UN human rights office moves to tackle sexual harassment

A view of the entrance to Palais Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. human rights office will establish a volunteer network of in-house “first responders” to address inappropriate conduct, heeding the U.N. secretary-general’s call that more be done to combat sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.

Peers will act as confidential, trained representatives that offer staff and field workers for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights a new alternative for recourse if they experience abuse or harassment, an OHCHR email obtained by Devex reveals.

The OHCHR placed a call for confidential staffers to help implement the new policy, dubbed Dignity@Work, in an October internal email. The letter addresses the “need to do more,” beyond the work of human resources and the two staff councils responsible for responding to abuse and harassment incidents.

“Implementing our new policy means that individually and collectively we must (re)commit to treating each other with dignity and respect; to stand up to discrimination, abuse of authority, and to harassment in any form, including sexual harassment,” the message reads. “OHCHR managers and supervisors have the added duty to take appropriate measures to promote dignity at work, including by promoting a diverse workforce and an inclusive work environment in which there is zero tolerance for any and all prohibited conduct.”

The U.N. handles all reports of harassment and abuse — including violations of a sexual nature — through internal processes, and as in many industries there is considered to be a culture of underreporting the problem. This week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres signaled in a systemwide letter that the U.N. needs to look beyond its harassment and abuse policy and reflect on “everyday behaviour” in the workplace that could create a toxic or unsafe environment.

Moves like this from the Geneva-based OHCHR are among the first policy changes as sexual harassment and abuse facing aid workers has gained visibility in the last several months. Kate Gilmore, the deputy high commissioner of the U.N. human rights office, has described the problem as a “systemic calamity.” Last year, Gilmore was appointed co-champion of a new working group that is addressing how U.N. agencies and international nongovernmental organizations prevent and respond to harassment and abuse.

Staff acting as first responders would direct affected colleagues to the informal and formal options for action following an incident. The policy would also promote awareness raising and support analysis of trends and new strategies to “enhance accountability for negative behaviors,” according to the letter.

The first responders will begin training in December, when they will first “give initial advice on courses of action to staff members reporting prohibited conduct and refer them to competent mechanisms,” explained Saori Terada, an OHCHR policy officer for executive direction and management, and Veronica Birga, chief of the women’s human rights and gender section, in a joint email to Devex.  

“They will sign a confidentiality clause and help keep a record of cases brought informally to them for the office to track prevalence and incidence of prohibited conducts in OHCHR and more broadly in the U.N. system,” they continued.

The Dignity@Work policy resulted from work the OHCHR is undertaking with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) on sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers.

The policy commits all staff “individually and collectively” to treat others with dignity and respect, they said. It also places additional responsibility on OHCHR managers and supervisors to promote a diverse, inclusive, and safe working environment.

A 360-degree assessment is about to be launched for all staff supervising four or more employees.

But the issues of “attention to dignity” and prohibited conduct in the workplace are not new at the U.N., Terada and Birga pointed out.

The OHCHR tracks harassment and abuse cases that are addressed through formal channels and recorded by human resources colleagues. The office is also now working to track cases that are raised informally, in order to analyze incidents and their prevalence through the new first-responders network, the OHCHR staffers said.

The U.N. human rights high commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, endorsed the “zero tolerance” statement on sexual harassment and abuse in the humanitarian sector that the IASC released in March. The IASC coordinates U.N. agencies — including the UNDP, UNICEF and the WHO — and other groups working on humanitarian assistance. The OHCHR has a standing invitation to the group.

“The deputy high commissioner is one of the co-champions on sexual harassment and abuse of humanitarian aid workers,” Terada and Birga said. “The network of senior focal points on IASC is gathering good practices from various agencies, showing scope to learn from one another.” They explained that this “will allow us to identify additional areas for improvement and address this issue in a more systematic manner.”

The most recent U.N. secretary-general’s bulletin — from 2008 — on harassment, discrimination, and abuse defines and prohibits all such behavior, including harassment and abuse of a sexual nature, but not within the explicit confines of a “zero tolerance” policy.

Read more Devex coverage of sexual harassment in the aid industry.

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.