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A Sexual Assault Claim at Unaids Suggests a Cover-Up by Its Management


Michel Sidibé, executive director of Unaids, a UN agency that tackles the HIV/AIDS pandemic. A 2016 case by a Unaids staff member claiming sexual assault by a high-level official there has generated controversy over how it was seemingly handled. J.SZENES/UNAIDS

As allegations of sexual abuse and harassment in the offices, field operations and peacekeeping missions continue to plague the United Nations, a case that has recently come to light reveals that in 2016 a woman who worked for Unaids accused a high-level official of the entity of sexual assault. The woman’s claim has been publicized this month by AIDS-Free World, an American-based nonprofit group that advocates for ending impunity for sexual abuse by UN personnel.

The process for handling the accusation by the Unaids employee appears to have been seriously mismanaged by Unaids, as more details have been disclosed by AIDS-Free World. The revelations occur just as the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, recently outlined steps for addressing and dealing with sexual harassment and abuse at the UN, while repeatedly expressing “zero tolerance” for such behavior across the entire organization. Yet the Unaids case suggests that procedures for treating accusations throughout the UN system are not standardized or treated consistently to the detriment of those who claim abuse.

On Feb. 12, 2018, the Code Blue Campaign of AIDS-Free World sent a letter to Guterres, clarifying the details of the allegations brought by the Unaids employee against a senior official there. In response, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for Guterres, said at a media briefing on Feb. 13 that he did not agree with the “logic” of Code Blue’s letter. –– DULCIE LEIMBACH

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Here is the letter verbatim:

12 February 2018

António Guterres
Secretary-General of the United Nations
UN Secretariat
One United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017

Mr. Secretary-General:

On 5 February, we called for an external, neutral, and independent body to review the so-called investigation into the sexual assault and harassment allegations made against Assistant Secretary-General Luiz Loures, UNAIDS’ Deputy Executive Director of Programme.

To be clear, a UNAIDS employee reported that she was sexually assaulted by a senior UN official appointed by you, Mr. Secretary-General.

We mentioned—but did not describe in detail—the bizarre intrusion in the case by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé.

On Friday 9 February, UNAIDS reacted to the objections we raised by issuing a press release that attempted to clarify the procedure that UNAIDS used in dismissing the case against Luiz Loures.

We write to offer a clarification of the clarification and to renew our call, in the immediate term, for an entirely independent, external inquiry into the stomach-churning allegations against Luiz Loures.

The UNAIDS press release states that upon formal receipt of the complaint against Luiz Loures in November 2016, Mr. Sidibé referred the case to the Office of Internal Oversight Services (IOS) for the World Health Organization, which began an investigation in December 2016.

“During the course of the investigation the IOS interviewed several people, including the UNAIDS Executive Director,” according to the press release.

This statement doesn’t begin to tell the full story.

The claimant stated that while the formal investigation was underway, Mr. Sidibé approached her to say that Luiz Loures would like to apologize and to suggest that he himself would facilitate a meeting between accuser and accused, thus putting the whole issue to rest. Appalled and offended by Mr. Sidibé’s attempt to informally resolve the case and halt the investigation, the claimant refused and reported Mr. Sidibé’s interference to IOS.

When brought in for questioning by IOS, Mr. Sidibé denied that Luiz Loures confessed to him, and he told conflicting stories about why he had broached the meeting idea with the claimant. First Mr. Sidibé told IOS that Luiz Loures suggested he intercede with the claimant. “He [Loures] told me clearly that it will be better if we could really make sure that three of us, we could meet to clarify these issues, and not make it a big problems [sic],” Mr. Sidibé said. Then, in a subsequent interview with IOS, Mr. Sidibé said he decided to approach the claimant without Luiz Loures’ knowledge.

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The press release continues: “The UNAIDS Executive Director recused himself from the final decision-making role in the case to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest. Instead, the UNAIDS Executive Director delegated authority over the case to the Deputy Executive Director for Management, a.i.,” Joel Rehnstrom.

It hardly counts as a recusal for Mr. Sidibé to delegate his duties to a subordinate who, at the time, was not only his personally selected interim Deputy Executive Director for Management but was also a candidate for official appointment to the position. Further, Mr. Rehnstrom was a close colleague of Luiz Loures.

We fail to see why this case was not removed from the purview of UNAIDS altogether. As you know, Mr. Secretary-General, the claimant wrote to you directly, asking that you assume the responsibility for making the final decision in the case.

The press release says that IOS concluded the investigation, determined that the allegations against Luiz Loures were “unsubstantiated,” and recommended that the case be closed. Upon receipt of the investigation report, Mr. Rehnstrom “requested the Chair of the standing Global Advisory Committee on Harassment to constitute a panel to review the report and to make recommendations to him.”

The press release does not mention that all three members of the Global Advisory Committee are UNAIDS employees in a chain of command that ultimately reports to the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Mr. Sidibé.

The IOS conclusions are damning.

IOS “found it perplexing” that Mr. Sidibé stated he did not seek Luiz Loures’ agreement for broaching the meeting idea prior to making that suggestion to the claimant.

IOS “found it perplexing” that Mr. Sidibé approached the claimant to suggest a meeting given that he “was aware at the time that the matter was under official investigation by IOS, having referred it to IOS himself in November 2016.”

In addition, IOS “found it perplexing” that Luiz Loures didn’t ask Mr. Sidibé what Mr. Sidibé had discussed with the claimant, “especially given that Dr. Loures had been interviewed as a subject of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault approximately one month earlier.”

IOS said the statements by both Mr. Sidibé and Luiz Loures contained “inconsistencies and anomalies.”

The UNAIDS press release concludes by stating that the Global Advisory Committee “fully concurred with the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation and recommended” to Mr. Rehnstrom “that he close the case.” He did so.

Mr. Secretary-General, we have been reluctant to use the phrase “cover-up” in relation to the Luiz Loures case. But it is becoming harder to avoid the conclusion that the Executive Director of UNAIDS knew the truth about Luiz Loures’ shocking behavior toward a female subordinate. We are beginning to believe that Mr. Sidibé did everything in his power to protect his friend and colleague from the consequences of his actions.

The UN internal “justice” system, we have long argued, is dysfunctional and biased. UNAIDS is not an exception; it proves the rule.

This latest case to hit the media underscores the urgent need for Member States to divest the UN Organization of any involvement in handling claims of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, or sexual harassment made against its own personnel. Full responsibility must be given by Member States to an entirely neutral, external, and truly independent body.


Paula Donovan and Stephen Lewis  
Co-Directors, AIDS-Free World


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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