A New York Times report on the mishandling of sexual misconduct claims at the United Nations illustrates a pervasive lack of accountability for workplace harassment within the agency—and highlights the brave survivors and advocates fighting back.
The report, which claims in the headline that the handling of such cases at the UN read like “a manual in how not to investigate” assault and harassment, begins with the story of a World Food Programme staff member who filed a claim of sexual assault against a colleague—and then was told, in no uncertain terms, that there was no case to be made based on her account because she “had no bruises or proof of force” to show for it.
It took the woman one agonizing month to decide to report that she had been sexually assaulted by a colleague from the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, while working in Ethiopia.
It took the agency a week to investigate, concluding in a single-page document that it didn’t believe her.
Then, more than a year later, investigators asked her lurid questions about her sexual positions during the encounter, according to the case files.
Unfortunately, this case reflects a larger systemic problem within the UN—one that is visible in organizations around the world, but is perhaps most disappointing to encounter in the prestigious body. The Times previously reported on the effects of #MeToo movement in the context of international organizations—and stories began pouring out about harassment, assault and other inappropriate behaviors within the world’s largest network of human rights protection.
In March, former UNAIDS staff member Martina Brostrom came forward with allegations towards of sexual abuse by a senior official within the same agency. Two other women also came forward, reporting similar experiences with the same executive, and many people had also warned the executive director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibe, about his behavior. A 14-month investigation that followed found that the official in question had not committed any acts of sexual misconduct—but advocacy group Code Blue, an organization that monitors sexual violence at the UN, stated that the investigation was botched and represents another instance of the UN protecting officials for the sake of preserving a clean human rights record.
There is no standard practice for reporting, investigating and handing down punishments for sexual misconduct across UN agencies, secretariat offices and country missions. With a wide variety of organizations under its umbrella and vastly different leadership across offices, it is impossible to say that each complaint is given the same consideration. Although UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres committed to a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual harassment in the body, his work to end misconduct has thus far done little to address a pervasive culture of toxic misogyny that fosters it. A new hotline for employees to report sexual misconduct is a small step forward, but doesn’t account for culture change—and, thus far, clearly hasn’t accelerated a shift toward increased accountability.
In a leaked memo, the UN’s top internal investigator Ben Swanson stated that “the eyes of the work are, literally, on us over this so please be careful,” and that “mercy will be in short supply.” Overall, advocates, internal and external alike, worry that the agency’s work to minimize misconduct is actually centered on protecting its reputation, rather than its employees. “The whole thing is just a system designed to protect the organization,” Peter Gallo, a former investigator at the Office of Internal Oversight Services, said to the Times. “The UN is more interested in its reputation than in protecting victims.”
A former UN intern, who requested to remain anonymous, spoke to Ms. about her personal experiences with sexual harassment during her time there. “Most people might think it’s unacceptable but turns out that you will encounter it more often than what you’d expect,” she said. “When I first went to the UN I was thrilled, looking forward to meeting great people that would increase my network.”
Unfortunately, she encountered harassment instead. “One day at the Delegate’s Lounge, while waiting for my friends, a guy approached me. He asked for my contact information so we could touch base some time. I thought this was a professional request since he ‘showed interest’ in my academic and professional profile,” said the former intern. “Later on I realized that what he really was looking for was some fresh, naive and fragile girl to have his way with. He suggested that he liked ethnic girls and I was a nice blend of African and Latin American features and that it would have great benefits for me if I got into a more intimate friendship with him.”
The Delegates’ Lounge, the in-house cafe and bar which transforms after 6 p.m. into a popular drinking spot for delegates, staff and interns, is one of the murkiest places where misconduct occurs. In a workplace where power dynamics are particularly pronounced, and in a space where people of all titles and ranks can mingle, sexual harassment is a frequent occurrence.
But misconduct is not limited to the late-night atmosphere of the lounge—it’s largely everywhere, even as the UN puts forward an image of respecting and empowering women and minorities in its own ranks. (As a former UN intern myself, I can say confidently that sexual harassment and startling misogyny are more common than I would have ever thought to be true.)
“It’s hard to believe that at the UN, where you have lot of men and women fighting for women’s rights,” said the former intern, “these men are in their privileged space where they feel so empowered that they think they’re entitled to look at you like if you’re a piece of meat and play with your life goals just for their own benefit.”