The UN and #MeToo: The Saga of All Forms of Abuse Must End Now

The author, a veteran of the UN, argues that new steps by the institution to confront sexual harassment systemwide requires a new mind-set as well.

by Loraine Rickard-Martin. Read more about PassBlue’s coverage of sexual harassment in UN and NGO world.

For many years now, media attention on sexual abuse and exploitation by United Nations peacekeepers cornered the UN and pushed it toward reform. Now, the #MeToo movement has put the organization — and many other major institutions across the world — on red alert.

Secretary-General António Guterres and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, wear orange at an event for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Nov. 22, 2017. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

But UN insiders and supporters are wondering if the leadership’s rush to action in the last few months augurs real change or is mere window dressing after decades of neglecting the problem. Some people see an opportunity for the UN to recognize that its separation of sexual harassment from sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) allows perpetrators to get away with impunity.

Many people also hope that the welcome action spurred by #MeToo will translate into addressing other forms of harassment and abuse of authority. I am doubtful, having in my 37-year career encountered a deepening UN culture of silence and fear and tendency to protect powerful men and complicit women, at any cost.

Last December, spurred by the #MeToo movement, Secretary-General António Guterres created a task force on sexual harassment, headed by Jan Beagle, the UN’s head of management. PassBlue reported at the time on a range of detailed accusations from women working in the UN and foreign missions to the UN, who had experienced sexual harassment. Other media also soon reported on such trouble within the UN.

In February 2018, the UN set up a 24-hour sexual harassment helpline; zero tolerance was reinforced in speeches. In April, the UN announced its first executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination in and outside the institution, Purna Sen.

Will these appointments and the task force mean genuine change in how the UN addresses sexual harassment and abuse?

The problem has existed for a long time. More than 25 years ago at the UN, an employee named Catherine Claxton made charges of sexual harassment and denial of promotion against Luis Maria Gomez, who, when he became her boss, prompted Claxton to finally file a formal complaint against him. Claxton won her case but waited years to receive a cash payment and a gag order yet no promotion; all of this happened only after The New York Times published an article about her case. Gomez parachuted briefly from one UN office into another before retreating into retirement.

The most current and public case of sexual harassment has zeroed in on Unaids, the UN entity tasked with preventing and ending AIDS worldwide. The case involves a complaint from a staff member, Martina Brostrom, against a top Unaids official, Luiz Loures, who was exonerated from the allegations and quietly retired. According to The Guardian, one of the most senior women in Unaids, Miriam Maluwa, who acted as a key witness for the accuser, has been placed on administrative leave.

The case was recently reopened — most likely because of media publicity, significantly when The Lancet published a scathing article on how the accusations were handled and dismissed.

Based on indications in his most recent report on SEA showing fewer cases being reported in certain UN sectors, like peacekeeping, Guterres acknowledged the likelihood of the underreporting of such cases and that most of those that have been submitted involve civilian staff and not peacekeepers. (Jane Holl Lute, the UN envoy on ending SEA, spoke to the media in March 2018 about the report in the video below.)

Which raises the question as to why the UN separates sexual harassment (unwelcome sexual behavior between or among UN staff) from sexual exploitation and abuse (sexual violation of non-UN staff, or SEA) as categories of misconduct. It’s an artificial divide, given that perpetrators criss-cross the lines and seem to have no trouble getting recycled in the UN system, becoming repeat offenders.

More steps have been taken by the UN this month to deal with the allegations: on May 4, it announced plans to develop a screening tool for “confirmed perpetrators of sexual harassment” to prevent them from moving around the UN system. As an example, a high-level Unicef official recently resigned because of inappropriate conduct against women in his previous job at Save the Children UK.

Recycling UN personnel accused of sexual wrongdoing — either through a transfer to another job or another mission or eased into retirement with full benefits — has long been a UN practice. Yet there is no hint of how the screening tool will prevent recycling, since, as reported when it was announced, “sexual misconduct was going unreported in a culture of silence and impunity at U.N. offices worldwide.”

After all, a lack of accountability and responsible reactions to sexual harassment and abuse have much to do with the mutual protection of the “old boys’ club,” including complicit women. The culture also has to do with the fear of displeasing the UN’s 193 member states, who fiercely protect their national staff in the UN system, enabled by a tenuous adherence to Article 100 of the UN Charter, which prohibits personnel of the Secretariat from seeking or receiving instructions from any government.

