Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, TerraViva United Nations | Analysis

The Cover up Culture: Sexual Abuse & Harassment in the UN

Peter A Gallo is a former investigator at the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS)*

In February 2018, the UN launched a 24-hour hotline for staff to report sexual harassment. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

NEW YORK, Apr 9 2018 (IPS) - Under-Secretary-General Jan Beagle recently spoke at an event at the International Peace Institute on the subject of ‘Combating Sexual Harassment in the United Nations.’ She spoke eloquently and coherently, but what she said, unfortunately, was largely an exercise in distraction and futility.

Beagle praised the UN as some sort of ‘trailblazer’ for actually having a sexual harassment policy for ten years, but the UN has only been drawn into the sexual harassment spotlight as a consequence of the ‘Harvey Weinstein effect’ so her admission that ‘much remains to be done’ has to be public confirmation that that policy has been ineffective.

It has been ineffective because the Department of Management – of which Beagle is now in charge – ensured that it would not be rigorously enforced, because the UN culture is one of adherence to the ‘Prime Directive’ which involves protecting the Organization from all criticism, regardless of the facts.

‘Sexual harassment’ encompasses a broad spectrum of offensive behaviour, from the inappropriate joke though more direct and offensive verbal harassment, to the unwelcome physical contact at the more serious end of the spectrum.

There, physical contact, combined with the requisite sexual intent element, constitutes a criminal offence – and that is the point at which the impotence and the hypocrisy of UN is most clearly seen, because Beagle’s Department is fiercely protective of the mechanisms used to protect those accused, and deny justice to victims.

In addressing sexual harassment, there is an inherent conflict in ST/SGB/2008/5 (and similar regulations in the funds and programs) in that the allegation is investigated by lay “investigators” hand-picked by the Program Manager, and the same policy also holds that managers and supervisors who fail to ensure that such complaints are addressed in a fair and impartial manner can themselves be sanctioned for their negligence.

There are, of course, no known cases of this actually ever being enforced; but thousands of cases where a “fact-finding panel” reached the finding most desirable for the Program Manager who appointed them. This is not a coincidence, this is the Prime Directive in practice; the rights of victims are of less importance than telling the boss just what he wants to hear.

One of the Secretary-General’s initiatives has been the recent announcement that sexual harassment investigations would henceforth be handled by OIOS. This, sadly, is no improvement.

Criticisms of ‘fact-finding panels’ pale into insignificance compared to the Organization’s wilful blindness to the complaints of corruption and other unethical conduct within OIOS. Gross incompetence and prejudice on the part of investigators is not only common, but those responsible are invariably protected for their unprofessionalism.

Indeed, the last time OIOS conducted a sexual harassment investigation – the Sirohi case – it was so badly mismanaged that OHRM had to settle the case at the last minute and keep the UNDT from ever being published in an attempt to keep the facts hidden. UN staff members can take comfort in knowing that all the investigators involved in that travesty have since been promoted, so they can now make a mess of many more sexual harassment investigations being directed to OIOS.

The UN is now claiming that they are listening to victims, praising the Secretary-General’s leadership, when in reality, his contributions amount to little more than sound bites.

The Organization is fiercely protective of a burden of proof that is not only difficult to meet, but – as the recent UNAIDS case demonstrates – also puts the decision-making responsibility in the hands of senior officials who have more interest in protecting the perpetrator than any notional concept of “justice” for the victim.

Indeed, the UN “legal system” makes it extraordinarily difficult for victims to challenge the decision not to discipline their assailants.

Complainants in the UN are troublemakers, and the ‘whistleblower protection’ rules are little more than a joke, so any staff member who reports serious misconduct risks their own career by doing so.

The road to promotion in the UN allows no tolerance for anything other than unconditional submission to the Organization and unthinking obedience to what is deemed to be the proper procedure, regardless of the consequences. Criticism of the UN, including acknowledging that a problem exists, is heresy.

As a result, consciously or otherwise, promotion boards ensure that anyone perceived to think or express themselves in an irregular – and hence possibly seditious – manner will be weeded out, so while geographical (and therefore cultural and ethnic) diversity is mandated in its founding charter, the UN culture is one of blind loyalty to the “groupthink” doctrine, and any committee comprised of senior UN officials, regardless of their ethnicity, can be expected to demonstrate very low levels of cognitive diversity.

Of course, even to admit that any UN policy has actually failed is to violate the ‘Prime Directive’ so it will not be done.

The sexual harassment problem cannot be addressed by the same people, using the same thought processes, as were formerly blind to the fact a problem even existed.

The corporate culture in the UN has created the sexual harassment problem, and is incapable of resolving it. Having created an environment pre-disposed towards protecting those the Organization wishes to protect, the most that can be expected from the Secretary-General’s lip service to this issue is a temporary ‘Hawthorne effect.’

It is not the rules or the policies or even the procedures that are at fault as much as the culture of the UN officials who cling to the fallacious belief that misconduct can be addressed without holding the perpetrators accountable.

The UN cannot police itself, and at the end of the day cannot protect its own female employees from sexual assault. One need look no further than the farcical handling of the Loures investigation by UNAIDS.

The solution is not just another policy, another committee or another co-ordinator, nothing short of a completely independent investigative body will suffice.

*The author is a former UN staff member who, as an OIOS investigator, suffered retaliation over a two year period as a consequence of a having made a misconduct complaint against senior OIOS officials who impugned his competence but denied him any explanations of what he was alleged to have done wrong. He says he was refused ‘protection against retaliation’ by the Ethics Office twice, had six applications to the UNDT dismissed on legal technicalities. Since separating from the UN he has been an outspoken critic of the corruption in the Organization, has been quoted in newspapers worldwide, invited to speak on television, and appeared as a witness before a US Congressional Committee. The Department of Management, he complains, is still unable and unwilling to answer the questions he asked about what he is alleged to have done that constituted a ‘performance shortcoming.’

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  • UNDP

    It is encouraging that the world community raised the issue of sexual harassment in UN, but it is only one of many UN problems. The world community still overlooks the broader picture: UN became mafia-type organization due to absence of external control. Employees’ abuse there isn’t restricted to sexual harassment. A lot of people got their careers and lives destroyed as result of oppressive UN work environment.

    UN created an effective system of segregation, where many managers can do whatever they want (openly neglect their duties, waste resources, abuse, insult and humiliate subordinates), and where ordinary employees are defenseless against management despotism. Practically it is a Nazi system, where people of the first and second sort exist. This system is accompanied by the endless talking about “great UN principles”. Actually, UN system is permeated by vileness and hypocrisy.

    I worked at UNDP and was thrown out of this organization. My supervisor employed such dirty tricks against me as deliberate delaying my work, inciting conflicts to blame me for them and downright lie to present me as unqualified employee. Sometimes he demonstrated racist behavior and once he insulted me. Eventually my supervisor provided deceitful evaluation of my work performance and my contract was terminated.

    I informed UNDP New York office (including Office of Audit and Investigations and Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator) and UN Secretary General about my case, but all my efforts to achieve justice proved futile. I persistently got replies from UN officials that everything is done in accordance with UN procedures, though I presented convincing evidence of wrongdoing committed against me. It was completely ignored. I am a second sort person for UN management…