It has been alleged that sexual harassment has been allowed to live and grow in United Nations’ offices around the world, with suggestion that the perpetrators are able to act without fear of reprimand, while accusations made by victims are largely ignored.
A culture of silence that exists across the organisation has been brought to light by a number of current and former UN employees, who suggest that the grievance system the organisation has in place works in favour of the perpetrators.
Fear of reporting incidents
A number of employees were interviewed by the Guardian, 15 of whom said that they had reported or experienced sexual assault or harassment in the last five years. The offences described included anything from verbal harassment to rape.
7 women formally reported their experiences, though campaigners say that this is something which is rarely done by victims.
Victims often refuse to report cases of sexual assault or harassment due to fears that they may lose their job, and often because they believe that nothing will be done about the incident.
One consultant, who said that she experienced abuse while working for the World Food Programme, said: ‘If you report it, your career is pretty much over, especially if you’re a consultant…It’s like an unsaid thing.’
The UN has admitted that it is concerned about the level of under-reporting within the organisation, however Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the UN, said that the organisation has ‘prioritised addressing sexual harassment and upholding the zero-tolerance policy.’
Employees, who work in more than 10 countries across the world, spoke out on the condition that their identities remained a secret. This is not only because they are bound by UN rules, but because they are scared that they will face retribution for speaking out against the organisation.
Three women who said they officially reported sexual assault or harassment, said that they had been subsequently forced out of their jobs, or had discussions with their employers about their contracts being terminated. At the time of writing, the three women, including a senior UN official, remain employed by the UN.
One woman, who said that she was raped by a UN staff member senior to her when they were working in a remote location. She said that she had no way to pursue justice, and that after the incident, she lost her job.
Despite offering medical evidence, and testimonies from witnesses, she said that an internal investigation found that she did not have enough evidence to support her allegation. She said that she lost not only her job, but her visa, as well as spending time in hospital due to stress and trauma caused by the incident. If she returns to her home country, she says she may face persecution.
A woman who is working in the Middle East on a UN peacekeeping missions said that she thinks the situation for victims has gotten worse, saying that a case she pursued 10 years ago which resulted in a disciplinary procedure for the perpetrator may not have happened today.