Senior United Nations (UN) officials have admitted the global peace body is not immune to the problem of sexual harassment, but questions have been raised about how it handles allegations within its agencies.
- The UN’s World Food Program is investigating allegations in its Fiji office
- Rights groups want the UN to do more to protect local staff
- The global body has committed itself to taking every allegation seriously
Dozens of current and former UN employees told The Guardian earlier this year that sexual harassment and assault were rife within the organisation, and that it had been “allowed to flourish” in a “culture of silence”.
And UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has publicly acknowledged, on multiple occasions, the need for the global body to deal with issues of harassment and sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment like sexual abuse and violence, is rooted in the historic power imbalances between men and women,” he said.
“We are committed to taking every allegation seriously, past and present.”
Meanwhile, it has also been revealed this week that the official appointed last year to tackle sexual misconduct within the UN, Jan Beagle, was promoted to the position while she was herself the subject of a harassment investigation.
Andrew MacLeod, the former chief of operations at the UN’s Emergency Coordination Centre and a Red Cross aid worker, told the ABC he also believed that to be the case.
“The great crime is not necessarily the individual perpetrator, it’s the system that a) allows it to take place and then b) doesn’t hold anyone to account, significantly or meaningfully, if they commit an infraction,” he told Pacific Beat.
Antonio Guterres has publicly acknowledged the need for the global body to deal with issues of harassment. (Reuters: Pierre Albouy, file photo)
The latest reports have come from Fiji, where the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has confirmed it is carrying out an internal investigation into recent harassment claims made against senior staff by other employees.
Under the leadership of Mr Guterres, the UN says it is tackling those gender and power imbalances by launching a gender parity strategy for its executives and has strengthened whistleblower protection for staff who report harassment.
At a high-level meeting in London earlier this month, the UN also announced it would launch an electronic database to prevent employees — guilty of sexual misconduct — from finding new jobs with other UN agencies.
“It’s a small step in the right direction, but what’s the UN doing to track down people who don’t report these crimes? Or don’t report these abuses?” Mr MacLeod said.
“The UN is organisationally dysfunctional, and intended to be organisationally dysfunctional, and the result of which is you don’t get any clarity on anything.”
‘Silence’ surrounds Fiji investigation
The UN has not been spared from being pulled into the #MeToo discussions. (Reuters: Lucas Jackson)
In Fiji, where the WFP investigation is still ongoing, the UN’s actions have received a qualified welcome.
“It is a very welcome move, but I think it’s time to go beyond concern,” said Shamima Ali, from the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre.
“It’s about reassuring people that there are procedures in place, and there need to be some examples made that they are going to deal severely with this.”
The UN has declined to provide specific details to the ABC about the WFP investigation, but has confirmed it is being conducted through the office of WFP’s inspector general, in line with UN policy.
The WFP recently updated its policies to make the reporting of harassment and sexual harassment easier, and will allow employees to do so anonymously.
United Nations and World Food program members sit beside a box of fruits in Syria. (Reuters: Bassam Khabieh)
The ABC requested comment from the Fiji Government on the WFP allegations, but did not receive a response at the time of writing.
Meanwhile, the Australian Government, which has provided funding for the WFP and some of its activities across the Pacific, told Pacific Beat it “does not tolerate exploitation, abuse or harassment of any kind in its aid program”.
Sexual assault support services:
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- Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Ms Ali is critical of the decision to carry out an internal investigation.
“There seems to be a real silence around it all. People are not coming forward, and we’ve been trying to find out [more detail],” she said.
“Knowing our local situation, I am very hesitant about internal investigations, particularly when we don’t know what the procedures are, whether the person has a support system around her of her choice,” she said, adding that local employees in Fiji were particularly vulnerable.
“There is, within different development agencies, some bullying of local staff and different kinds of treatment compared to expatriate staff … including the UN agencies.”
‘We are not where we need to be’
Osnat Lubrani, the UN resident coordinator for Fiji and several other Pacific nations, accepts that harassment and sexual harassment are issues within the UN.
“Worldwide, the issue of sexual abuse and harassment, sexual harassment, violence, particularly violence against women, is something that affects every country, and certainly this problem can be seen across the Pacific countries,” Ms Lubrani said.
“The UN works to address those problems with governments, but we as an institution are not immune to it ourselves.”
She said the UN’s policy is zero tolerance, but acknowledged there was much more work to be done in terms of how the body handles complaints and accusations.
“In some of these cases, the procedures may not be detailed enough or not clear enough,” Ms Lubrani said.
“I’m optimistic we’re heading in the right direction but I also do recognise we are not where we need to be.”