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Sexual Abuse Where UN Chief has No Jurisdiction to Act

Secretary-General António Guterres (2nd right) delivers his remarks at the high-level meeting on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 26 2018 (IPS) - As sexual harassment charges in the UN system keep piling up, the UN Secretariat has a new administrative problem on its hands: accusations of sexual abuse in the New York office of the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) whose members are elected by the 193-member General Assembly – but not answerable either to the Secretary-General or the President of the Assembly.

So, the lingering question facing the UN remains ambivalent: is there an exception to the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ “zero tolerance policy” on sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) – even though the head of the ICSC office, with the rank of Under-Secretary-General (USG), and its 40 employees, are an integral part of the UN common system and considered UN staffers?

When the accusations of sexual abuse by four women in the ICSC office was referred to the office of the Secretary-General, the initial response was tepid: the accusers were implicitly told the Secretary-General does not have any jurisdiction over the ICSC or its 15 members.

Asked for a clarification, UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS: “The (UN’s) Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) is investigating the allegations to the maximum extent, within its authority, and has approached members of the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) asking for their full cooperation, considering that they are outside the jurisdiction of the Secretary-General”.

At the same, he pointed out, the Executive Secretary of the Commission got an instruction to adopt all necessary measures to ensure that the complainants don’t suffer retaliation.

Brenden Varma, Head of Communications and Spokesperson for the President of the UN General Assembly told IPS “in general, the President of the General Assembly stands firmly against all forms of sexual harassment.”

The President is of the opinion that all allegations of sexual harassment must be investigated and perpetrators must be held accountable, he added.

While established by the United Nations General Assembly, the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) is an independent expert body, Varma pointed out.

And, according to the ICSC statute, which was endorsed by the General Assembly, “No appointment of a member of the Commission can be terminated unless, in the unanimous opinion of the other members, he or she has ceased to discharge the duties in a manner consistent with the provisions of the present statute.”

Neither the General Assembly nor its President exercises any managerial or administrative authority over the ICSC, Varma declared.

The president of the current General Assembly is Miroslav Lajčák of Slovakia.

Bibi Khan, President of the United Nations Staff Union (UNSU) in New York, which represents the staff members who filed the complaint, told IPS the Union unequivocally endorses and supports the Secretary-General’s policy on “Zero Tolerance for Sexual Abuse and Harassment”.

“However, this is an ongoing investigation and the Union cannot risk compromising the case by discussing any details at the present time”.

She also said “the UN has become a prisoner of its own bureaucracy, unable to act with the urgency that such complaints demand”.

The ICSC is described as “an independent expert body established by the United Nations General Assembly” which regulates and coordinates the conditions of service of staff in the UN common system “while promoting and maintaining high standards in the international civil service.”

The Commission is composed of 15 members who serve in their personal capacity. They are appointed by the General Assembly for four-year terms, with due regard for broad geographical representation. The Chairman and the Vice-Chairman are full-time members and are based in New York. The full Commission meets twice a year.

Article 7 of the ICSC statute and rules of procedure says: “No appointment of a member of the Commission can be terminated unless, in the unanimous opinion of the other members, he or she has ceased to discharge the duties in a manner consistent with the provisions of the present statute.”

And Article 8 says: “For the purposes of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman of the Commission shall have the status of officials of the United Nations.”

The issue, according to one UN source, is about accountability: “who is accountable to action on this issue, is it the Secretary-General, the President of the General Assembly or the ICSC Commissioners, who only meet twice a year and are entitled to their daily subsistence allowance while they are in New York. (even while the accused is considered a full time staffer with a salary from the jointly funded common system budget.)”

Meanwhile, the ICSC is also embroiled in an ongoing controversy over a proposed salary cut which has triggered work stoppages in UN offices in Geneva, Bangkok and Addis Ababa and is threatening to spread system-wide, including the UN’s field operations.

The protest is led by three staff unions – the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations (CCISUA), the Federation of International Civil Servants’ Associations (FICSA) and the United Nations International Civil Servants Federation (UNISERV) representing over 60,000 staffers worldwide— and is aimed primarily at the ICSC.

In a letter to the Executive Heads of UN organizations and the President of the General Assembly, the three unions said recently: “It is with regret that we announce that staff have lost confidence in the independence and technical competency of the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), following a series of failings; we urge you to support our calls for a process of substantive reforms.”

As we have observed over several years, the letter states, this austerity agenda threatens to undermine the UN’s mission, particularly in the field, and potentially harms all staff and duty stations.

“In recent times, the ICSC decisions have significantly reduced the salaries of general services and professional staff in places such as Cairo, New Delhi, Tokyo and Bangkok, as well as those on peacekeeping missions.”

Depending on personal circumstances, it is anticipated that professional staff will also lose the equivalent of up to one month’s salary due to recent revisions to their compensation package; parents and those in field duty stations are most impacted.

“Improving the methods for reclassifying hardship, the unequal level of danger pay for local and international staff, and the absence of adequate protections for local staff against inflation and exchange rate fluctuations are examples of other important issues that we would like to address.”

“Unfortunately, the ICSC is increasingly unwilling to find constructive solutions that benefit both staff and the UN”, the letter notes.

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