GENEVA — The U.N. agency battling HIV and AIDS is essentially run as an old boys’ club that suffers from “failed” leadership and a “broken” work culture, an independent panel of experts found in an investigation of the agency’s handling of serious sexual harassment allegations.
The panel’s report concluded that UNAIDS has become a toxic work environment where sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power run rampant, and this is made worse by a culture of impunity and a “patriarchal” management that will take a change in leadership to fix.
The findings added to pressure on the agency’s executive director Michel Sidibé to resign. Sidibé, who has led the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS, since 2009, denied pressuring staffer Martina Brostrom to drop her allegations that she was sexually harassed by Sidibé’s former deputy, Luiz Loures. Brostrom drew attention when she went public with her claims earlier this year.
Gareth Thomas, a member of British Parliament and former development minister who supported Sidibé, called it a “damning indictment of the crisis.” He said the current leadership must be replaced and Sidibé “should resign immediately” to save UNAIDS.
The experts’ 73-page report, based on interviews and staff surveys, said UNAIDS faces “a crisis which threatens its vital work.” Sidibé asserted he can still save his agency, but the panel cast doubt on that.
“The leaders, policies and processes at UNAIDS have failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power in UNAIDS,” it said. “The evidence before the Independent Expert Panel of a broken organizational culture is overwhelming.”
A work culture of fear and mistrust
The report said that the UNAIDS secretariat “fails to accept responsibility for a culture of impunity becoming prevalent in the organization, a culture that does not ensure a safe and dignified workplace for its staff, and one that fails to respect human rights in line with law and United Nations values.”
The case has drawn considerable attention, unfolding in the wake of the #MeToo global movement against sexual harassment and assault that was touched off by the rape and sexual assault charges against fallen Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
“Many staff within UNAIDS offices attest to a work culture of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation against those who speak up about harassment and abuse of power,” the report said. “The management problems are aggravated in isolated Country Offices where directors often are not up to the task with the necessary management skills or ethical compass to guide their behavior.”
In response to the report, UNAIDS released a lengthy statement in which its leadership promised to create a new model working environment for all staff that “ensures safety and inclusivity and upholds the highest standards of accountability and integrity.”
The agency’s new policies, it said, will emphasize that harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power at any level will not be tolerated and perpetrators will be held accountable.
Sidibé said that UNAIDS staff “are our main asset and they must be able to perform their functions in a safe, enabling and nurturing environment. This transformation will ensure that we can attract the greatest talent and further empower our staff to deliver on our crucial mandate.”
He pledged to create an external and independent investigation, disciplinary and redressal system, and to talk with survivors, women’s rights experts and others “to examine options to take this forward.”