United Nations — The UN's heavily-hyped "zero tolerance" policy on sexual abuse is being ridiculed once again - this time with the abrupt resignation of the head of the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) who faced charges of sexual harassment and was the subject of an inquiry by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
The resignation of the ICSC chairman, Under-Secretary-General (USG) Kingston Rhodes, who holds one of the highest ranking jobs in the UN system, followed the release of the OIOS report to the ICSC last week.
But the contents of the report are under wraps since neither the OIOS nor ICSC have announced plans to go public with the results of the months-long investigations in an institution which has long preached "transparency and accountability" to the outside world.
The New York-based Equality Now, a non-governmental organization (NGO) which promotes women's rights, received an official email December 11 from the ICSC's Executive Secretary, Regina Pawlik, that the chair, Kingston Rhodes from Sierra Leone, is resigning, effective 14 December--about two weeks ahead of his planned retirement.
Antonia Kirkland, Legal Equality Global Lead at Equality Now, told IPS that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged months ago that the allegations against the Chair of the ICSC are "credible.,"
"So he should have done everything to protect his own staff from sexual harassment regardless of the Chair of the ICSC, or anyone else's, technical employment status vis-a-vis the UN."
She said the UN's zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment should apply to all, without exception, with survivors and their interests at the center.
"All those who have been found to perpetrate sexual harassment should be held accountable. The UN is the premier international defender of human rights and should start by defending its own employees from sexual harassment in the workplace," said Kirkland.
Moreover, she pointed out, the Commissioners of the ICSC, whose meetings are funded by the UN, should have held the Chair accountable, first when the UN Secretary-General brought the allegations to their attention almost 10 months ago.
"The fact that the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) report took a year to be completed and shared with the ICSC Commissioners, and has never been shared with the complainant, is unacceptable," she added.
The ICSC is described as an independent expert body established by the 193- member UN General Assembly, and its mandate is to regulate and coordinate the conditions of service of staff in the United Nations common system, while promoting and maintaining high standards in the international civil service.
At a press briefing December 11, UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq was asked about the OIOS investigation.
Question: "So, there is a report submitted by OIOS... but will the UN release its report, or how will it address it, in the name of transparency". As you know, responded Haq, "the ICSC is outside of the United Nations itself".
"The report has been submitted to them, and it's up to them to respond. Ultimately, I don't speak for them; so, I can't answer questions about what they may do," he added.
Paula Donovan, a women's rights activist and co-Director of AIDS-Free World and Code Blue Campaign, told IPS "for months, my question about this ICSC saga has been: "Why, when the UN constantly cites the need for more and better-qualified investigators at OIOS, are they farming out the UN's over-stretched investigators' services to any entity that, according to the SG's spokesperson, isn't part of the UN?"
"It's become second nature for the UN to respond to any question related to sexual abuse in ways that test public confidence in the organization's relationship with the truth," declared Donovan, a former UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
When allegations of sexual harassment were made against the ICSC last November, the United Nations admitted that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has no jurisdiction over a UN body created by the General Assembly and answerable only to member states.
Kirkland of Equality Now told IPS: "When the complainant went to the UN Ethics Office to complain about retaliation, she was asked to transfer, rather than him being put on administrative leave, at the very least".
Indeed, it appears the Commissioners have allowed the Chairman to resign quietly, on the day of his farewell party this Friday (replacing the annual holiday party), rather than terminating him. This comes just before the end of his term on the 31st and sends the wrong message that powerful men can harass UN female staff with impunity," she added.
In a statement to IPS, Equality Now identified the complainant as Shihana Mohamed, a Human Resources Policies Officer who has been working with ICSC since 2005 and in the UN system for over 20 years.
She told Equality Now: "I was sexually harassed by the Chairman of the ICSC for over 10 years - and I was not the only one. Because I said "NO" to his repeated sexual advances, he denied me promotions, and excluded me from duty travels, training, assignments, projects, Commission sessions and working groups"
"In 2016, I was on sick leave for 3-months due to the stress caused by the hostile office environment and retaliation by the ICSC management."
"His quiet resignation just two weeks before the end of his term is a slap in my face and barely a slap on his wrist. It is very sad that the ICSC, a jointly-funded body with a mandate to cover all facets of UN staff employment conditions, failed to make Mr. Rhodes accountable for his misconduct."
Also, the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly have said that they do not have any jurisdiction over the ICSC Chairman who is a UN official elected by the General Assembly.
"Then, my question is, who has the jurisdiction over him? Can this one person stand above all the rules, regulation and UN values as well as with no checks and balances while dealing with public funds and trust?," she asked.
Messages to Rhodes and to his Vice Chairman Aldo Mantovani, seeking comments, went unanswered.
Meanwhile, Peter A. Gallo, the Legal Counsel to Shihana Mohamed, said in a statement released December 13, that he had formally requested the Secretary-General waive the immunity of Rhodes.
"I have not received any response to that request. Mr. Rhodes is not a "UN staff member" as such, but enjoys the protection of the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities," he said.
"The United Nations has often denied that they use that Convention as a mechanism to protect sexual offenders, but the Secretary-General's failure to act on this request shows that is not the case," said Gallo, himself a former OIOS investigator.
He pointed out that the sexual harassment complaint against Rhodes was made twelve months ago.
"The pertinent UN rules state that such investigations should normally be completed within three months, but I have been informed by Investigations Director, Mr. Ben Swanson of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services ("OIOS") confirming that while a complaint was received in November 2017, the investigation was not actually commenced for another five months while the Organization delayed making a decision on whether Mr. Rhodes could actually be investigated. The OIOS investigation then took a further seven months."
In June this year, said Gallo, the "Secretary-General acknowledged that the evidence against Mr. Rhodes was "credible" and "serious" - but although he may not have the authority to discipline the ICSC Chairman, the Secretary-General does have the authority - and indeed the duty - to waive the immunity and leave the matter to the legal system in New York: but has been unwilling to do so."
He said "to allow the subject of an sexual harassment investigation to avoid being held accountable for his actions by simply accepting his resignation less than ten working days before he was due to retire anyway is a patent insult to every woman working in the UN system, and shows the utter futility of victims relying on the UN to hold perpetrators accountable for misconduct."