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!