Guest Post: Sexual Harassment and Assault in the UN

The Ugly Voice of Truth or the Uglier Silence of Indifference
Illustration by @Kneethee

When Antonio Guterres took office, he inherited the mess caused by the UN's mishandling of the child sex abuse scandal in the CAR and the ensuing Deschamps Report, but announced a new “victim-centered approach” to put an end to sexual exploitation and abuse at the UN. Within a year, he had to react to the tidal wave of post-Weinstein public debate on sexual harassment, making grand statements about women in the UN having a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment.  

The basic message was the same; the UN has a 'zero tolerance' for sexual misconduct in any form.

If this new “victim-centered approach” is to be believed, one would expect to see something demonstrably different from the culture that was prevalent in the past. The standard reaction that involves being “shocked and appalled” whenever another allegation is made remains the same, so one has to wonder what – if anything – has actually changed.

What has now come to light is an audio-recording that reveals UN Internal Investigations Director, Ben Swanson, discussing how a senior woman staffer, in fact a Director (D-1), had come to him, in tears, describing how an Assistant Secretary-General had put his hand inside, and down her trousers. Swanson states the Secretary-General was informed of this incident, when surrounded by and in the presence of all his senior staff, and neither he nor anyone else wanted to hear of it.

None of them were 'shocked and appalled'.

None of them asked if Swanson had initiated an investigation.

None of them did anything.

This is not the kind of behaviour that falls within the standard excuses of 'minor misunderstanding', 'cultural gap', or 'boys-will-be-boys' error of judgement. This was more than harassment or even sexual harassment. This was a sexual assault, a serious criminal offence under most domestic jurisdictions. As if the sexual assault itself were not bad enough, Swanson's story gets worse.

The woman Director – who is seen as no different and no more powerful than any of the other countless victims in the system- was discouraged from reporting her assault and told that it would be pointless to speak up since the ASG in question was a “favored son”.

As the Investigations Director, Swanson should have done everything in his power to encourage this woman to give him all the information he needed to initiate an investigation. That is his duty. Since the woman came to him and reported her assault, she almost certainly wanted him to take appropriate action as mandated. Instead, it appears he did nothing. The primary duty-holder with respect to internal accountability for sexual misconduct agreed that there was no point in reporting the assault. He confirmed that the people who discouraged her from reporting were right! This is not only a gross failure of duty to protect, prevent, investigate, respond, and publicise that OIOS holds, but it is a personal failure for an individual in his particular position.

 What are we to understand from this recording?

Presuming that the Director of Investigations at the UN has no reason to fabricate such an incident or the reporting of it to the Secretary-General or recounting the reaction of the Secretary-General anything but faithfully, one works by accepting the veracity and authenticity of the statements made in the recording. Any other starting point would cast doubt on the integrity and reliability of a senior officer of the UN charged with ensuring internal accountability at the world body.

What then follows is that everything the Secretary-General has ever said to assure staff, Member States, beneficiaries, and the general public about there being a'Zero Tolerance Policy' for sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse at the UN are just empty promises! The hours of speeches, conferences, task forces, working groups, special appointees, and representatives were all merely job-creating window-decorations for reputation preservation. In fact, every woman within the Organization should know that they can be sexually assaulted and abused by their senior colleagues so long as the assailants have contacts with some other senior level personnel who act as their enablers and protectors. They should particularly note that seniority, loyalty or years of service do not render one immune from such egregious sexual misconduct nor does it lend one any more protection than those known to be most vulnerable and powerless in the system. They should know that the Organization -including the Director of the Office of Internal Investigations and Oversight - is not going to do anything to truly stop the abuse. Especially when doing the right thing may jeaopardise their own jobs.

What of accountability from the top?

The recording came into my possession several weeks ago. On 7 June 2020 I wrote to the Secretary-General to give him an opportunity to comment.

The Secretary-General has since had a month to come back with either an outright denial of all knowledge of the matter or to show serious concern and order an inquiry or to seek more information from the sender. Instead, there has been silence.

