GENEVA: The crisis engulfing UNAIDS deepened Friday with the release of an expert report that found the agency’s leaders, including executive director Michel Sidibe, systematically failed to address bullying, abuse and sexual harassment.
It was Sidibe who had pushed for the creation of the Independent Expert Panel, following the accusation that he and the agency mishandled sexual assault allegations against former deputy executive director Luiz Loures.
But the panel’s findings include a blistering indictment of Sidibe’s stewardship, claiming his secretariat is mired in “a crisis which threatens its vital work.”
“The leaders, policies and processes at UNAIDS have failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power in UNAIDS,” the panel said.
“The evidence before the Independent Expert Panel of a broken organisational culture is overwhelming.”
The report, based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of staff surveys, said the agency tasked with coordinating the global response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic suffers from “a vacuum of accountability.”
“The leadership of the UNAIDS Secretariat fails to accept responsibility for a culture of impunity becoming prevalent in the organisation, a culture that does not ensure a safe and dignified workplace for its staff, and one that fails to respect human rights in line with law and United Nations values,” it added.
Staff also described “a work culture of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation against those who speak up about harassment and abuse of power,” it further said.
Calls to resign
Sidibe, a Malian national who has led UNAIDS since 2009, has faced intense scrutiny since the Loures case became public.
An initial internal UN investigation cleared Loures of wrongdoing. But Loures’s accuser, UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom, then went public exposing flaws in the first probe including Sidibe’s attempt to settle the dispute even as a formal process was ongoing.
A new investigation was opened in April.
Brostrom told AFP that she hoped the panel’s report would lead to Sidibe’s ouster.
“I want to believe that UN Secretary General (Antonio Guterres) sees the danger that the UNAIDS executive director represents for the whole UN system and that he takes this opportunity to demonstrate that his notion of zero tolerance of harassment is not just an empty slogan,” she said.
Multiple civil society organisations that work on HIV/AIDS have previously called on Sidibe to resign, but the agency maintained Friday that he had no plans to leave.
“The Executive Director is firmly focused on the future. He (is) fully aware that there is a lot of work to do — across all levels of the organisation –and he is determined to lead that transformation,” agency spokeswoman Sophie Barton-Knott told AFP.
‘Abuse of authority’
The decision on whether to force Sidibe out likely rests with the agency’s British-led oversight body, the Programme Coordinating Board, which meets next week.
But the expert panel detailed an environment that will certainly escalate pressure on him to go.
“The Executive Director … has created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority and in his interviews with the Panel he accepted no responsibility for actions,” it said.
The panel also raised doubts about Sidibe’s ability to lead a reform effort, describing the solutions he proposes as “superficial and insufficient.”
“Our inevitable conclusion from the review is that the state in which we find the organisational culture of UNAIDS is something for which the leadership of the organisation must be responsible and held accountable.”
Paula Donovan from the Code Blue pressure group, which has led the effort to expose rot at UNAIDS, called on Guterres to act immediately.
“In 30 years, I have never heard of an independent report that delivered such a scathing indictment of internal UN leadership,” she said, referring to the panel report.