The murky process of reporting sexual harassment at the UN

Photo by: Gabriel Rodríguez / CC BY-SA

UNITED NATIONS — There is no single, clear path to pursue reporting sexual harassment or assault within the United Nations.

The #AidToo movement in the development and aid sector, along with recent departures of several top U.N. officials, has captured the attention of U.N. leadership, making it increasingly easier to follow through on reporting incidents, some experts say. But others say it still remains a murky process that can be tricky to navigate — and even more challenging to count on when it comes to clear results and accountability.

“You need a high standard of proof, and the way the U.N. wishes to conduct investigations does not lend itself to that degree of high proof. You are required to prove a sex offense with clear evidence, but it could boil down to, ‘he said, she said,’” commented Peter Gallo, former investigator in the investigations division of the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services.

The U.N. launched a 24-hour helpline earlier this year to offer U.N. staffers more information on all available reporting channels. Around the same time, the World Food Programme updated their policies to make reporting harassment, sexual harassment, and abuse of authority easier by extending the period of time during which people can report, and allowing staffers to do so anonymously.

Changing procedures across UN entities

Policies vary across individual U.N. agencies and bodies, leading to the potential for confusion. U.N. agencies have their own internal, individual process for reporting. But staffers outside of the U.N. Secretariat generally look to agency-specific ombudsman, human resources officers or their superiors, to report sexual harassment.

The U.N. separates sexual harassment (any unwelcome sexual behavior between U.N. staff) from sexual exploitation and abuse (a violation of non-U.N. staff) — a distinction that does not make sense to some, such as Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, which researches and tracks sex exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers.

Choosing the best route to report sexual harassment can become especially complicated if an alleged victim is working in the field, away from a central office. In other cases, the reporting might be outsourced. The U.N. Office for Project Services in Europe handles human resources for the Nairobi-based headquarters of the U.N. Environment Programme.

The fractured U.N. system is not well positioned to make the process user-friendly, said one senior U.N. official with knowledge of sexual harassment procedures.

“If you have to report it through your immediate hierarchy, there is a conflict of interest there — possibly a conflict [of] interest and capacity issue going through HR. The ombudsman is somebody considered to be close to the management,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic.

“Basically, the system up until now has not been very friendly. It is not very user-friendly, especially for somebody who is possibly traumatized, possibly depressed, or having a difficult time.”

Concerns among staff that reporting sexual harassment would hinder their career growth could also lead to low reporting rates, according to the same official.

Low reporting rates and lack of available data

The U.N. does not release public figures on internal sexual harassment or assault.

Last year, the U.N. reported that there were 65 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving civilians in 2017, while 80 additional allegations were made against U.N. uniformed personnel.

“We feel certain that not all cases are reported,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in his report to the U.N. General Assembly.

The majority of sexual exploitation and abuse cases are committed by people from U.N. civilian organizations, not peacekeeping operations, Guterres said, and has since signaled the U.N. current policy on handling sexual harassment and assault as “not enough.” He has set up a task force on sexual harassment to review and improve policies.

Forty-five percent of U.N. staffers surveyed late last year said they believed they would be protected if they reported misconduct or cooperate with an investigation, according to a leaked U.N. survey.

Stringent procedures mean that few sexual harassment or assault cases reach OIOS, Gallo said.

“The numbers were tiny with these cases and this was one of the issues. The reason is a lot of people don’t know, or will not report. We were only getting ones that trickle through the system,” he continued.

Cases involving contractors would be considered management issues, and be referred to the legal department. An unreasonably high standard of proof means survivors would have to identify perpetrators, which may be impossible.

“In the U.N., unless the facts are laid out — and actually got an accused person to start with — these cases are not being identified,” Gallo said. “The way the U.N. wishes to conduct investigations does not lend itself to that degree of high proof. It likes to reduce everything to procedure, believes investigation consists of writing down a series of questions and interviewing witnesses only once.”

Underreporting is a problem at the WFP, concedes its Director of Human Resources John Aylieff.

“People told us of cases — staff members, survivors of abusive conduct — and felt that they were not confident to come forward for one reason or another. It could be because they had a contract that they felt was less secure,” Aylieff said.

“We were concerned by underreporting and we were concerned employees were fearful to speak up.”

Last year, the WFP fired one employee and suspended another for sexual harassment. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported it fired two staff members, while the U.N. International Children’s Fund reportedly had four allegations in 2017, resulting in the departure of two people.

Sexual harassment cases have been increasing at the U.N. Population Fund over the past six years, and were at their highest in 2017, said Fabienne Lambert, director of office and audit investigation services at the fund. But the upward trend — possibly the result of more reporting — has not increased by “10 or 100 times,” she said.

Reporting procedures are clear, she continued. Incident reports — which need to be made within six months of an occurrence — will typically go through the office of audit and investigation services and reach the executive director if found substantiated.

“People know where to report. From what we have seen, people know where to go. And some come to us before making a formal complaint, [they] want to understand what will happen. Reporting is very emotional, not something someone does lightly,” Lambert finished.  

A new direction at the UN

Recognition that there was a need to change existing policy helped drive recent policy changes at the WFP. Staffers can now report at any time, not just six months within the date of an alleged incident. The reports can be anonymous and channeled through any number of informal networks, not just logged directly through the WFP’s office of the inspector general. Discrimination is also a new category of misconduct.

According to Aylieff, policy shifts alone won’t solve the problem.

“What we realize we need, is a broader cultural change. Cultural change and the responses we bring, is what is going to make the difference,” he said.

Heightened attention around sexual harassment and assault has increased “the quality and capacity of investigations teams” at the U.N., says lawyer, humanitarian, and sexual violence survivor Megan Norbert. She guides other humanitarians on reporting incidents and typically directs people first to agency ombudsman, who have a certain level of distance from organizations and are trained to respond to survivors confidentially.

“Having spoken with a lot of survivors, it does seem to be different now, even from a few years ago,” she said. “There has been a big move forward. Maybe I’m only hearing the good cases. But there has been a shift. [The U.N.] is less likely to throw things under the rug.”

It’s a different office landscape from what Joanne Sandler experienced while she was deputy executive director of programs for the U.N. Development Fund for Women, a predecessor agency to UN Women, from 2001 to 2010. At the time, she would respond to calls from country directors, who were unsure of how to handle sexual harassment and assault reports.

“We get calls from our country directors saying, ‘What should we do?’ There was no procedure. We did not have any dedicated resources ourselves, but at that point, I thought our role was to pressure the U.N. to have a system-wide policy.”

Investigations now can take longer to complete than survivors might like, but they are conducted with competence and sensitivity, reported Norbert.

While dismissals are becoming more common, it’s unlikely that any case will result in criminal accountability — especially if parties are citizens of different countries. Most countries will not prosecute someone in absentia, Norbert said.

“We are seeing increasingly people being fired for these things. If we start digging into the records — of Oxfam and other organizations — most of the individuals were fired. The impact of #MeToo is being felt and will continue to be felt in positive ways,” she finished.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York 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.