United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March. Photo by: UN Women / Ryan Brown 

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations’ current policy on sexual harassment and its internal processes to investigate such allegations “is not enough” by itself to combat the problem, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has written in a letter to all United Nations staff.

The message, which speaks to a “duty and obligation” to create a work environment that is “welcoming to all, where everyone feels valued,” is the first word from the U.N. chief on sexual harassment and abuse following the slew of allegations against some major Hollywood, media, political, and international aid figures in recent weeks.

“The United Nations has a clear policy on sexual harassment and a process to investigate allegations in a fair and confidential manner, with firm sanctions at the organisations disposal. However, this in itself is not enough,” he wrote.

Guterres co-signed the letter, dated October 31, with 14 leaders of U.N. staff unions and councils.

“We should therefore reflect on our everyday behaviour and what we can do better as staff and as managers. Key to this is understanding that harassment covers a wide range of actions; that this includes unpleasant and inappropriate comments or suggestive remarks; and that colleagues who receive such remarks may be offended, humiliated or discouraged, even if they don’t say so,” the document, issued to all staff members, reads. “Many staff, both victims and witnesses, accept this as an everyday reality. But this should not be so.”

The recent, myriad of sexual harassment and abuse charges against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein are having a ripple effect at the United Nations, says Ian Richards, the Geneva-based president of the Coordinating Committee for International Staff Unions and Associations. This week, the Times also reported sexual harassment allegations against several managers of Oxfam International.

“Since the allegations have come out in the film industry, and with the media campaign on social media #MeToo, I’ve been having a chat with a lot of female colleagues and asking them, ‘Have you been sexually harassed?’ A lot of them have replied, ‘Yes,’” Richards told Devex. “And a lot of what they suffer is related to a lot of moments and remarks, things said to them that male colleagues would not be experiencing, like if they are sitting on a podium and someone says, ‘You should smile more.’”

“I’m finding that colleagues are much more comfortable talking about it now than they were three or four weeks ago.”

Guterres, so far, has not issued a public statement mirroring the internal letter. U.N. Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recently wrote on the #MeToo movement, which has prompted 1.7 million women and men to share their experiences of harassment, assault, or abuse on Twitter. “What we are seeing currently ... is a validation of the rightness of speaking out,” she wrote.

The U.N. letter includes links to the various internal resources and offices that U.N. staff can connect with if they have been harassed or assaulted: the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Service, the Ethics Office, and the Staff Counsellor’s Office. The formal pursuit of a harassment or an assault claim will follow the similar path of reporting the case to the Office of Internal Oversight Services for an investigation, or possibly the Office of Human Resources Management.

The letter’s tone and wording is intended to focus on preventative measures and the need for a safe and respectful work environment, Richards said.

“It’s about: let’s all keep our eyes opening to what is happening every day and change our behaviors, thinking about how widespread this problem is,” he explained. “If we can understand the scope of this, then we can do it.”         

The U.N. does not have an explicit zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment and abuse for staffers. It does, however, maintain a zero tolerance policy for peacekeeping uniformed personnel and civilian staff, long recognized as a problem at the U.N. The U.N. documented a collective 145 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse from these units last year. This spring, Guterres released a victim-centric plan that would penalize troop-contributing countries for inaction and prioritizes victim’s rights.

The U.N. outlined its staff regulations regarding sexual harassment and abuse in a 2008 document, which describes standards for staff members and protocols for preventative and corrective measures. All staff members “are expected to act with tolerance, sensitivity and respect for differences. Any form of prohibited conduct in the workplace or in connection with work is a violation of these principles and may lead to disciplinary action,” the regulations read.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.