AMSTERDAM — Campaigners hijacked the opening of the 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam to protest the presence of Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, who they accused of being “an enabler and protector of sexual harassment.”
Sidibé has been criticized for his response to a harassment scandal at the U.N. agency.
The protestors, made up of 23 female African activists, formed a line in front of the stage and read a statement as Sidibé started to speak during the opening plenary of the world’s largest conference on HIV/AIDS on Monday evening.
“We feel strongly that there is a lack of respect that individuals such as UNAIDS General-Secretary Michel Sidibé, who has been an enabler and protector of sexual harassment, continues to be invited into women’s spaces, into spaces we occupy and fought hard to be in. [We feel] that him being given platforms is a secondary violation,” they said.
The protestors called for Sidibé to “step away from his scripted, spun, rehearsed propaganda machine … [and] speak the truth. No more tears, let’s speak honestly and let’s make the difficult decisions,” they said.
The UNAIDS head has been under pressure to resign over his handling of sexual harassment allegations against his former deputy, Luiz Loures, who is alleged to have assaulted or harassed female colleagues, including Martina Brostrom in 2015. Loures was cleared by an internal investigation but campaigners say it should have been handled externally. Brostrom claims Sidibé offered her a promotion in exchange for dropping the allegations.
Sidibé denies this and has so far resisted calls for his resignation, saying the HIV community is in crisis — a message he reiterated from the stage after the protestors had finished.
He was the last to speak during the opening event, following remarks from World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and celebrities including the Austrian singer and LGBTI ambassador Conchita Wurst. The timing was done deliberately to try and minimize potential disruption by protestors, Devex has learned, and one insider said there was resistance to his attendance from some stakeholders.
The UNAIDS chief thanked the protestors for their interruption but also said the HIV community needs to be united in order to tackle the epidemic, especially as experts warn that new infection rates remain stubbornly high and are appearing to rise among some populations.
“I heard you … I listened to you and I understand your anger … but let us make sure our fight against this epidemic is not divided; we have come so far but we have miles to go,” he said.
Sidibé has denied mishandling the allegations against Loures, who has since resigned, and has put in place reforms to strengthen UNAIDS’ “zero tolerance policy” on harassment. At his request, the agency’s board has also formed an independent panel to provide recommendations on preventing harassment within the organization.
The U.N. agency head also faced criticism earlier in the evening from Allan Achesa Maleche, executive director of the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS, who was there to receive an award for his work. Accepting the Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award, Maleche gave his support to the women’s protest, saying:
“Twenty-three of our sisters in the movement have issued a statement about sexual harassment and I believe them and stand in solidarity with them … We look to the United Nations to set the standard on human rights and gender equality. We are not there yet, we are a long way from there.”
Sidibé responded: “I have heard you, I have gotten your wake-up call, I understand your high expectation for the United Nations and I want to thank you for your call.”
A UNAIDS spokesperson said Sidibé planned to stay in the position.
“UNAIDS' executive director is firmly committed to be the leader of change within UNAIDS … UNAIDS has unfinished business [on HIV/AIDS] as demonstrated by our recent report ‘Miles to Go’ and [Sidibé] is focused on delivering on our goals,” they said in a statement.
Devex is on the ground at AIDS2018 in Amsterdam. Follow reporter @Sophie_Ed1984 on Twitter; sign up for our special newsletters with updates and analysis; and keep an eye out for more stories on Devex.com.