LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Several United Nations agencies have vowed to ramp up efforts to tackle sexual harassment and protect victims following reports of a culture of silence and impunity at U.N. offices worldwide.
Prominent U.N. agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and refugee agency (UNHCR), said they had fired several staff last year, and were reviewing or overhauling their sexual harassment policies amid concerns that abuse went unreported.
Wide-ranging changes include tougher punishments for harassers, better protection for whistleblowers, and an end to time limits for staff to report cases of sexual misconduct.
“There is no place for sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment, especially in an organization dedicated to serving and protecting others,” a UNHCR spokesman said by email.
The pledges by the U.N. follow a pivotal year for women’s rights after allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo campaign, with women taking to social media to share their experiences of abuse.
Tales of misconduct spread across the working world, with lawmakers, athletes, journalists and models all alleging abuse.The charity sector, too, was hit, and two big aid groups - Oxfam and Save the Children - revealed they had sacked a combined 38 staff over sexual misconduct in the past year.
The U.N. has been hit by dozens of cases of alleged sexual harassment committed by its staff globally in 2017 and a recent investigation by British newspaper The Guardian said employees feared that reporting such complaints could cost them their job.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked the office of the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and four of its most high profile agencies about such cases and their responses - offering a snapshot of U.N.-wide efforts to stamp out harassment.
UNHCR said it had fired two members of staff over such allegations in 2017.
WFP fired one employee, suspended another - an investigation is underway - and is probing a third case.
The U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) documented four allegations in 2017 - one was found to be unsubstantiated, one is under investigation, while two other staff members have since left the organization.
The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) said it is examining four cases of sexual harassment, while the secretariat - which administers and coordinates the activities of the U.N. - referred four cases for possible disciplinary action.
These cases concern sexual harassment as opposed to cases of sexual exploitation and violence, which have hit headlines in recent years in nations from Haiti to Central African Republic.
WFP executive director David Beasley this month announced an overhaul of the agency’s sexual harassment policy and vowed to hire more women and give more senior roles to female employees.
“If you are not willing to treat everyone with dignity and respect and if it bothers you that the workforce of WFP is going to include more women at all levels, then there is no place for you at WFP,” Beasley wrote in a public letter to staff.
The U.N. boss in November created a task force on sexual harassment to review, improve and coordinate policies across the various agencies, according to his office.
Yet each agency has its own rules and code of conduct for its staff, while Guterres does not have direct authority over all parts of the U.N. system, said spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
“The Secretariat is committed to continue working on this issue and welcomes the significant social movement which has drawn renewed attention to sexual harassment in the workplace.”
The U.N. pledges could be a sign of “concrete change in the industry”, according to Megan Nobert, founder of Report the Abuse, which collects data on sexual abuse against aid workers.
“This is also what zero tolerance begins to look like in practice, not just in words,” said Nobert, who was raped by a colleague working at a U.N. peacekeeping base in South Sudan.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org