UN Reckons With #MeToo by Acknowledging Its Harassment Failures

The United Nations (UN) logo is displayed outside the organization's headquarters in New York, U.S., on Friday, April, 27, 2018. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

The United Nations, an organization charged with protecting human rights worldwide, has a harassment problem.

While UN leaders say they have a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment, a report commissioned by the organization showed that more than one-third of respondents to a survey reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment while working for the world body.

Sexual jokes and offensive remarks about workers’ appearances were most often cited. More than 10 percent of those responding, a group roughly split between men and women, reported being touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Overall, about 40 percent of women and 20 percent of men responding reported harassment.

“We got the sense from sexual harassment claims in recent years that they might be just the tip of the iceberg,” Kai Sauer, Finland’s ambassador to the UN, said in an interview Wednesday.

Sauer, who has helped lead efforts to examine harassment issues in the organization, said, “There is no question that harassment is a serious problem at the UN, and it must be addressed. It’s clear that management is taking the issue seriously, but the question is will it trickle down and how quickly?”

Patchwork of Agencies

As the #MeToo movement puts pressure on businesses and governments to stop sexual abuse, the UN has faced similar calls to respond to what’s seen as a widespread problem in its patchwork of agencies around the world.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made accountability for sexual misconduct a focal part of his overhaul of the organization, and the “Safe Space” report by Deloitte is part of the effort to shed light on the problem.

Even before the report, it was clear the UN had a problem on its hands.

Human Rights Watch and UN investigators have documented in recent years that peacekeeping soldiers, deployed to help restore stability in war-torn nations such as Somalia and the Central African Republic, abused their positions by preying on vulnerable and impoverished women and girls.

But the latest survey indicated women in office settings, such as UN headquarters in Manhattan, are also targets, with 58 percent of incidents taking place in an office setting.

Read a QuickTake on why companies want to harassment out in the light

Recently, Michel Sidibe, head of the UN agency tasked with fighting HIV, offered to step down later this year after an independent report criticized his leadership after he was accused of mishandling sexual assault allegations at the organization. UNAids officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Sidibe’s response to the accusations.

One caveat with the Deloitte report is that not enough workers responded, a sign that many may still feel uncomfortable with the subject, according to Guterres. Only 17 percent, or about 30,000 employees across 31 UN agencies, participated in the survey. The highest number of respondents came from the U.S., where the global organization is based and 1,464 people took the survey.

“The results confirm that this issue has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and there are continued barriers to reporting, including a fear of retaliation and a perception that perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity,” Guterres said in a statement. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options