Given the gravity of the incident narrated and the personal indictment of his own conduct,one would presume that the S-G would take the opportunity to formulate a well-crafted response on the recording, even if just to reiterate all the famous taglines of the ‘zero tolerance’ campaign promises.  

From my personal point of view, his lack of response or even concern does not matter. This new development only confirms my own position that women in the UN should NOT report sexual harassment, abuse or assault. The Organization has just proved what survivors have always been told in such cases - there is no point in doing so.**

This recording focuses attention on a very simple and important question: does the Secretary-General simply not care about sexual assault in the offices of the UN?

Everyone working in the UN system is entitled to a satisfactory answer to that question. If there is a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment and other misconduct, the Organization must have a corresponding duty to take reports of sexual assault seriously and a duty to investigate diligently and thoroughly, regardless of who might be accused of it.

To my mind, this is a watershed moment for anyone working in victim rights – because if wilful blindness and all round discouragement from reporting is the response to sexual assault then any claim of promoting a victim-centered and rights-based approach to safeguarding is a bald lie and women best come to work prepared to tolerate being pawed, groped and sexually exploited at will.


* The Author is a lawyer and former OIOS investigator turned whistle-blower.

** The views in this piece are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AAPC. We are happy to amplify all voices fighting for justice against sexual violence at the UN, and grateful that our platform can serve this purpose. We do believe that the UN system needs to be scrutinized for its own conduct and held to its promises. The voices of victims and survivors are a huge part of the crucial organisational and cultural change that we have witnessed over the years, and continue to be so today. Every single person who has had the courage of their conviction to speak up and seek justice has paved the way for others to do so. As such, AAPC believes that there is strength and safety in numbers and not only should survivors report the misconduct they face but every victim and survivor should report every single time they face an indignity at their workplace. Change will not come from silence. Change will come when we are heard. Be loud! Roarrrr!

FAO – Food and Agriculture organization

IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency

ICC - International Criminal Court

ILO - International Labour Organization

IMO - International Maritime Organization


IOM - International Organization for Migration

OECD - Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization

OPCW - Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

OSCE - Organization for security and cooperation in Europe

UNO - United Nations Organization Secretariat

UNAIDS - Joint Unirted Nations Programs on HIV/AIDS

UNDP - United Nations Development Programme

UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

UNF - United Nations Population Fund

UNHCR - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UNICEF - United Nations Children's Fund

UNOPS - United Nations Office of Project Services

World Bank

WFP - World Food Programme

WHO - World Health Organization

WIPO - World Intellectual Property Organization

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

EIB - European Investment Bank

European Parliament

ESO - European Southern Observatory

European Union of Intellectual Property

CDSP Missions and Operations


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Zero Tolerance Must Translate to Zero Tolerance in Action

Limited to no progress towards this promise and no indication that it will be achieved in a reasonable timeframe.

This promise has not been achieved, and although progress is underway, much more work needs to be done. There may also be problems with the actions taken so far that undermine the usefulness of action towards this promise.

This promise has been achieved, or strong positive progress has been made, even if some work needs to be done.

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guteress, made a slew of promises and assurances on combating sexual harassment and abuse (SHA) in the UN. Guteress accepted that the UN had failed to gain the trust of its staff to come forward against misconduct because it had failed to stand by previous complainants. Over a period of 24 months since late 2016, he called on staff to Speak Up against harassment when they see it and to support staff who report it, while himself committing to stronger policies on reporting, retaliation and investigation, as well as a rapid response system.

When one condenses all the Secretary General’s “Zero Tolerance Must Translate to Zero Tolerance in Action” speeches from late 2016 to early 2019, they can be distilled into 10 key commitments. Since accountability is essential in targeting and addressing prohibited conduct, we tracked how the UN was performing on these promises. The following assessments are based purely on our analysis of the limited information on progress available through public domain material.

This assessment focusses on new commitments, made in the wake of the #MeToo campaign and does not cover policy changes prior (e.g. revising the whistleblower policy and the gender parity policy).

Hire SHA specialised investigators OIOS and train all existing investigators in SHA related skills

Six SHA specialised investigators were appointed globally and report to the OIOS representative in New York. It is UNKNOWN whether all existing investigators were trained on SHA related skills.

