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UN Signals That the Search for a New Tech Envoy May Be Underway

Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond, a special adviser on the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, participating in a meeting on digital technologies, November 2019. He was named the UN’s first tech envoy, just as several complaints about his workplace behavior were filed against him. Put on paid leave pending an investigation into the complaints, his case may be resolved soon to open up the envoy job. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

Fabrizio Hochschild Drummond, a Chilean who has had a long career with the United Nations, remains a controversial figure among some staff members, stemming from a UN inquiry into his workplace behavior that began in December 2020. Certain countries have also been rankled by his being named the organization’s first tech envoy just as the complaints against him were filed.

Recent moves by Secretary-General António Guterres suggest that the decades-long relationship between Hochschild and the UN may be ending and the tech envoy position opening up to other candidates, sources familiar with the situation told PassBlue.

The first two of four complaints, all by women, known to PassBlue were filed in December 2020; the next two in January 2021. The allegations by the four UN personnel who worked for him in 2020 on a project marking the UN’s 75th birthday ranged from creating a hostile work environment to acts of racial and gender discrimination. Specific accusations included Hochschild sending lewd text messages to women colleagues and making inappropriate comments, such as saying aloud how he hoped the women in his office would not get pregnant, as he said it negatively affected their work productivity, several sources said.

The complaints were first investigated by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), according to UN procedure. The office reported its findings in August to the Human Resources Department and the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance (DMSPC). Any follow-ups on the report by the parties involved were directed to the secretary-general’s office. But in September, the case was moved to the DMSPC, where it awaits resolution. Hochschild was put on paid leave as news broke of the investigations.

The DMSPC office was opened in January 2019 as part of a reform instigated by Guterres to ensure more transparency of the world body. While the findings of the report have not been made public, sources have told PassBlue that the investigation confirmed evidence supporting some of the complaints against Hochschild. In keeping with UN policy, once an OIOS report is sent to the appropriate offices, the people involved in the complaints are updated in two-month increments as to the status of the inquiry.

[Update: Nov. 19, 2021: Hochschild has challenged the findings of the investigation conducted into allegations of his workplace behavior, several sources familiar with the situation told PassBlue recently. Hochschild also refuses to resign from his position as an under secretary-general at the UN. According to UN processes, staff members have the right to respond to the findings of a UN investigation into accusations against him or her. Additionally, the staff member may ask for a tribunal to review the process of the investigation and challenge findings on procedural points.]

“A confidential internal accountability process is currently ongoing,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, in an email to PassBlue on Oct. 19 regarding the case. “We are unable to comment on any aspects of an ongoing process.”

[Update, Nov. 19: When asked for a comment on the latest status of the Hochschild investigation, Dujarric said: “The process is ongoing, following established rules for the benefit of everyone involved in any investigation, those who are being accused, those who are doing the accusing. The UN procedure is a long one, and that is defined in relevant rules and regulation, but the process is ongoing.”]

Hochschild denied any wrongdoing when PassBlue broke the story in January 2021 about his being named tech envoy while formal complaints were filed against him. Speaking on the record by phone to this reporter, he said at the time: “I believe in the system I serve. 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.”

At the time, Dujarric said that Guterres denied knowing about the accusations when he named Hochschild as his tech envoy. “The Secretary-General takes any allegation of harassment, abuse of authority, discrimination or sexual harassment very seriously,” Dujarric said on Jan. 26. “Allegations of possible prohibited conduct against Fabrizio Hochschild were brought to his attention today.”

Once he receives the results of the investigation, “the Secretary-General will act swiftly and take the appropriate actions on the findings,” Dujarric had added.

The secretary-general’s envoy on technology was established as part of the UN’s 75th anniversary, in 2020, as the timing was considered ideal for member states to renew their commitment to global digital cooperation. Speaking to the Internet Governance Forum in 2019, Guterres said that he would “soon appoint a Technology Envoy to work with governments, industry and civil society to help advance international frameworks, and nurture a shared digital future that puts people first and helps bridge the social divide.”

A “digital cooperation unit” was attached to the anniversary office, and in June 2020, it produced a report for Guterres, titled “Roadmap to Digital Cooperation,” recommending responsibilities of the envoy post. (Part of Hochschild’s role as the UN75 adviser was to “support the Secretary-General on issues related to frontier technologies and the follow-up to the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation,” the announcement of his job said.)

The digital unit had no formal directive, but it wrote a confidential proposal that would ultimately lead to Hochschild’s next job, when the UN75 office closed. The current budget for the tech envoy covers from February 2021 to December 2021. Until the investigation into Hochschild is final, however, it appears that Guterres can’t name someone to replace him.

Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, an Italian who is the assistant secretary-general for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, is currently leading the tech envoy office. Three other people who worked in the UN75 office also staff it. (The Twitter handle for the tech envoy, which joined the social media site in 2018, lists Hochschild in the position.)

Guterres recently spoke with a European Union executive about the possibility of filling the post before the end of the year, according to several sources who formerly worked for the UN. Funding for the tech job is extrabudgetary, so right now it is being paid primarily through donations from European countries and foundations.

The discussion by Guterres with the EU official, according to UN sources contacted for this article, may also signal the start of negotiations for financing the job for the long term. The preferred candidate would bring such funding with him or her, or win overwhelming approval from member states through the General Assembly to pay for the post. On paid leave, Hochschild has been entitled to receive most of his salary as tech envoy this year, despite serving less than two weeks in the post. The base rate for an under secretary-general is slightly more than $200,000, with adjustments for location added to the rate.

Hochschild’s appointment drew criticism from member states not only because of the complaints against him but also because of his minimal tech experience and the lack of transparency surrounding the appointment. When the announcement was made, Hochschild tweeted on Jan. 22, 2021: “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.”

The Association for Progressive Communications, a group of civil society organizations with official UN consultative status, wrote to Guterres in October 2020 to ask that the new envoy have the necessary technology expertise and that the appointment be done transparently.

European countries had hoped that a strong advocate on technology and policy would get the post to emphasize regulation and accountability — the European Union is no fan of Google, for example — while protecting individuals’ rights to free speech. Some countries had asked that the envoy not be a person in the UN but someone outside it with an appropriate portfolio. Numerous European countries are still competing for the post.

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

Hochschild was born in Britain, educated at Oxford and is married with three children, according to a UN biography. He made his way to under secretary-general through field assignments, starting in 1988, when he worked for the UN high commissioner for refugees, in Sudan. This trajectory included other hardship settings, such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was also deputy special envoy of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca), responsible for, among other things, human resources protocol and policy enforcement. Hochschild has publicly said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his time in Bosnia. Before he became the UN75 adviser, Hochschild, 58, was the assistant secretary-general for strategic coordination in the executive office of Guterres since 2017.

PassBlue spoke with dozens of people who said both critical and positive things about Hochschild as he awaits an official decision about his status. In July 2021, as the OIOS investigation into Hochschild wound down, some staff members who had worked for him in the UN75 office wrote a letter supporting him. Some people who were approached to sign the letter told PassBlue by email that about a hundred current and former colleagues signed it. But other sources suggested far fewer senior endorsements were obtained.

A version of the letter seen by PassBlue describes Hochschild as “an outstanding UN staff member fully committed to our common values and as an exceptional manager, who helped many of us to grow professionally, including through his steady and determined ambition to improve the way the organization delivers on its core objectives.”

Hochschild was contacted in September by PassBlue but would not provide a comment to abide by “the confidentiality requirement the process imposes on all involved, not only myself,” he said.

This article was updated on Nov. 19, 2021.

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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