Some countries, more than others, lobby hard for recruitment, promotion and protection of their nationals, and the UN leadership too often falls in line.

I encountered recycled cases 10 years ago, having witnessed UN personnel performing sensitive work for the institution while sexually harassing their colleagues, openly hiring sex workers and conducting sexual relationships with national staff in the field, some of the latter employed in offices of their national governments.

Indeed, in my career at the UN, I’ve observed little improvement with the problem of sexual abuse and harassment since 1977, when a female colleague and friend on a UN peacemaking mission was drugged and sexually assaulted but too afraid to report it. On the same mission, a UN peacekeeper from a Western country bought — yes, bought — a 16-year-old girl from her impoverished family and took her to live in his officers’ quarters in the UN camp.

In the 1980s, an internationally respected UN colleague casually remarked: “There’s nothing wrong with having sex with 15-year-old girls [in country X]. They want it. They chase after you. It’s normal in the culture.”

Women and men who suffer various kinds of harassment and abuse of authority in the UN system every day are hoping that the attention from #MeToo will trickle down to other types of abuse in management decisions, such as staff selection, promotion, assignments and renewal of contracts.

Many of us have long noted that the problem of various forms of harassment and abuse in the UN has worsened as successive administrations of leadership started to move toward a corporate culture, which has chipped away at staff rights and job security. This shift, pushed by powerful member states, accelerated in the 1990s. The UN internal system of justice was overhauled according to a General Assembly directive in 2009, and though improvements have been made, such as whistleblower protection, many deficiencies remain.

Recent UN cases that surfaced in the media, for example, have specifically uncovered retaliation against whistleblowers, like the much-reported story of Anders Kompass (formerly with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, or OHCHR), who was suspended for revealing a high-level cover-up of the rape of children in the Central African Republic.

Other examples include Peter Gallo, a former UN internal investigator who contended that he suffered retaliation after bringing a complaint of misconduct against officials of the UN’s internal investigative body; and Emma Reilly, another staff member with OHCHR, who alleged that she faced retaliation for trying to get the office to end the practice of providing to governments the names of dissidents scheduled to participate in sessions of the Human Rights Council.

Jan Beagle, the director of UN management and recently named to head the UN’s new task force on sexual harassment in the institution, pictured in 2015. KIM HAUGHTON/UN PHOTO

Guterres’s willingness to be honest and aggressive, at least on the SEA and harassment front, including emphasizing mandatory training and strengthening whistleblower protection, appears to be sincere. But he must ensure that those entrusted by him to carry out his directives are committed to doing just that, from start to finish. Yet what are we to make of the fact that Jan Beagle, now handling the UN task force on sexual harassment accusations, was recently a top executive at Unaids?

A letter dated Feb. 5, 2018 and addressed to Guterres by AIDS-Free World, an American nonprofit watchdog group, notes that Beagle “was Deputy Executive Director for Human Resources and Management at UNAIDS while the very case at hand was being mangled: nary a word of intervention.”

Furthermore, The Guardian reported on May 8 that when Beagle was tapped by Guterres for the top UN management job, she was being investigated for a claim of harassment in Unaids but later cleared. The staff member who made the claim, Sima Newell, said that the investigation was improperly handled by Unaids.

One way that Guterres aims to transform the UN culture is to put more power in the hands of women. His plan has merit, but achieving gender parity must not be used as a distraction from the hard job of ending the prevailing mind-set of impunity. It’s unlikely that such an ingrained bias will be easy to dislodge.

Some people have charged that self-protection, rather than protection of victims, lies at the heart of many recent UN steps to eliminate abuse. An internal memo addressed to his team by Ben Swanson, the UN’s top investigator (from the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services), the day before the UN’s harassment helpline was launched, “suggests that the organization was acting defensively,” said one media report.

The #MeToo movement has offered the UN a welcome opportunity to reverse decades of neglect in how it responds to sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct. No amount of high-profile appointments and other initiatives, however, will result in improvements without a radical change in the UN environment of silence, fear, cover-up and protection of powerful men and complicit women.

The UN’s efforts must extend to addressing all forms of harassment and abuse of authority. Many insiders, observers and supporters know that the UN can, and must, do better.

Originally published at on May 9, 2018.

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.