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The New UN Tech Envoy Is Put on Leave, Pending an Investigation

Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond, a UN under secretary-general and special adviser on the organization’s 75th commemoration, moderating a General Assembly virtual meeting on technology and the Sustainable Development Goals, June 11, 2020. He has been placed on leave, effective immediately. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond has just been named as the United Nations first-ever technology envoy. Hochschild, a Chilean national who has been with the UN since 1988, has served the organization in numerous jobs in the field, starting in Sudan, and at headquarters in Geneva and New York City. Hochschild, 57, was most recently the special adviser on the commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary, a position he technically holds until the end of January.

But there’s one problem: Hochschild has been placed suddenly on leave, with pay, by the UN, pending an investigation by the organization into several complaints by women who have worked with him on the UN-75 project over the last year or so, alleging instances of harassment and other inappropriate behavior.

On Jan. 26, PassBlue asked Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for Secretary-General António Guterres, about the allegations against Hochschild, who was appointed to his new post as well as the UN-75 position by Guterres (the latter in April 2019). On Jan. 27, 2021, Dujarric told PassBlue that Hochschild has been put on administrative leave while the investigation is being done.

“The Secretary-General takes any allegation of harassment, abuse of authority, discrimination or sexual harassment very seriously,” Dujarric told PassBlue in an email. “Allegations of possible prohibited conduct against Fabrizio Hochschild were brought to his attention today.”

Guterres has asked the Office of Internal Oversight Services to conduct its investigation “with priority and in a comprehensive manner,” Dujarric added. Once he receives the results of the investigation, “the Secretary-General will act swiftly and take the appropriate actions on the findings.”

Hochschild was contacted by phone by this reporter on Jan. 27 about the allegations and being put on leave. “I believe in the system I serve,” he said. “I do believe in due process. I will be working fully with responsible entities. I believe strongly that senior officials need to be held to highest possible standards on integrity, political independence, and creating a proper work environment.”

Hochschild was dumbstruck, he said, by having learned of the accusations, but not details, within hours of speaking to PassBlue. He added that the media was not the right place to learn of or respond to allegations.

Immediately before his UN-75 role, Hochschild was the assistant secretary-general for strategic coordination in the executive office of Guterres since 2017, working in a Spartan office with sweeping East River views. His UN-75 special adviser job removed him from the organizational chart of assistant- and under-secretaries generals but was equivalent to the rank of under secretary-general, according to people familiar with his exit from the Secretariat.

The other problem for Hochschild is that his nomination as the first technology envoy apparently surprised the UN community on several levels. He comes to the position, self-admittedly, with minimum tech experience. Announcing the appointment, he tweeted: “Though a relative newcomer to the tech field, I spent many years working alongside survivors of war & poverty, victims of human rights abuses & those w/ limited access to development opportunities. Amidst current tech debates, I draw my bearings from their hopes & needs.”

When a reporter recently asked Dujarric in a media briefing about Hochschild’s experience regarding the new appointment, he said that Hochschild brings “the ability to bring different stakeholders together, both the public and the private sector, governments together.”

The tech envoy post was first announced in the UN’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, released in June 2020. The road map was drafted by a group formed by Hochschild in 2019, acting under the UN-75 mandate but without a formal directive. A confidential proposal for the position was created by Hochschild’s group. The Association for Progressive Communications, a consortium of civil society organizations with official UN consultative status, wrote to Guterres in October 2020 to ask that the tech envoy appointment be backed by relevant and necessary technology expertise and be done with transparency.

Member states from Europe had hoped that a strong advocate on technology and policy would get the post to emphasize regulation and accountability while protecting individuals and their rights to free speech. Some member states had asked that the envoy not be a person in the UN but someone outside it with an appropriate portfolio.

“The way this was carried out raised quite a bit of eyebrows,” one Western diplomat told PassBlue, regarding the tech envoy post. “Normally, member states are asked to submit qualified candidates, particularly women, for such a job.”

“One would have expected with such a high profile and politically important and weighty job, this procedure would have been followed, or at least some other way of carrying out recruitment process in the more transparent way,” the diplomat added by phone.

The lack of transparency around the appointment is also vexing for some people who have been following Hochschild’s recent behavior at the UN. The appointment was announced soon after at least three complaints of harassment, sexual harassment and abuse of authority were filed against Hochschild with the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, PassBlue has learned. The three complaint terms are used in the UN system to offer direction for what constitutes an inappropriate work environment. All three complaints were filed by women who worked with Hochschild on the UN-75 project.

The Oversight Services process is an internal resource for staff to submit complaints, used as an option along with mediation through management or the UN ombudsman. After the office receives a complaint, it judges whether to investigate or dismiss it. Any personnel that it contacts for an investigation is obligated to cooperate. As the official language reads, “All staff members have a duty to cooperate with investigations including participation with interviews.” The office then decides whether it investigates the complaint further and if it necessary to recommend disciplinary action by management.

Hochschild is considered to be a mental health champion at the UN, who speaks on staff support within the UN and outside it. He has talked openly of having post-traumatic stress disorder, which stems from his experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina earlier in his career. Hochschild was born in Britain, attended Oxford University and is married with three children, according to a UN biography.

Several people who have worked with Hochschild and have insight into the complaints filed with the UN oversight services spoke to PassBlue on the condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals. According to the sources, the complaints filed in December reportedly detail accusations of mercurial behavior toward staff by Hochschild. Interactions with him, according to these sources, often involved demands for loyalty, erratic and emotionally abusive behavior and disrespect for the welfare of his staff.

Comments made by Hochschild included attacks on the gender or nationality of his targets, one source said. Much of his criticism was done in front of other staff and was primarily directed at women, another source said. One staff member took a leave of absence to deal with related health problems, sources told PassBlue. Alcohol was apparently available in Hochschild’s office before the pandemic struck in March 2020, after which the UN shut down physically for the most part.

Yet one woman who has worked for him for nearly a year called PassBlue unprompted to deny that Hochschild had behavior problems and was difficult to work with. “In the time that I have worked for Fabrizio, I have not seen him act in a harassing or discriminatory manner, particularly to women and never to myself,” she followed up in an email.

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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