UN launches staff helpline to address sexual misconduct information gaps

A woman on her cellphone. Photo by: Porapak Apichodilok / CC0

UNITED NATIONS — As the United Nations confronts a series of high-level personnel accused of sexual harassment, the management team has rolled out a new option for staffers who may want to report harassment or abuse at work.

The confidential, 24-hour staff helpline called “Speak Up” was launched last Tuesday. It is not a formal reporting mechanism, but could give U.N. Secretariat staffers more information on their options for reporting harassment or abuse.

Leaked UN staff survey shows fears over whistleblowing, ethical accountability 

A leaked internal staff survey reveals one-third of United Nations staff see “a lack of performance and ethical accountability” and are afraid to report misconduct due to fears of retaliation. Meanwhile, as a sexual abuse scandal rocks the aid sector, male and female workers also expressed starkly different perceptions of gender equality and empowerment within the U.N.

“The goal of the helpline is very simple. We want to give staff members who have been affected by sexual harassment the ability to speak confidently to a person who can listen to their concerns, provide information on existing policies, including on how to report misconduct, receive protection and support,” said Martha Helena Lopez, the Assistant Secretary-General for human resources management, in a statement to Devex.

There are already various procedures for reporting harassment or abuse internally at the U.N. People can initially go up the chain of their hierarchy and report to a manager, go to human resources, or to an ombudsman.

Processes can vary across individual U.N. agencies and offices and the differences are evolving, as some entities like the World Food Programme have recently revised their protocols, giving their Office of Inspector General authority to investigate abusive conduct, even if a formal report has not been filed.

The helpline is intended to correct the knowledge gaps U.N. staffers — especially those working at the field level — might have in how they could move forward following their experiences with harassment or abuse, said one U.N. employee involved with setting up the helpline. They asked to remain anonymous to respect the confidential nature of the helpline.

Other staffers might not feel comfortable speaking to colleagues or their bosses, worried about the repercussions for their career, as the Guardian recently reported.

“The most important part is the helpline people are impartial. The person you are talking to is not judging … They will listen first and foremost. It is very possible that somebody calls and says, ‘This has happened to me, or I am scared and in need of psychosocial support.’ That is the priority to make sure they have your immediate needs cared for,” explained the U.N. staffer.

“And if they want reporting information they can give that. But really, it is to be guided by the needs of the caller,” they added.

A senior U.N. official called the helpline a “step in the right direction,” but questioned existing policies that can make people feel they lack real, safe options for reporting.

“Questions are still being raised — who are you reporting the misconduct to? If you have to report it through your immediate hierarchy, there is a conflict of interest there, and also possibly a conflict interest and capacity issue going through HR. We have ombudsmen, but they are considered to be close to the management,” the official said.

The helpline was set up relatively quickly — in just over a month — following signals from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres that he wanted to take quick action on new sexual harassment and abuse prevention and response mechanisms.

“I am well aware of the male dominated culture that permeates governments, the private sector, international organizations, and even areas of civil society. This creates obstacles to upholding zero tolerance including here at the U.N. I am determined to remove them,” Guterres said in early February. His plans for gender parity — now met at the top management level — are also key to reducing unfair and abusive power dynamics.

Last month, U.N. deputy executive director Justin Forsyth resigned because of allegations of inappropriate conduct towards female staff while he was the head of Save the Children. The deputy head of UNAIDS, Luiz Loures, then announced he would not seek another term, following sexual harassment allegations. And a contractor has also filed a claim that the U.N. Population Fund’s India country director harassed her.

Guterres’ office is set to soon release findings on sexual harassment and abuse cases within the U.N.

The new helpline is staffed by about 15 trained people with backgrounds in human resources work. Selected by the management and human resources offices, the responders are based around the world, so callers can always find someone to speak to in real time in their time zone. The program is now in its first phase, and more responders are being onboarded.

The helpline joins two other similar call-in information services recently set up by the U.N. human rights office and the World Health Organization. It’s one of the first more visible prevention and response steps the U.N. Secretariat is developing, according to the two involved staffers who spoke with Devex.

“The main goal is a service for staff, and to provide information on different reporting mechanisms and also services. All of the responders have lists of security, and medical referral if there is a need,” explained the staffer. “It’s not a reporting mechanism. It is meant to compliment the reporting mechanism. It’s primarily as a resource for staff, to empower them with information, and to enable them to make a decision.”

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.