What will it take for the UN Secretary-General to fire the Head of UNAIDS?

December 11, 2018 News , OPINION/NEWS

Reuters photo



Code Blue



UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Friday issued a formal response through his spokesperson to the scathing Independent Expert Panel (IEP) report into sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power at UNAIDS, which was released last week in Geneva. The report calls explicitly for the removal of Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS.


Incredibly and implausibly, Mr. Guterres encouraged the members of the media “to read the press release” issued by Mr. Sidibé, which “clearly outlines everything he’s done and will continue to do to create a model working environment for all staff that ensures safety and inclusivity.”



What does it take to be fired from the United Nations?


The IEP report excoriates the senior leadership of UNAIDS, noting over and over the failings of Mr. Sidibé, who “has created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority and in his interviews with the Panel he accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review.” It beggars belief that Mr. Guterres has decided to abdicate his responsibility to end the ongoing crisis at UNAIDS. This is outrageous.


The following quotes from the IEP report provide but a glimpse of the dysfunction that permeates UNAIDS with the apparent indifference of the UN Secretary-General:



A selection of quotes from the Independent Expert Panel on Prevention of and response to harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power at UNAIDS Secretariat:



Culture and leadership


  • “The Executive Director of the UNAIDS Secretariat has created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority and in his interviews with the Panel he accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review.” Page 20


  • “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.” Page 20


  • “The evidence before the Independent Expert Panel of a broken organisational culture is overwhelming.” Page 3


  •  “…staff have consistently described UNAIDS leadership as characterised by charisma, influenced by a personality cult, patronage, and favouritism rather than by UN human rights-based laws and policies.” Page 23


  • “The failure of leadership to meet its responsibilities is reflected in repeated examples of favouritism, preferment, and ethical blindness.” Page 4


  • “The leadership of UNAIDS has enabled a culture of preferment, non-transparency and circumvention of process that has allowed others to operate with impunity and retaliation against those who speak up.” Page 27


  • “The willingness of the Executive Director and senior staff to adopt reforms in the future is at odds with their notable failure to reflect upon their personal responsibility for shaping the culture of UNAIDS. Rather, the emphasis of the UNAIDS leadership has been to blame the ‘UN system’ and its complex regime of complaints handling. Such attitudes are neither credible nor good enough.” Page 24


  • “Many staff within UNAIDS offices attest to a work culture of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation against those who speak up about harassment and abuse of power.” Page 3


  • “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…” Page 27


  • “The Panel believes that for the recommendations to be genuinely implemented and UNAIDS to regain a culture of dignity and respect, a change in leadership has become necessary.” Page 51


  • “None has accepted any responsibility to change the culture, even those senior staff who have been in their position over many years.” Page 28




Inadequate UNAIDS systems


  • “A culture of abuse.. has been enabled by…a patchwork of complaint and reform strategies that has bandaged over the need to reform an often-toxic workplace culture.” Page 34


  • “…the Human Resources Strategy presents the impression of an organisation that has no risks and no special need for attention to the problems of harassment, bullying and abuse of authority.”  Page 31


  • “…the oft-repeated management assurance of ‘zero tolerance for sexual harassment and abuse’ is little more than a slogan with no real action or programmes to support it.” Page 31




Need for independent mechanisms


  • “Recent initiatives taken by the UNAIDS Secretariat, particularly the 5+ Point Plan, are little more than bandaids that do not address serious, long-standing and systemic problems.” Page 3


  • “There is no process that is independent of management or offers true redress proportionate to the nature of the different types of misconduct.” Page 20


  • “The unqualified and wide discretion vested in the Executive Director renders the entire resolution process at risk of real or perceived claims of bias and interference—and the values of the UN cannot be upheld by such a system.” Page 43


  • “No part of the current redress and disciplinary process has operational independence including the investigation mechanism. The independence of the entire process is compromised and renders it susceptible to charges of bias and influence.” Page 43


  • “The Panel believes it is vital that staff members have ready access to a complaint and redress regime that is entirely independent of the management of UNAIDS/WHO.” Page 40


  • “The Panel recommends establishing an independent body external to UNAIDS where complaints of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power in all its forms are first received. Such an external body should have independence from UNAIDS and the authority to establish a safe, confidential means of fact-finding, investigation and conciliation. It should have the power to access relevant documents and witnesses and to impose appropriate sanctions. Allegations of serious misconduct should be determined by reference to a standard of proof on the balance of probabilities, or similar. […] The mechanism must be resourced with a sufficient number of qualified and trained professionals and the global reach to be accessible to all staff.” Page 53


  • “Another model would be to create a single independent body with a mandate to consider complaints from UN staff with powers encompassing all UN agencies and bodies.” Page 54


  • “The Panel recognizes that Member States may not be open to some form of independent accountability mechanism with a mandate to oversee UN investigation and complaint processes. However, when organisations of the UN system are damaged in public perceptions, as UNAIDS has been, the credibility and purposes of the UN globally are weakened. The Member States have a responsibility to ensure that they meet best practice in responding to abuses and harassment, and should provide leadership at a time when many within the global community—including civil society partners—are speaking up for equality, justice and respect in the work place and demanding accountability.” Page 54




Discouraged reporting


  • “Staff members have been moved after they made a complaint of harassment, while the alleged harasser was promoted; Staff were told they should be “careful” when considering making a complaint; Staff were told that a report of harassment may be unwise.” Page 35




Structural failure to understand harassment


  • “This approach displays a serious misunderstanding of the nature and gravity of harassment which inherently involves structural abuse of power and power inequivalence” Page 38


  • “The unmistakeable message to staff is that the burden is on them. Any failure to resolve the grievance is seen as a personal failing, as reflecting an overreaction to the situation causing their grievance.” Page 38




Concentration of power


  • “The authority invested in the Executive Director position is formidable.” Page 20


  • “Staff who have close ties to senior management are seen as having opportunities and as untouchable when it comes to misbehaviour and abuse of staff.” Page 29





See also: Code Blue’s Spotlight on UNAIDS






AIDS-Free World is an international advocacy organization devoted to exposing and addressing injustice, abuse, and inequality. Its Code Blue Campaign aims to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel.

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