A new BBC documentary sheds light on allegations of corruption, managers turning a blind eye and sexual abuse within the United Nations.
UN employees who tried to report illegal behavior told the BBC they were sanctioned after speaking out and some were fired.
Purna Sen, who in 2018 was appointed spokesperson for harassment, assault and discrimination issues, said there were women in the organization who had been “approached, abused and raped”.
As long as men continue to be allowed to get away with it, he said, “they will continue to do so.”
Sen demanded that the UN appoint a diverse external panel to analyze staff experiences and recommend a series of concrete actions.
The UN says it is committed to protecting “genuine whistleblowers” and holding the staff involved accountable. It also indicated that it was open to any external review of its efforts “to combat crimes of any kind.”
Martina Brostrom, a former UNAIDS senior adviser, told the BBC documentary The Whistleblowers: Inside the UN (“Informers: Inside the UN”) who had been a victim of sexual harassment at work.
“Sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment at the UN happens at headquarters, it happens Monday through Friday, it happens during business hours, everywhere,” he said.
said it had been harassed by Louis Loures, deputy executive director of EITHERNORAIDS and Assistant Secretary Generalwhom he described as “sleazy” and known for his inappropriate behavior.
During an event in Bangkok in 2015, she said, he forcefully kissed and groped her in an elevator as they were leaving a meeting, before trying to drag her to her room.
“I begged him to stop, to let me go. I had to shield myself with the elevator door to stay inside because I was afraid of that long corridor, ”she declared. “My mind was obviously reacting very, very quickly and fearing what might happen.”
Brostrom filed a formal complaint and spoke with UN investigators. The institution and UNAIDS “they retaliated in a very petty and hurtful way” against her, he said.
“That hurts a lot because it’s like being raped all over again. As if they didn’t give you a chance to breathe.”
In 2018, Luiz Loures retired from the UN with a thank you for “his 22 years dedicated to service”. Questioned by the BBC, he replied: “I have never harassed or assaulted anyone. The accusations are baseless.”
In this regard, the UN declared that “the accusations of harassment against Dr. Loures were investigated,” and that at this time they were not “in a position to comment on the veracity of these complaints.”
In August 2021, Brostrom received a letter from the UN acknowledging that she had been “sexually harassed over an extended period of time,” but, referring to her allegation that she was sexually assaulted in 2015, they concluded that “something traumatic was happening to her.” happened that is consistent with his account of the situation”, but the conclusions “they did not meet the evidentiary standards“.
The United Nations has a protected legal status and its top officials enjoy diplomatic immunity from all national laws.
This is granted to the organization to protect it from interference in the performance of its duties. But the UN notes that such status is not granted for the personal benefit of its employees, so it does not protect those who commit crimes such as sexual assault.
All staff complaints are analyzed internally. The United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) handles the most serious allegations, including criminal complaints, but has no legal authority.
The BBC received a secret recording suggesting that OIOS is not always effective.
In it, the director of the investigations division, Ben Swanson, is speaking at a staff meeting where he mentions that a high-ranking UN official visited him in tears and described how one of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ aides had put his hand on her inside the pants.
In the recording, Swanson says he told the secretary general and other senior officials about the details of the sexual assault allegation, but they immediately shut him down. “So I tried to tell this story and… they cut me off,” he is heard saying.
He added that the woman was dissuaded from reporting the alleged sexual assault and was told that it would be useless to file a complaint because the man in question was one of the “preferred.”
Peter Gallo – the informant who shared the audio recording – says in the documentary: “I spent four years as a researcher at the UN headquarters in New York. As a result of that experience, I think the organization is riddled with corruption the feet to the head“.
After hearing his testimony, Purma Sen wondered, “Why doesn’t the Secretary General say ‘This is unacceptable, what are we going to do about it?’ Instead we hear ‘No, we’re not going to touch that’”.
According to Sen, although the UN is a defender and advocate for human rights and, in fact, is the creator of most of those human rights, “it has not yet learned to promote them among the people who work for the organization.”
The UN secretary-general’s office says it remains committed to “sanctioning any worker, high or low, who sexually harasses.”
Although Sen told the BBC she was not surprised by these “deeply disturbing” testimonies, she indicated that Martina Brostrom’s case was symptomatic of a broader problem at the UN.
In the documentary, he recounted that a third of UN staff say they have experienced sexual harassment at work, but that the vast majority of cases had not been reported.
“The cases that we know of are the tip of the iceberg. People feel that there will be adverse consequences if they report them, that they will retaliate against them,” he assured.
“If I had been sexually assaulted or abused, I probably wouldn’t have reported it. I would not expose myself to that process.”
In a statement, the office of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, declared that there have been “important improvements in combating the scourge of sexual harassment, from which no organization is immune.”
He assured that the measures included the hiring female investigators to examine allegationsa hotline for staff to report misconduct, and better training for senior management.
However, in conversation with the BBC, Purma Sen says that the testimonies that appear in the documentary suggest that The UN has not kept its promises of zero tolerance and that he still has “a long way to go”.
“Whether it is corruption, fraud or sexual harassment, [el personal de la ONU] he feels that he cannot even make a report, that complaints are dismissed too soon from the start. They are given no alternative procedures and no chance to appeal,” he stated.
“It is true that the UN has addressed some of its big mistakes of the past, but it has not gone far enough. I have seen things that are very worrying, that can and should be addressed as an urgent matter, not just with words but with deeds.”
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