Agnès Marcaillou, director at the United Nations Mine Action Service. Photo by: Violaine Martin / U.N. Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Staff at the United Nations Mine Action Service say they fear little is being done to protect them after allegations of bullying and harassment under Director Agnès Marcaillou sparked an internal review.

The U.N. body helps clear minefields and improvised explosive devices, and dispose of unexploded weapons and ammunition around the world. It boasts James Bond actor Daniel Craig as its global advocate.

“Mine action is a niche field and the work UNMAS does with so little resources is impressive, but having people leaving because of [Marcaillou] … has a direct impact on the work we are trying to do.”

— Former UNMAS staffer

Sources say Marcaillou, a French national who has led UNMAS since 2012, stands accused of years of bullying and harassment, allegedly contributing to a number of staff resignations. Current and former staff said complaints have been made through different U.N. channels regarding the 60-year-old’s behavior over the last six years, but they believe she has been protected because of the international politics surrounding the appointment of senior U.N. officials.

A spokesperson for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which oversees UNMAS, would not confirm or deny that complaints had been made, saying “the organization does not comment on possible internal processes, as such matters are confidential.” 

However, staff concerns have made their way to at least one of UNMAS’ biggest donors. A spokesperson for the U.K. Department for International Development told Devex it had a complaint about the agency through its safeguarding unit in March, and that it is waiting for more information.

“There’s a toxic culture of fear, public humiliation, and intimidation in UNMAS because of [Marcaillou] … People’s careers but also the reputation of UNMAS in the sector are at stake,” one staff member who still works for the agency told Devex.

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A two-month internal review of the demining agency’s leadership and work environment was launched in February, according to an email sent to staff by Marcaillou’s boss, Assistant Secretary-General for Rule of Law and Security Institutions Alexandre Zouev, and seen by Devex. 

On Tuesday evening, a follow-up email was sent in which Zouev acknowledged that “a difficult working environment [has] emerged in some parts of UNMAS” and said, “there are many factors which could have contributed to this situation.”

He announced a 14-month action plan including management coaching, a potential restructuring, and a “fact-finding investigation panel” to look into all existing complaints.

The response was met with disappointment from staff, however, who said it means Marcaillou “won’t be going anywhere” and that it shows the U.N.’s leaders have “closed ranks” to protect her.

They also said they are afraid of what Marcaillou — who multiple sources said has previously threatened to punish those who complain about her — could do next. These sources spoke to Devex on the condition of anonymity because of those concerns. Last week, following questions from Devex, UNMAS staff were sent an email warning them not to speak to the media, quoting U.N. regulations on press engagement.

“Staff are speechless, disappointed, and fear what will now happen,” one former staffer told Devex in relation to the outcome of the internal review.

In an email to Devex, Zouev declined to comment on “internal processes that may or may not be ongoing” but did write that “the management of the Department of Peace Operations takes every report of harassment and abuse of authority very seriously and it is a priority for us to ensure that any and all necessary actions are taken to address such cases.”

Marcaillou also declined to be interviewed for this piece. But one former staffer defended the director, saying she had helped to professionalize and diversify the department, which was known for a macho drinking culture earning it the nickname, “U.N. Wine Action Service.” The source also said that while Marcaillou was a “flawed manager,” she was not the only bad manager in the U.N. and that the system is to blame.

“The problem is deeper than Agnès and UNMAS; it’s the structure. The U.N. has known about the issue with Agnès for years … She’s also a victim of the lack of institutional support, such as positive leadership and role models, and maturity within the system,” the former staffer said.

The U.N. has been criticized for failing to protect whistleblowers from retaliation in the past but said it is working to make it safer and easier for staff to come forward without fear.

Even in recent times, however, the head of the U.N. AIDS agency, Michel Sidibé, was allowed to keep his job despite the damning findings of an independent report which claimed the director failed to prevent or respond to allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power. Sidibé did not immediately resign but stayed in the job for another six months — leaving in May to become Mali’s health minister — raising questions about the U.N.’s internal accountability systems.

Founded in 1997 and headquartered in New York, United States, UNMAS has 17 operations around the world and also has staff in Geneva, Switzerland. It acts as the focal point for the U.N.’s work on landmines, coordinating the work of 12 different agencies.

Marcaillou is also said to have behaved aggressively toward people outside of UNMAS. Insiders within the tight-knit landmine clearance community described her unpopularity as an “open secret.”

A former U.N. landmine expert who worked closely with Marcaillou said that people in the industry had “high hopes” for her when she joined as the agency’s first female director. However, they quickly became disenchanted after witnessing her “bully” staff and others and said the atmosphere within UNMAS soon became “corrosive.”

“She should never have lasted very long ... It’s a travesty really,” the source added.

Marcaillou, who has worked in the U.N. for more than 30 years, including in the Office for Disarmament Affairs, has spoken about the bullying allegations in the past. In a speech to staff at the UNMAS headquarters in New York in December, she appeared to downplay the complaints as being from the “unhappy few” and blamed different working styles and cultures for some of the issues.

“If I made some of you, here at HQ, in Geneva, and elsewhere, unhappy to the point that you want me fired, I am awfully sorry, sad, and dismayed,” she said, adding that “some of the grievances are related to the fact that my standards are too high; that I am overly demanding.”

The UNMAS boss also said their complaints were damaging the department and its work.

“I want to appeal to those of you who have shared their discontent ... to please not break UNMAS … do not undermine what most colleagues have worked so hard for … We all owe it to affected communities, to donors, and to those colleagues, a majority of colleagues, who just want to do their work and do not want to be dragged into corridor talks, uncomfortable phone conversations, rumors, and schemes,” she said.

Staff said they were disappointed when Marcaillou did not retire after turning 60 last year. The U.N. recently extended its retirement age which means she could stay on until aged 62 or 65. A U.N. spokesperson said they could not comment on human resources issues.

Subsequently, UNMAS staff had pinned their hopes on the internal review, which included interviews with 60 staffers to evaluate “staff-management relations” and the work environment at UNMAS.

However, the outcome of the process, as described in Zouev’s latest email to staff, has only reinforced the belief that the director is “untouchable,” one UNMAS employee said.

Another source, who worked at the demining agency until recently, said they suspected that Marcaillou would keep her job because of member state “politics” within the U.N. system. Removing such a senior U.N. official would be a “significant embarrassment” for all involved, they said.

“The politics is getting in the way of the mission of the organization by not addressing something that has been going on since she arrived,” they said, adding that “mine action is a niche field and the work UNMAS does with so little resources is impressive, but having people leaving because of her … has a direct impact on the work we are trying to do.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.