Report: UN AIDS agency in crisis over 'patriarchal,' abusive culture

Agency leadership accused of harassment, bullying

By MICK KREVER, CNN
NIAID via Wikimedia Commons

(CNN) - The UN agency tasked with containing HIV and AIDS is "in crisis" over "sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power" among its leadership, an independent panel of experts has concluded.

The report was commissioned by UNAIDS earlier this year after a raft of allegations against managers, including revelations in an exclusive report by CNN. In that report, three women made allegations of sexual assault against the then-deputy director of the agency.

The report is especially scathing in its assessment of the agency's executive director, Michel Sidibe.

"The executive director of the UNAIDS secretariat has created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority and in his interviews with the panel he accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review," the report said.

In a statement to CNN, a UNAIDS spokesperson, Sophie Barton-Knott, said that "senior management are fully aware that there is still much work to do -- across all levels of the organization, including at the senior management level."

"UNAIDS is resolute in its commitment to lead by example in eliminating all forms of harassment, bullying and abuse of power at UNAIDS," she said.

In conducting their report, the independent panel of eminent lawyers and gender issues activists, conducted a survey of UNAIDS employees. More than 60% of the 678 staff participated.

Nearly half of those surveyed said that they did not agree with the statement "that the UNAIDS culture is effective in preventing harassment and abuse."

"There is an absence of preventive measures, and the formal and informal processes for handling complaints are slow, ineffective, and not trusted as confidential," the report said.

"Bottom line -- the UNAIDS Secretariat has a problem," the report's authors wrote.

The UN Secretary-General's spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour this March, a UNAIDS employee, Martina Brostrom, accused Sidibe of offering her a promotion in exchange for dropping her claim of assault against a UN assistant secretary general. CNN spoke at the time with two other women who described similar encounters with the man, who denied the allegations and was cleared of wrongdoing in an investigation into Brostrom's claims. He no longer works for the UN. Brostrom called the investigation "deeply flawed."

Sidibe denied to investigators at the time that he wanted her to accept an apology from the accused official, but admitted that it would be good to "find a way out" in a way that would protect the organization.

At an internal staff meeting in February, audio of which was obtained by CNN, Sidibe criticized employees who spoke publicly about sexual harassment claims at the UN as lacking a "moral approach."

In February, UNAIDS released a five-point plan to reform and ensure its "zero tolerance for sexual harassment." But the report casts doubt on whether the agency's director is capable of leading that effort.

The independent panel's chair, Gillian Triggs, told CNN on Thursday that she and her colleagues concluded that UNAIDS' governing body "needs to consider whether the current leadership has the skills and the will to carry those reforms out."

"We have been absolutely unanimous in our views," said Triggs, an Australian human rights lawyer and professor emeritus.

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