the UN system as a whole.

"In 30 years, I have never heard of an independent report that delivered such a scathing indictment of internal UN leadership," she said in a statement.

"Sidibé and the inner circle that has been protecting him can no longer continue to lead UNAids. The report points to one brutally obvious conclusion: Abuse of power reigns when the UN is allowed to police itself."

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