04 August 2018

A #MeToo Moment for the United Nations?

As we all know, the #MeToom movement swept all male bastions and went through power structures like a Category 5 hurricane.

Hollywood studios, high tech companies, Wall Street banks, large corporations all had to face the music.

There were two exceptions.

One was the conservative politicians, as exemplified by the indifference accorded to Donald Trump by his own party, his supporters and the corporate media.

If a Democratic president (and God forbid if it was Obama) had asked his personal lawyer to cover up his affair with a porn star with a $130,000 hush money or did this to hide another affair with a Playboy model all hell would have broken loose.

Tellingly, the linked expose was signed Ronan Farrow, the man who single handedly brought down industry titans like Harvey Weinstein or Les Moonves.

With Trump, nothing.

After his denials, his former lawyer's secret recordings showed he was in on it. Still nothing.


The second exception was the United Nations.

There, we already knew that peacekeeping operations had turned into double victimization of women and girls. But recently, we found out that sexual abuse and harassment was also the norm at UN civilian agencies as well.

And the modus operandi was not very different in either cases.

Peacekeepers or Sex Ring Operators?

Since 2001, thousands of sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR).

Yet not much has been done about it.
In early June, the New York-based Code Blue Campaign, dedicated to ending impunity for crimes of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, released an internal UN memo that showed no action had been taken against the Congolese troops in CAR, despite multiple complaints about their behaviour.
In fact, the problem has gotten worse and sexual exploitation increased over the years. UN's own chart summarizes the incidents between 2010 and 2016.
Peacekeeping Sexual Assault Figure 1

Through it all, the UN managed to maintain the stories in check and to hide the true scope of the problem.
Of the 2000 cases of sexual misconduct reported to the UN over the past 12 years, 700 emanate from the DRC. Another report shows that 300 of these 2000 cases involve children. This geographic and demographic spread is however impugned by the fact that UN statistics on this issue (while steadily improving) are notoriously inaccurate. Record collection is impeded by under-reporting and chronically bad record-keeping by the UN.
I know what some people might be thinking. They might be attributing these incidents to developing country soldiers. Without touching on the implicit racism of this assumption, let me tell you that while in African situations this might be largely true (due to the composition of the troops), the misconduct known as SEA (Sexual Exploitation and Abuse) was quite prevalent in the Bosnia and Kosovo cases and there, the bulk of the UNPROFOR soldiers and commanders were from European countries.

With one Swedish, three French and one Indian Commanding Officer, this is what happened:
A Kosovo victims support group reported that of the local prostitutes, a third were under 14, and 80% were under 18. Amnesty said the victims were routinely raped "as a means of control and coercion" and kept in terrible conditions as slaves by their "owners"; sometimes kept in darkened rooms unable to go out
In any event, dwelling on the identity of the perpetrators is a futile exercise in racism. Sri Lankan soldiers might have ran a child sex in Haiti but they did it under UN command and they couldn't have done it if the top echelons had not turned a blind eye.

If anything, the UN largely ignored the problem and actively tried to cover it up.

In fact, when you look at the behavior of senior managers in other UN agencies you realize this is not a peacekeeping issue and the same nonchalance about sexual abuse exists in the organization's civilian institutions.

Sexual Abuse and Harassment in UN Agencies

In January 2018, the Guardian published an article about rampant sexual harassment, abuse and rape in UN agencies. It was an eye opener.

It showed that women who reported sexual misconduct usually lost their jobs while the perpetrators were promoted to higher positions.
Three women who reported sexual harassment or sexual assault, all from different offices, said they had since been forced out of their jobs or threatened with the termination of their contract in the past year. The alleged perpetrators, who include a senior UN official, remain in their posts.
A woman who was raped by a senior staff member had this experience:
She said that despite medical evidence and witness testimonies, an internal investigation by the UN found insufficient evidence to support her allegation. Along with her job, she says she has lost her visa and has spent months in hospital due to stress and trauma. She fears she will face persecution if she returns to her home country.
The system was stacked against the victim who were constantly told not to report such incidents.
One woman allegedly assaulted while working for the UN says she was told by her agency’s ombudsman that there was nothing more he could do to help her pursue a complaint, because he was being threatened by senior UN staff. Seven other alleged victims who spoke to the Guardian were told by an ombudsman or colleague that they should not try to pursue a complaint.
Another victim who was raped was not offered any medical assistance or counseling and the rapist suffered no consequences. In one case, "a man accused of sexual harassment was allowed to interview the woman who brought the complaint against him."

