The UN pledged to tackle sexual harassment. The work remains incomplete, experts say

The U.N. has enacted various procedural reforms on reporting and investigating workplace harassment over the last few years, but victim-centered support has not fully materialized. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

Purna Sen took on the high-profile role of executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination at UN Women in 2018, as calls to end harassment and abuse within the aid industry reached a crescendo.

But a little more than two years later, Sen left in frustration over inadequate funding and institutional support. UN Women then quietly terminated the position, distributing some of Sen’s advocacy work to its two deputy executive directors — even as record numbers of United Nations staffers reported harassment.

“The organization provided a lot of hope to people experiencing sexual harassment when they created this role and said that the task is to put victims and survivors at the heart of the work. To close it without explanation or further engagement also sends a strong message,” Sen said. “Are you saying that this is no longer a priority? That would be a reasonable conclusion. Are they saying sexual harassment doesn’t happen anymore?”

The U.N. has enacted various procedural reforms on reporting and investigating workplace harassment over the last few years, following a series of allegations against top U.N. officials and concern about convoluted reporting practices. But reporting misconduct is still fraught with unnecessary complications and deterrents, experts say. And the victim-centered support once promised to U.N. employees has not fully materialized, according to former and current U.N. staffers.

Meanwhile, ongoing allegations of workplace misconduct by senior U.N. officials — including, just last month, Fabrizio Hochschild, special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres — indicate that the problem has not gone away.

"I can't see that anything has changed in the investigative system. The approach within the U.N. is to work on organizational management responses, such as putting in hotlines. There has been no meaningful action to support and protect survivors or whistleblowers, and, as result, people will not come forward and report,” said Malayah Harper, formerly director of gender equality and diversity at UNAIDS and currently director for sexual and reproductive health and rights at EngenderHealth.

Amid policy changes, continued gaps

According to an internal, leaked staff survey conducted in 2018, 1 in 3 U.N. workers reported that they had been sexually harassed at some point over the previous two years.

Also that year, the U.N. adopted new guidance on sexual harassment. The international body formalized the possibility for anonymous reporting, set up a 24-hour reporting hotline, and created new investigator positions with specialized training in harassment. Guterres established a chief executives board task force on sexual harassment, which last issued a policy update in 2018.

“Attention has shifted elsewhere [at the U.N.] as Black Lives Matter and conversations around racism have really shaken things up over the last year … And I worry that that means something like this falls off the table.”

— Purna Sen, former executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, UN Women

Individual U.N. agencies, such as the World Food Programme, lifted standard six-month deadlines on filing reports, among other changes.

These were “all good steps, in my view,” Sen said.

But there were policy gaps that advocates like Sen could not succeed in reforming.

Sen proposed providing legal representation for anyone presenting a complaint and switching an alleged perpetrator to unpaid leave after a period of time, among other changes, but those were not incorporated into Guterres’ updated 2019 policy. Similarly, Guterres has not appointed a single high-level official to lead on internal sexual harassment work, in contrast to the leadership he set up on sexual exploitation and abuse, which only covers sexual violence and misconduct perpetrated by U.N. personnel on people outside the U.N. system.

“People feel suspicion in the investigative system and process. They don’t feel it is truly independent. And it’s very hard, if you know the people doing the investigations know your bosses and go out for drinks together — then any claims to independence, whether they have veracity or not, are hard to take in as genuine,” Sen said.

Guterres’ work on sexual harassment within the U.N. appears to have stagnated in the last year or so, according to the International Center for Research on Women, which issued its fourth report card on the U.N. chief’s work around gender equality in January.

“We saw a lot of initiatives come out in previous years, in 2017 and 2018, with a task force on sexual harassment and a systemwide policy, but that attention has dropped off. It is noticeable in Guterres’ speeches. He barely spoke about it in his remarks in 2020, and that was concerning,” said Spogmay Ahmed, global policy advocate at ICRW.

New challenges with new changes

Some of the specific policy changes, such as allowing anonymous reporting — which could mean someone calling the hotline and not revealing their name or simply not authorizing their name to be shared with anyone — created new hurdles in reporting and investigations.

