In late 2017, a slew of sexual harassment, abuse and rape allegations against UN officials and contractors tarnished the name of the international organisation.
Oxfam’s Haiti scandal had already thrust humanitarian workers under the spotlight. But the UN faced claims, including in a major Guardian investigation, that it failed to investigate possible wrongdoing, that senior officials warned women not to file complaints and that powerful men were using diplomatic immunity to avoid prosecution for rape and other crimes committed overseas.
Earlier this year, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced a taskforce to look at the UN’s alleged failings. In April 2018, UN Women’s Policy Director Purna Sen was tasked with looking into the organisation’s record on harassment, abuse and rape, culminating in a report due in September proposing solutions.
“#MeToo reached deep into the halls of the UN,” said Sen in an exclusive interview with Apolitical. “The media has put a spotlight on us and it has been very uncomfortable. The organisation has been found wanting.”
Sexual harassment and abuse allegations are hardly unique to the United Nations. But its internal power imbalances and opaque systems of redress leave women vulnerable to abuse by their seniors, Sen said.
“In organisations where there is a particularly strong command and control structure, or a particularly sharp hierarchy, then there are higher levels of sexual harassment reported and known to exist,” she explained. “The UN is big, complex and very hierarchical … the culture is that you don’t challenge your seniors.”
A “predominance” of men in senior positions leaves women — particularly those at the beginning of their careers — vulnerable to abuse, she said.
When abuse or harassment does take place, the mechanisms for reporting and investigating are rarely up to scratch, according to reports. One former UN investigator told the Guardian, “The only rule is not to publicly embarrass the organisation.”
According to women Sen has interviewed, that feeling is common among survivors. Many don’t report abuse for fear of losing their jobs. Others believe that senior male officials club together and close ranks to shut down investigations. And some felt that investigators would not believe any allegations they raised.
“If procedures are suspicious of women who report, if procedures are so slow that people don’t want to report because it takes too long, or if people are left sitting there next to their abusers for three years while investigations are going on … then they are expressions of a culture that doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously,” said Sen.
Sen’s September report will focus on best practices in the workplace.
A more ambitious undertaking to create a set of global standards for eliminating workplace harassment is also underway, in collaboration with the International Labor Organisation, which will be published later this year.
Asked whether any organisation can be trusted to self-investigate, Sen was candid: “There needs to be some sort of external check, and some sort of external accountability that complements internal systems.” For now, there is little clarity on what external oversight would look like, Sen added, in part because of the sheer scale and complexity of the organisation.
Overall, “there needs to be integrity and coherence between the values and principles espoused and those that are practised,” Sen said. “The UN was the birthplace of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
“We must ensure that procedures and practices embody the values of those provisions and standards, and to be honest, we’ve a way to to get there.” — Edward Siddons
(Picture credit: Flickr/Number 10)