The United Nations headquarters in New York. Photo by: United Nations / CC BY

UNITED NATIONS — A coalition of United Nations feminist staffers have raised concern over the tight timeline of the high-level U.N. task force on sexual harassment, and urged it to incorporate specialized expertise and experiences of victims — which they say has been lacking from the U.N.’s sexual harassment work.

The Chief Executives Board for Coordination task force, convened by U.N. chief António Guterres in November 2017, is expected to produce policy recommendations by October or November — ahead of its end-of-year deadline, and relatively fast for the U.N., observers have noted. The task force’s routine monthly work on examining existing policies and strengthening investigations capacity has so far been conducted behind closed doors.

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​"​The concern has been the task force and working groups have been set up and have moved quite quickly, which is welcome because we do all need to see movement on this, but what we have seen is a lot of​ the people on the working groups are from human resources or legal teams,” said Laura Turquet, manager of UN Women's flagship report, “Progress of the World's Women,” and coordinator of the U.N. Feminist Network.

“They absolutely have a place in coming up with new policies and processes, but we are making the case clearly [that] sexual harassment and assault is part of a continuum in gender-based violence and we need to understand this.”​

A petition launched by the U.N. Feminist Network this spring calls for new policies and procedures that engage victims and witnesses, specialized expertise and an adequate time frame for the task force to conduct its work.

“While we acknowledge the urgency of finding solutions, we are concerned that the CEB task force has been given too short a deadline and too few resources to devise an effective means to address this complex issue. The sequencing of interventions is critical,” the petition says.

A shift in response

The establishment of the task force is one of the steps, including a 24-hour staff helpline, Guterres has adopted in the last several months to address sexual harassment and abuse within the U.N. The U.N. has been since been dogged by accusations against some high-level officials such as Luiz Loures, the former Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS deputy executive director. The U.N. recently reopened the closed investigation into assault allegations against Loures, now retired, because of alleged interference by UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé. 

“What we have got in the U.N. is the U.N. basically controls the investigation, the U.N. makes the decision as to whether or not a person is going to be charged with the offense, and the U.N. decides if they are guilty or not,” said Peter Gallo, a former investigator with the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services. “What the Loures case showed is what happens when someone senior is investigated. The decision is made by his mates.”

Allegations of sexual harassment and assault are handled internally at the U.N. Some cases have been known to drag on for several years, especially if the rulings are appealed. Surveyed U.N. staffers have cited concerns reporting harassment or assault, and there are reports of poor protection for whistleblowers.

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The task force’s ongoing work comes as the International Labour Organization announced last week it is planning to adopt a convention on “violence and harassment in the world of work” in 2019.

“We need to get out own house in order, in view of the fact that from next year, there will likely be a legally binding ILO convention on preventing and responding to violence against women and men in the world of work,” Turquet said.

And an investigation into the CEB task force’s own head, Jan Beagle, for harassment and bullying — now being appealed by a former U.N. staffer — could place additional pressure on the task force’s results. Beagle has denied the allegations.

“It is a collective — and urgent — priority to prevent sexual harassment, to support those affected by it and to ensure that allegations are responded to appropriately and in a timely fashion. That is why we are uniting across the system with urgency to strengthen our approach,” Beagle wrote to Devex in an email.

The process

The CEB task force, composed of 30 senior U.N. representatives from different entities, has been working to institute “fast-track” procedures to address complaints, and harmonizing different U.N. sexual harassment policies, which vary across agencies and offices. This could include establishing better procedures for investigating allegations against U.N. staffers no longer working for the U.N., regardless of the timeframe.

The U.N. Feminist Network has met with Beagle to discuss their recommendations, and Beagle has agreed to integrate a list of technical experts they generated into the organization’s six working groups.

There is also ongoing recruitment of additional investigators within OIOS, and “particular attention is being given to increasing the numbers of specialized and female investigators,” according to Beagle. OIOS is tasked with investigating harassment incidents from within the U.N. Secretariat.

Purna Sen, the spokesperson for sexual harassment at UN Women, says that gaining this technical expertise is an “extremely important step.”

“I think one of the outcomes of this process will be a fuller, more holistic, and nuanced understanding of what sexual harassment is. The OIOS team itself is recruiting, but they have not had that expertise to date,” she said.

The task force’s work is broken down into working groups focusing on policy, communications and training, helplines/hotlines, guidelines for managers, improved reporting, and guidelines for a sexual harassment screening database. It will continue to work to follow up on its recommendations after it releases its formal recommendations.

Victims of sexual harassment and assault at the U.N. have not been present at any of the task force meetings, but their experiences have been incorporated into the work, U.N. officials familiar with its proceedings say.

“There is a need for improved communication and outreach to ensure all staff — both those affected and those who witness harassment — know what to do and where to go for support and assistance. That is why the secretary-general, and the CEB task force, has taken and will continue to take steps to boost support for victims, to enhance the protection of whistleblowers and to improve mechanisms of reporting and investigation of allegations,” Beagle said.

The U.N. Feminist Network is calling for Guterres to hold a town hall meeting with all staff, who could share their experiences.

“We ​need to listen to the voices of survivors and witnesses, and ensure their perspective on what is going on is heard loud and clear,” Turquet said.

While Sen acknowledged that the task force’s work could seem “opaque” to those not involved, its findings and recommendations could result in a boost of sexual harassment reports.

“Organizationally, we have to be mature enough to understand that is a good thing,” she said. “My sense is that there is a pressure on the processes, to deliver what you are promising.”

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.