“I have certainly heard investigative colleagues say: ‘It's really hard to pursue an anonymous report. We take them, but we can't really do much with them.’ So how an anonymous report plays out is something that I think needs more attention. The principle is fine, right? What does it look like in practice?” Sen said.

There are now five different channels to formally report harassment at the U.N. — the ombudsman’s office, ethics office, legal office, human resources, and the inspector general — in addition to options such as a hotline. While this should have made it easier for U.N. personnel who wish to file claims, it did not, according to Claudia Ahumada, a former UNAIDS staff member.

“In my experience, none functioned very well, were staffed by experts, or were accountable in telling you what actually happens with the information that you are giving to them. And none of them actually put in place measures to protect you as someone who is reporting harm being done either to you or that you are observing. So I think it’s getting worse,” Ahumada said.

WFP, for example, has offered training on sexual harassment over the last few years and informed personnel that they could report harassment or abuse complaints anonymously. But the agency has largely not detailed how investigators will pursue an anonymous complaint or how this could impact the end result of an investigation, according to a WFP senior staffer who asked to remain anonymous.

“The reality is the investigators often don’t pursue it, because if no one is willing to put a name on the complaint, they have nothing ultimately to conduct an investigation with evidence that can be presented to the accused, who has a right to know what he or she is accused of and, more importantly by whom (when the charge is harassment or abuse of power),” the staffer wrote to Devex.

“You cannot announce this big change and not say what the implications are of being anonymous. You mislead people,” the staffer continued.

The total number of complaints received by WFP’s Office of the Inspector General rose from 186 in 2017 to 584 in 2019. Anonymous reporting also rose during this time period.

“While I feel we have the capacity to deal with the volume of complaints that we receive, I don’t know how long that’s going to remain the case, where we are easily accepting an excess of 600, 650 complaints a year,” said Callum Weeks, director of inspections and investigations in WFP’s Office of the Inspector General.

“The approach within the U.N. is to work on organizational management responses, such as putting in hotlines. There has been no meaningful action to support and protect survivors or whistleblowers, and, as result, people will not come forward and report.”

— Malayah Harper, former director of gender equality and diversity, UNAIDS

The COVID-19 pandemic and remote work pose another “significant challenge” to collecting information and evidence in some cases, with virtual communication making it harder for investigators to build rapport with complainants and subjects of investigations, Weeks said.

Complaints at the U.N. Population Fund also increased after policy revisions in 2018 allowed for anonymous reporting, but “we’re not talking a major increase, a major tsunami, like some were predicting at the time,” said Fabienne Lambert, director of audit and investigation services at UNFPA.

Sen, who now works as a visiting professor at London Metropolitan University, noted the demand for her support and services while she was at UN Women from people who faced sexual harassment and also from those who encountered bullying or other forms of abuse.

“I would say: ‘I want to talk to you about abuse of authority and talk to you about bullying. But look, it's just me and a temporary assistant. I really can't do this breadth of work,’” which extended into policy reform and broader advocacy across the U.N. system, Sen said. She wound up not renewing her contract because she felt she could be of better use elsewhere. After she left, the office was closed.

UN Women responded to Devex’s question about closing Sen’s office, writing that the organization remains “fully committed to addressing the issue of sexual harassment.”

“This issue continues to require extensive attention and action, both internally within UN Women and the UN, as well as externally in our advocacy and programmatic work globally and this task has now been absorbed within the organizational structure instead of having it as an ‘ad hoc’ structure,” UN Women said in a statement to Devex.

Sen cautioned, though, that the broad, public calls for addressing sexual harassment within the U.N. have waned, without clear evidence of successful reform or an improved workplace culture.

“I think attention has shifted elsewhere [at the U.N.] as Black Lives Matter and conversations around racism have really shaken things up over the last year,” Sen said. “And I worry that that means something like this falls off the table instead of what should really happen, which is looking at how the same structures of inequality play out in different ways.”

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.