This promise seeks to improve internal resourcing to investigate and respond to complaints. Therefore, it is concerning that the Office of Staff Legal Assistance (OSLA) has been ignored. Without legal support, neither the complainant nor the accused can navigate the complex internal justice mechanism. Sadly, complainants are frequently advised that they will not require legal support during the internal investigations. The OIOS has seen over 200% increase in SHA complaints since 2016-17 while OSLA continues to work with 12 lawyers for the UN Secretariat global workforce. A holistic assessment of overall staffing needs would be a useful step for achieving the intent of this promise.

All SHA complaints will be treated as 'category A' complaints and investigated directly by the OIOS

Despite being applied for all new cases, the 2019 anti-harassment policy of UN does not make it part of the promised responses. Also, older cases continue to languish without the 'upgrade'.

The process of reporting and investigating SHA to be streamlined, with 3 months deadline and a victim-centric approach

The 2019 anti-harassment policy has done the exact opposite of this promise by completely removing any time line from the investigation and resolution process. Effectively, the SG has backtracked on this commitment.

Launch a 24 hours helpline

The SpeakUp helpline in New York HQ and can be reached at: +1 917-367-8910.

UN duty stations in Addis Abba, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva, New York, Nairobi, Santiago, and Vienna can use extension: 78910. Peacekeeping or political mission personnel must dial an addition prefix: 1212-78910.

That said, these numbers are difficult to recall or use, especially for staff not in the United States; the helpline is staffed by volunteers, rather than a trained dedicated team; and volunteers are not equipped for tele-counselling but rather provide directory services for the most appropriate port of help for the caller.

Conduct a system-wide staff survey on sexual harassment

The Safe Spaces Survey was conducted by Deloitte and published in mid-January 2019.

The survey found 1 in 3 women in the UN face sexual harassment, rising to 1 in 2 for interns, consultants and temp staff (i.e. those on precarious, insecure contracts with greater dependency on supervisors for their UN careers). However, no actions have been identified to respond to this finding, particularly considering the escalating use of short-term and insecure employment arrangements partly as a cost-cutting measure.

Revise internal training modules on SHA, retaliation, ethics, etc.

The mandatory training on the SGB on harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse of authority has been revised. UNKNOWN whether other training have been updated too.

To improve the impact of preventive measures such training, expert behavioural change trainers need to be involved in the design and delivery of any new training.

Harmonise internal rules, policies, and procedures to address SHA as well as to take similar measures

All efforts and discussion for harmonisation of the anti-harassment policy has met with such great resistance that we don't expect this to ever pass! Even the very basic - a common definition of sexual harassment - cannot be agreed by UN bodies, who believe they are all different & unique and need a fit-for-purpose policy.

Create UN system-wide HR screening database of 'confirmed' perpetrators

Clearcheck is available to all UN bodies internally, and maybe opened up to the development/ humanitarian sector at large if proven useful.

However, it continues to face a lot of resistance and concerns on privacy and data storage grounds. As per the progress report, the database is in use but not widely yet. Time will tell whether it is faithfully updated or referenced.

Rebuild trust in the organisation

Through the IASC Champion on SEA and SH, there are efforts for leadership commitment to rebuild trust by bringing to light cases themselves rather than covering up; worrying less about reputation by focusing on follow up and self-reporting; making disclosure obligations for applicants to prevent rehiring of offenders and waiving immunity. OCHA created a fund of $1 million to support and speed up investigations on SEA and SH. However, noting the grave reputational damage from SEA, it is expected that the primary focus of a "joint" mandate on SEA and SHA will remain on beneficiaries rather than what the UN views as “blue-on-blue” transgressions.

Unequivocal commitment to not invoke immunity for those accused of SHA & develop a code of conduct for delegates to the UN

UNKNOWN when and how immunity will be waived, but it certainly has not happened yet!

In existing and ongoing cases, where the Secretary General had invoked immunity, he continues to stress it to protect the officials accused to shield them from local and/or other legal proceedings.

There is no update on code of conduct for delegates visiting the UN and the latest Handbook does not even mention the anti-harassment policy.