A sea of new or lingering allegations of harassment and corruption in numerous agencies and programs in the United Nations system appears to be washing over a sprawling organization battered by scandal. Poor or careless management and oversight, from top to bottom, is partly to blame, but so is persistent, overt politicization of high-level appointments demanded by member nations, according to current and former staff members and analysts of the UN.
In recent years, numerous components of the UN system have been rattled by spotlights turned on them from human-rights groups, anticorruption organizations, #MeToo accusers and whistleblowers. Responses from top officials in the agencies and at UN headquarters have been at best uneven.
High-profile agencies have been scrutinized, such as Unicef, the UN Environment Program, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (Unaids). The latter unites the work of 10 UN agencies and the World Bank.
On a smaller scale, targets of insider whistleblowers and critics outside the UN have included some relatively obscure entities, such as the International Civil Service Commission (an independent body in name only), whose chairman retired with his pension last year despite unresolved harassment allegations.
Similarly, at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, its president is asking his board to withdraw the fund from an International Labor Organization administrative tribunal to protect errant IFAD officials, including sexual harassers.
Corruption and abuse of authority in the UN are not new, but until recent years these practices that defy rules and scorn ethical considerations have not been so widely exposed at the level of public scrutiny now seeping through the system. Many allegations involve financial improprieties, management inaction or sexual assault — or sometimes all the infractions wrapped in a single case.
One UN official who wanted to remain nameless called the problems “endemic” and getting worse.
When the underlying factor of a controversial political appointment kicks in, usually for a prestigious and career-building job demanded by a UN member government or regional group, capable international civil servants suffer. They talk of being forced to work under the imposed and often unqualified overlord who may have neither experience in the field nor respect for UN rules.
Stephen Browne, author of the forthcoming book “UN Reform: Past, Present and Future,” has been a UN Development Program representative in Africa and a development official at the agency’s headquarters in New York. Brown is co-director with Thomas G. Weiss of the FutureUN.org project at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Browne also lectures on UN affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
He has watched the evolution of the UN for years and criticizes current trends in its management, particularly in human resources.
“I can only regret the growing, not diminishing politicization of UN appointments,” Browne said in an email. “Such an irony after we finally saw a merit-based selection process for the secretary-general [António Guterres].”
Apprehensions are heard in many places in the UN system about the powerful role of the deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, to whom Guterres has ceded main control and reform of the UN’s development structure and agenda, including the Sustainable Development Goals — Agenda 2030. New policies and decisions are affecting numerous relevant agencies, officials say.
Peacekeeping, often the focus of the most visible or widely reported condemnations of the UN, is a separate situation because its troops are commanded by national militaries who often don’t take human-rights guidelines seriously or don’t punish offenders, which is their prerogative. The relevant departments in the UN Secretariat governing peace and security do have responsibilities, however.
This article does not include peacekeeping, which was the focus of an extraordinarily definitive investigation led by a Canadian Supreme Court justice, Marie Deschamps, in 2015, after charges of sexual abuse involving peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. The report found the UN system “flawed” and dysfunctional.
The problems plaguing Unaids
Unaids provides an exemplary case of multifaceted mismanagement in dealing with abuses that included sexual assault, administrative denials, intimidation and retribution when complainants go public.
Accusations of harassment have been emerging in the agency for more than three years. In January 2018, an external-relations officer, Martina Brostrom, went public with her story of how she had been sexually assaulted in Bangkok in 2015 by a high-ranking Unaids official.
The accused official, Luiz Loures, then deputy director for programs at the agency, denied the allegations. After an internal investigation, the case was dismissed, though Loures left the agency in March 2018, choosing not to seek a renewal of his appointment.
The extensive details of the decision rendered in the case against Loures, who claimed exoneration, were elaborated in an article in the British medical journal The Lancet in April that year.
In the wake of the Unaids decision to dismiss the case, Paula Donovan, co-director with the Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis of AIDS-Free World, and the Code Blue campaign against impunity for sexual misconduct in the UN, wrote to Guterres last year, questioning the role of the executive director of Unaids, Michel Sidibé of Mali. He had formally closed the case, despite having recused himself earlier. Donovan and Lewis asked Guterres to review Sidibe’s involvement.
“Mr. Secretary-General, you are confronted by a gross miscarriage of justice,” they wrote. . . . “It is one of the wretched ironies of this case that the investigators found it necessary, in four of the eleven paragraphs summarizing their findings, to state how perplexed they were by the words and actions of Mr. Sidibé.
“Why do we feel compelled to come forward in this way?” the letter asked. “Because, Mr. Secretary-General, we are called upon to do so. There is such fear throughout the UN system over possible job loss and retaliation that most women who are victimized, and staff who object to the treatment of those who do come forward, are driven into silence. Indeed, the case at hand is a textbook example of aggressive retaliation.
“Every other institution called to account through the movement sparked by #MeToo is rushing to give survivors the benefit of the doubt; only in the United Nations are the victims hounded into resignation and despair,” the authors said.
On Dec. 13, 2018, after a second, more thorough outside investigation, the Report of the Independent Expert Panel on Prevention of and Response to Harassment, Including Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Abuse of Power at UNAIDS Secretariat described the agency as a “toxic working environment.”
It said that only the departure of the executive director could fix it, and Sidibé announced he would leave his post six months early, in June 2019. Advocates for victims say that is not soon enough.
Media in Europe have reported that donors — notably Sweden, second to the United States in funding Unaids — and other countries had suspended or were considering blocking release of their contributions.
