UN official questions ethics of sexual misconduct victims in bizarre speech

UNAids chief takes aim at harassment whistleblowers and praises outgoing deputy accused of assault for taking the ‘high road’

The head of a UN agency has attacked whistleblowers who raised concerns about the handling of a recent sexual harassment and assault case, apparently suggesting they lacked ethics and morals.

Michel Sidibé, the director of UNAids, made disparaging remarks about employees who have spoken out, while praising as “courageous” the decision of his deputy to step down following an unsubstantiated allegation of sexual harassment and assault. Many of those who have raised concerns about misconduct within the agency allege that they also experienced abuse.

Sidibé made the comments in a private speech to hundreds of staff, details of which have been leaked to the Guardian.

His words are likely to been seen as further evidence that international organisations and charities are neither taking allegations of sexual misconduct seriously nor offering protection to whistleblowers.

In his address, Sidibé repeatedly commended his former deputy director, Luiz Loures, for “taking the high road”. He dismissed as “total lying” the claim that a former staff member had warned him Loures was a “sexual predator”.

Loures, who is also an assistant secretary general, was accused of sexually harassing an employee and assaulting her in a lift. An internal investigation found the allegations were not substantiated, but campaigners claimed the inquiry was flawed. Loures said his decision not to seek renewal of his contract was unrelated to the sexual misconduct allegation.

Last month, Malayah Harper, general secretary of the World YWCA, one of the world’s oldest women’s rights organisations, called for an independent investigation into what she called pervasive bullying and sexism within the agency, alleging that she was harassed and sexually assaulted by Loures. Another woman also claimed she had been assaulted, while two further staff members said they had been either harassed or pursued by Loures.

During the speech, Sidibé made disparaging comments about women who had spoken out.

“We know there are people taking their golden handshake from us here and knowing that they have a job and then attacking us,” said Sidibé.

“We know all about that. We know every single thing. Time will come for everything. When I hear anything about abuse of our assets, abuse of our things, I ask for investigation. Maybe these investigations are going on.”

In the all-staff meeting, Sidibé said he had the full backing of António Guterres, the UN secretary general. Sidibé claimed Guterres had called him to say, “Let us continue, let us do what is right for people, let us not be held back.”.

Sidibé told staff they must not be divided, adding: “If we are not going united out of this room, believe me a lot of people will be losing their job, and families will be suffering – and that is not the people who should be suffering.”

Sidibé also appeared to criticise staff who have spoken to the media about concerns relating to the handling of the Loures investigation. “Some people don’t have ethics, and they don’t have [a] moral approach to respect this confidentiality,” he said, adding that he would not speculate on the case involving Loures.

Last month, several UN staff members told the Guardian they had been approached at their desks and asked to sign a letter in support of the deputy director.

UNAids said in a statement that Sidibé was concerned “that the confidentiality needed to protect staff involved in the investigation was breached”.

In a staff question and answer session following the speech, one UNAids employee said: “Many of us are frightened to say how we feel about the issue in general and in specific what’s happening now.”

The employee added that while they could not comment on the Loures case, perpetrators needed to be punished. “Ultimately, what’s going to make staff feel safe is that ultimate impact indicator,” he said.

Sidibé used his address to outline a new, five-point plan to tackle sexual harassmen. The initiatives he mentioned included focal points in each department, an open platform to report harassment, better training, and an enhanced performance management system.

Sidibé also suggested that Loures’ case had lasted too long and the investigations process should be shortened. “For me it was difficult because it was 14 months, every day. Maybe you’re seeing the outcome, but for me it was 14 months,” he said, suggesting the protracted nature of the investigation made manipulation possible.

Luiz Loures, outgoing deputy executive director of programme at UNAids
Luiz Loures, outgoing deputy director at UNAids, was cleared of sexual assault by an internal investigation. Photograph: UN photo and UNAids Brazil

“There is nothing in this plan which is independent of senior management review. There is nothing in the five-point plan to make staff feel safe or empowered to speak out,” another employee, who wished to remain anonymous, later told the Guardian.

In February, the Swedish government wrote to all heads of UN funds, offices, programmes and specialised agencies, warning it was “deeply troubled by recent reports of sexual harassment and abuse within the UN system”.

A spokesman for the secretary general said Guterres had contacted all agency heads, including Sidibé, asking them to create an environment where staff are respected.

“He encouraged them to follow recent steps taken by the secretariat to make it easier for staff to report sexual harassment, strengthen their agencies’ investigative capacities, and raise awareness of this issue,” the spokesman added.

The campaign group Code Blue, which raised concerns relating to the investigation into Loures, is urging member states to create an external oversight commission to monitor cases.

UNAids said in a statement that Sidibé’s comments were “dual in nature – to thank Mr Loures for his gesture [in stepping down] and for the organisation to move on and shape the future.”

It added that Sidibé had said the Loures case was painful for the agency and there was a need to learn from it. His comments on the length of investigations “were aimed at explaining the fact that the investigation took a long time and that cases of sexual harassment must be investigated thoroughly and quickly”.

UNAids also expressed support for the principle that perpetrators should be punished. “Sidibé expressed an opinion that if the organisation does not put forward a strong front, including addressing issues of harassment, punishing perpetrators, then funding cuts could occur and people who had done nothing wrong might suffer as a consequence.”