In fact, it is a systemic problem and the people who were supposed to investigate these crimes were explicitly instructed not to do their jobs.
Peter Gallo, a former OIOS investigator who left the UN in 2015, said he witnessed evidence being routinely ignored and facts skewed. “As an investigator I was told I should ‘never ask questions just to satisfy my curiosity,’” he said. “The only rule is not to publicly embarrass the organisation.”
So it is not surprising that,
An internal UNAids staff survey found that almost 10% of 427 respondents had experienced sexual harassment. Only two had reported it.
Malaya Harper, the general secretary of the World YWCA, says that while she was working at UNAids she was sexually harassed and assaulted by the deputy executive director of the agency Luiz Loures. She didn't reported because she knew nothing was going to be done about it.
Two women told the Observer they had warned the agency’s executive director, Michel SidibĂ©, about Loures’s alleged behaviour. One former employee, who left in 2015, said: “I had an exit interview with Michel when I left and the first words out of my mouth were, ‘your deputy director is a sexual predator and everybody knows it. I’m telling you because you really have to do something about it.’”
After multiple sexual misconduct allegations Loures announced that he was not going to seek the renewal of his contract at the end of last March and he was allowed to retire without any negative consequences.

And he was not alone:
The announcement of Loures’s departure follows news that Justin Forsyth has stepped down as deputy executive director of Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, after accusations of inappropriate behaviour toward female staff while working for Save the Children.
There is also the case of Ruud Lubbers, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who "was eased from his post 12 years ago, following multiple allegations of sexual offenses against female staff."

And Frank La Rue of UNESCO who also retired with full benefits while being investigated for sexual misconduct.

Feel free to Google Tero Varjoranta of IAEA (he was in charge of the Iran nuclear deal, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and his protector Yukio Amano.

I can go on as these are only the most senior and most visible cases.

You may rightly ask the question whether the UN is doing something about this endemic problem.

Is Anything Being Done?

The short answer is "not really."

UN's position had always been to sweep the dirt under the rug, as illustrated by the egregious case of Luiz Loures:
An internal investigation report said SidibĂ© had attempted to settle the assault allegation informally, despite the matter being under official investigation by the World Health Organisation’s investigations team, Internal Oversight Services.
What was Antonio Guterres' reaction, the Secretary General who was elected over a group of highly qualified and deserving women candidates by claiming his feminist credentials?

Officially, this is what the UN said:
In a statement, the UN pledged to “look at strengthening our capacities to investigate reports and to support victims”. The organisation said Guterres has appointed a victims’ rights advocate and established a high-level taskforce on sexual harassment, to review policies and strengthen investigations. The UN will also carry out a survey to measure the extent of the issue, and introduce a helpline for people seeking advice.
Another task force, you may say but this is not any old task force, this one is special:
Its members will be drawn the Chief Executives Board, which includes 31 top UN officials, just 26% of whom are female. That task force will be chaired by Jan Beagle, who also held the title of Deputy Executive Director at UNAIDS throughout much of the Luiz Loures scandal and did nothing and said nothing. Ms. Beagle was promoted last year by Secretary-General Guterres to the most senior and visible management position in the UN system. The identities of the other members of the sexual harassment task force of "senior leaders" are the Secretary-General's carefully guarded secret.
A internal task force which largely consisted of men whose identity would be unknown and chaired by a colleague of Luiz Loures who did nothing to stop a sexual predator while she was a senior executive at UNAids.

That's the best the Secretary General of the United Nations could do to change the oppressive culture of sexual abuse and harassment.

Unless member states give UN agencies a wake up call about this problem, I doubt that the institution would move to clean house.

And given the largely conservative profile of member state politicians who love their male privileges don't expect any concerted effort in the regard.

As I said before, "women are the last group in the world about whom discriminatory practices and sexist speech are widely tolerated."

And unfortunately, it will continue to be the case with UN being a special case.

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