Opinion: Judge and juror — the UN system is failing the women who blow the whistle on sexual harassment

The United Nations headquarters. Photo by: Ashitaka San / CC BY-NC

Who do we remember from the #MeToo story of the decade — Rowena Chiu or Harvey Weinstein? Most people will recognize the name Harvey Weinstein as that of a serial predator of women. Yet do we remember the women who speak up?

As #MeToo swept the globe, some of the most appalling stories of abuse emerged from the United Nations. These abuses thrive in the U.N. due to its unique structure that prevents accountability and transparency.

In matters of workplace sexual harassment, the U.N. investigates and reports to itself. By being both party and judge of the proceedings, establishing both the rules and their application, and failing to have the expertise to support survivors throughout the process, the internal U.N. justice system can hardly be called justice at all.

As highlighted by Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS executive director, in July: “We have a flawed justice system that doesn't take care of the victim. That is just about the rules, and the rules are not fairly weighed in the interest of the justice of somebody who has suffered abuse of power.”

What we must ask as an international community is whether these actions achieve justice for survivors and go far enough to prevent future abuse.

Investigations into abuse are often called by U.N. entities to “calm” media storms that erupt after stories emerge. This is exemplified by the case of UNAIDS, when in February 2018, the media reported on alleged sexual harassment by its then-Deputy Executive Director Luiz Loures, who denies the allegations. After intense pressure, in a letter to women’s rights organizations, the U.N. secretary-general’s office welcomed launching a broader investigation into allegations. What the letter did not say is that these investigations take years to complete and that U.N. officials know — what many survivors do not — that they are under no obligation to release their findings.

A woman reports sexual harassment. Her contract is ended 10 days later.

Humanitarian group Medair said it could not protect the woman from further harassment, so it sent her home.

In fact, precedence indicates that they do not. Not to the women who spoke out, not their governing board, to no one. Also unsaid is that while the findings remain private, the names of the staff members who provided testimony are visible to the agency. The asymmetry of power is undeniable.

After two years, this past August, the UNAIDS investigation concluded silently. To date, there has been no public acknowledgement that the report even exists and requests for access were denied on the grounds that “conditions” prevented its release. The system is, quite simply, designed to let these cases die a slow and silent death. While UNAIDS has rolled out a management plan in response, it is limited to focusing on internal management solutions and none of the 25 actions focus on supporting survivors. Furthermore, to our knowledge, none of the women who spoke out remain employed by UNAIDS. Within the organization, their tale has become a cautionary one.

The case of UNAIDS is symptomatic of the abuse and silencing of survivors and whistleblowers, endemic in the U.N. In a recent survey 28% of respondents said they feared retaliation if they reported on sexual exploitation and abuse.

Most recently, when the World Health Organization faced allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it set out along a similar path to UNAIDS in 2018: establish an independent panel and commit to zero tolerance. While on face value none of these actions appear out of place, history warns against putting faith in well-crafted words. Panels, task forces, and revised plans all form part of the U.N. arsenal of defense against allegations. Whether they are well-intentioned is not the question. What we must ask as an international community is whether these actions achieve justice for survivors and go far enough to prevent future abuse.

Nov. 25 to Dec. 10 marks the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. The theme “From Awareness to Accountability” demands that we shine a light on the consequences for victims of abuse when accountability is absent.

During this years’ 16-day campaign our call is two-fold:

First, accountability and transparency within the U.N. systems and external independent processes to investigate and report, that meet the standards for survivor-centered approaches.

Second, the need for active support for survivors — both when allegations are made and in the aftermath. Recognize how the experience of each survivor is shaped by intersectional identities and equip them with the psychological, legal, and social support they need.

The U.N. is the custodian and standard setter for the human rights of women and girls. Yet, from the tired tagline of “zero tolerance” to assurances of “survivor-centered approaches,” the U.N. will continue to fall short of its own rhetoric until the international community holds it accountable publicly and unwaveringly.

Update, Dec 4, 2020: This article has been updated to include additional details of the UNAIDS case.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Claudia Ahumada

    Claudia Ahumada is a global human rights lawyer and gender expert from Chile and Canada, specializing in participatory change. Working at the intersection of rights and evidence, she has built capacity and developed resources to meaningfully mainstream gender and diversity across change efforts. She is the lead of partnerships at GENDRO. A former UNAIDS staff member, she denounced the institutional actions taken to discredit women who spoke out against harassment.
  • Malayah Harper

    Malayah Harper is a global health and women's rights expert and a powerful voice of #MeToo. She is an executive in residence at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, an adviser for Fair Share of Women Leaders, a founding board member and global champion for SheDecides, and the incoming director of sexual and reproductive health and rights at EngenderHealth. She is the previous director of gender equality and diversity at UNAIDS. She was the first woman to waive her right to anonymity and speak publicly about sexual harassment at UNAIDS in 2018.