According to The Associated Press, the case has been taken out of the hands of the World Health Organization, which oversees Unaids, and sent for review by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services in New York.
The story is far from over for Martina Brostrom, a Swede.
On April 15 of this year, The Associated Press reported from Geneva that Brostrom herself is now the subject of an apparently ongoing investigation into her possible involvement in misuse of funds by her former supervisor, with whom she had a personal relationship. The couple was alleged to have used UN rates and money at hotels for trysts, and in one case apparently asked for invoices showing that their stay was business related. Both are now on leave from Unaids.
At AIDS-Free World, Paula Donovan said in an interview on April 17, 2019, that she sees this previously unknown investigation as retribution against Brostrom. Donovan added that she always believed that the accusations Brostrom leveled at Luiz Loures were credible. He had developed a reputation as a predator; at least two other employees of the agency have reported being harassed by him. He also denies those accusations.
Harassment at Unicef
At Unicef, a case in 2018 involved past conduct of a newly appointed official, Justin Forsyth of Britain, who resigned in February as deputy executive director after staff members complained that he had been given a top job at the children’s agency despite his reputation for inappropriate behavior with women at Save the Children, his previous employer.
Henrietta Fore, the American development expert who had just become Unicef’s executive director on Jan. 1, 2018, quickly issued new measures after the Forsyth debacle “to prevent, report and respond to all forms of harassment in the workplace — including abuse of power.”
Among the measures were “Improving staff vetting and screening for new hires — including professional, background and criminal-record checks. In addition, a specialized UN reference-check facility is being established, and UNICEF will be part of it.”
Fore also announced that she was forming a task force of advisers from both UN and outside women’s organizations as well as the private sector to review Unicef policies.
The Unicef case, among others, points to the growing influence of staff members at agencies, when they organize to confront leadership and garner public support.
Excesses at the UN Environment Program
As for the UN Environment Program, the reaction to criticism of excessive and expensive international travel by the executive director, Erik Solheim, a Norwegian, was by UN standards fairly prompt and decisive. According to exclusive reporting by the Guardian’s environment editor, Damian Carrington, and his colleagues, there had been criticisms of his tenure for months from staff members inside Unep and major donor governments.
But when audit findings began to leak in September 2018, showing the magnitude of Solheim’s misuse of funds — for example, spending nearly half a million dollars in air travel and hotels in 22 months — and being absent from Unep’s base in Nairobi 80 percent of the time, his tenure was no longer tenable, the Guardian reported. Secretary-General Guterres asked Solheim to resign, which he did in November.
With $50 million in donor support at stake, Carrington wrote, “The audit said this was a ‘reputation risk’ for an organization dedicated to fighting climate change.”
The Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden were among the countries that said publicly they had stopped donating to Unep until the problem was resolved. The Guardian also said the US was concerned about Solheim’s involvement with China on environmental projects along the Chinese Belt and Road initiative connecting East Asia to the West.
Allegations rumbling in Unctad
Finally, there is the case of the bedeviled UN Conference on Trade and Development that still seems far from resolution.
Unctad, as the organization is known, is based in Geneva and was a creation and great hope of newly independent nations that emerged after the end of colonialism, most notably in Africa and Asia. It was founded in 1964, with the newly forming G-77 nations plus China at its core, with help from developed nations. (The G77 now numbers 134 members, plus China, and as a caucus commands a solid majority in the UN General Assembly.)
Reflecting the spirit of anticolonial movements, Unctad was a leftist-progressive body, but its early leadership was comprised of some well-known less-ideological economists. Its role was to be a think tank for developing countries, providing technical support and analysis, a current UN official stressed in an interview. Its first secretary-general was Raul Prebisch.
Prebisch was a stellar analyst and thinker on international trade who had also established Argentina’s central bank and statistics office. Seeing the industrialized nations pull ahead in productivity and thus enjoy ever-greater advantages in trade, he promoted structural economic change as well as industrial growth and expansion in developing countries.
Fast forward to Unctad’s current and seventh secretary-general, Mukhisa Kituyi of Kenya, a former member of parliament and trade minister under President Mwai Kibaki. Kituyi was nominated for the Unctad position, African media reports say, not by the full regional group but by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, with whom he had some investment discussions in the past. African nations, acting in solidarity, went along with Kituyi’s nomination. He took office at Unctad in 2013 and was elected to a second four-year term in 2017.
Rumblings of allegations of harassment, misuse of UN funds and corruption have emerged in Unctad. Oddly, it is paired with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as stewards of Sustainable Development Goal 16.4.1, which covers monitoring “Total value of inward and outward illicit financial flows.”
Almost from the start of his appointment, Kituyi has been criticized by his own staff members, who have been directing some of the same allegations that brought down Solheim at Unep: excessive travel, spending as much as two out of three weeks away from his base in Geneva and ties with the Chinese.
Kituyi is close to the Chinese tycoon Jack Ma, whom he has introduced to African leaders as they travel together. Ma has become an adviser to Kituyi and together they have established the Alibaba business school, named for Ma’s successful Amazon-style store.
The result of Kituyi’s ties to the business school and other large corporations has created a new kind of North-South split, with some development specialists in Europe opposed to the growing influence of multinational corporations in the policies and initiatives of Unctad.
A consultant for the Washington-based International Tax and Investment Center, a lobbying group that knows Unctad well, said in an interview that the agency has done nothing illegal.
Critics, however, have the support of core Unctad officials and some government donors, who call for the organization to return to its roots as an entity created by and for the developing world.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.