Crisis sparked by sex abuse grips UNAIDS chief

UNAIDS head Michel Sidibe has been criticised for his handling of sexual assault claims against a former top official in the organisation
AFP

Geneva (AFP) – It started with sexual assault allegations against a male UNAIDS executive and a heavily-criticised internal investigation that exonerated the accused.

Now the crisis involving accusations against former deputy executive director Luiz Loures has spread, raising pressure on the overall head of the organisation.

Michel Sidibe, a Malian national who took charge of UNAIDS in 2009, is under fire from current and former colleagues as well as civil society groups, who have raised questions about his leadership.

He faces allegations of sheltering powerful men accused of wrongdoing, including Loures, whom two women have publicly accused of sexual assault.

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the world’s largest HIV/AIDS organisation, has called for Sidibe’s resignation and said that without substantive reform, UNAIDS should be disbanded.

“He sits on his throne in Geneva… and is not accountable to anyone,” AHF president Michael Weinstein told AFP. “He wants everything to be adulation.”

UNAIDS did not answer a detailed set of questions submitted by AFP.

In an email, agency spokeswoman Sophie Barton-Knott noted that Sidibe had put in place a “five point plan to prevent and address all forms of harassment within UNAIDS”.

The plan is one of several initiatives launched by the UN, including a new hotline, to address sexual harassment amid the global #metoo movement.

– Death threats and promotions –

Loures left the agency last month.

As well as the two women to accuse him publicly, others have spoken anonymously about him to multiple media outlets.

AFP is not aware of any legal proceedings under way in support of any of the accusations.

One accuser is Malayah Harper, who worked at the agency for a decade and is now the general secretary of the World Young Women’s Christian Association.

In an interview with AFP in Geneva, she said the problems extended far beyond Loures. 

“It comes down to leadership and what you allow to happen, which sets the culture of the organisation,” said Harper, who held country director posts in Africa as well as a senior headquarters role.

She became visibly distressed as she recounted an ordeal in an African country during which a male colleague bullied and intimidated her and other women, including publicly and by using sexually-demeaning language.  

She said she informed senior management and the head of Sidibe’s executive office about the situation but received “no answer” or action. 

Then, Harper said, the individual threatened to kill her, which triggered a UNAIDS internal investigation and increased security at her residence. 

“It essentially takes someone saying they’ve taken a contract out to kill you for a response,” Harper told AFP. 

She said she never saw the outcome of the probe and that the individual was transferred and promoted to a country director position elsewhere on the continent.

“Whether it’s bullying and intimidation or sexual harassment… I can think of many cases where women have raised alarm, but I can’t think of a single case where any action was taken,” Harper said.

“To change the culture of an organisation, it’s not enough to say you have zero tolerance. You have to prove you have zero tolerance.” 

She added, however, that she does not support calls for UNAIDS to be closed as she believes “very strongly” in its mandate. 

– Taking the ‘high road’? –

The other woman to publicly accuse Loures of assault is Martina Brostrom, who remains a UNAIDS employee on medical leave.

The World Health Organization’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (IOS) investigated the alleged 2015 assault and cleared Loures, but the probe has been severely criticised by civil society groups and legal experts. 

Brostrom told CNN that after she filed a complaint against Loures, Sidibe waged “a moral and professional assault” against her. 

Her case was made public by the campaign group Code Blue. 

The group has published a recording of Sidibe’s comments during a staff meeting after Loures’ resignation during which he appeared to suggest that whistleblowers lack “ethics”.

Sidibe promised staff his “full commitment to zero tolerance for any kind of harassment and abuse”, but activists have questioned his sincerity.

Code Blue said that if UNAIDS was serious about reform, it could start with an honest reckoning of the Loures case.

Instead, the agency has provided arguably misleading information about Loures’ reasons for departure. 

In announcing the resignation, UNAIDS communications director Mahesh Mahalingam praised Loures’ “distinguished service” and categorically denied the departure was linked to the allegations.

Mahalingam said that Loures decided it was time “to move on”.

But Sidibe, in the staff meeting, tied the resignation to Brostrom’s allegations. 

Loures took the “high road” so UNAIDS would not be “taken hostage by public opinion courts”, Sidibe said, praising Loures’ “courageous decision”.

– Reform? –

Sidibe has called for an independent panel to provide reform recommendations.

But even the UN’s top official in Geneva has conceded that reform can be tricky at the United Nations.

“We have an organisation where the word accountability sometimes disappears from the vocabulary,” the director-general of the UN’s Geneva office, Michael Moller, told reporters, in comments that were not specific to any agency.

Code Blue has called for all sexual harassment investigations to be handled externally and adjudicated by people with no stake in the UN system, a proposal Moller backed.

But AHF’s Weinstein said Sidibe cannot lead a reform effort.

In a statement, he said Sidibe had damaged UNAIDS’ reputation and is “incapable of leading it”.

Unless the agency “undergoes a comprehensive restructuring and leadership transition, it should be disbanded”, he added.

Three South African civil society groups — TAC, Section27 and Sonke Gender Justice — have also called for an independent probe focused on Sidibe’s role in the Loures case.

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