On 20 March 2018, the UN Feminist Network convened a meeting of feminists working in and with the UN system to discuss the ongoing problem of sexual harassment, sexual assault and abuse of power in multilateral organizations. The combined knowledge, experience and expertise of the around 100 participants was noteworthy: the room was full of technical experts on gender-based violence, civil and human rights law, and child protection and safeguarding from UN agencies, departments and offices of the Secretariat, and civil society.
As the #MeToo movement has shown, the UN is not alone in experiencing these problems. The UN is, however, unique in the clarity of its Charter, which commits our organization to “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. We therefore have both a legal and an ethical obligation to ensure that the institution reflects its Charter and principles.
The UN Secretary-General has been outspoken in his personal abhorrence of sexual harassment, abuse and assault, and he has taken action. He appointed Jane Connors as United Nations advocate for the rights of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, he established the Chief Executives Board (CEB) Task Force on Sexual Harassment convened by Under Secretary-General Jan Beagle, and he launched the Speak Up helpline to provide confidential support to any person that has been affected by sexual harassment.
Based on the discussions at our meeting, a task-team of the UN Feminist Network has outlined a set of key principles to be taken forward in addressing sexual harassment and assault. Some UN agencies have taken a variety of steps to address the problem.
1. Listen to the voices of survivors
The processes to define new policies and procedures must engage those who have been affected as victims or as witnesses. As far as we are aware, there has so far been little effort to do this. Consulting with victims and survivors of abuse about their experiences in seeking redress will help identify where current systems are inadequate, and what lessons can be learnt from other jurisdictions or entities. It also sends a strong signal to all staff that their voices will be heard. A twin-track approach is needed: a global Town Hall meeting, convened by the Secretary-General and attended by his senior management team, to listen to survivors and witnesses of abuse; and a confidential process through which staff can share their experiences anonymously, if they prefer.
2. Technical, independent expertise is needed to devise effective policies and investigate allegations
Gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and assault, is a specialized, technical area. From the experience of UN Feminist Network members in the working groups convened as part of the CEB High-level Task-force, it is not apparent that the requisite expertise required to define policy and interventions for the UN system on these issues is being adequately engaged.
Further, the working groups are mostly led by human resource personnel and legal officers for various UN agencies and offices. The remit of these staff members, especially those in legal teams, is to protect the legal interests of the Organizations rather than protect the rights and interests of victims/survivors. This approach has led, in the past, to impunity for perpetrators. We recommend learning from global best practices on addressing and eliminating sexual harassment. Institutions as diverse as the Australian Military and Oxfam have recognized that processes to uncover the extent and drivers of harassment and abuse, and to identify solutions must be led by technical experts who are independent from the organizations they are examining.
3. Invest adequate time and resources to get the solutions right
While we acknowledge the urgency of finding solutions, we are concerned that the CEB taskforce has been given too short a deadline and too few resources to devise an effective means to address this complex issue. The sequencing of interventions is critical.
The launch of the Speak Up helpline provides a case in point. Though helplines can be an important part of a victim-centred response, the institution does not have the adequate policies, structures and systems in place to provide victims with guarantees of confidentiality, and appropriate recourse and support, including perpetrator accountability. Under these circumstances, victims may not report for fear of being stigmatized, discriminated against, re-traumatized or retaliated against without assurance of safety or support. In the absence of the mechanisms for survivor-centred support and recourse, those who come forward are put in a potentially dangerous position and the credibility of the organization is undermined.
4. Culture change should start at the top
We welcome the Secretary-General’s commitment to addressing sexual harassment, but note with regret that his personal conviction is not shared by some members of the UN's senior leadership. We urge the Secretary-General to publicly condemn and sanction any member of the UN’s senior leadership who makes threats against or disparaging remarks about women who have spoken out about sexual assault or alleges mishandling of investigations.
All efforts to deal with the problem of sexual harassment and assault will be undermined and ineffective if a culture of stigma, disbelief and retaliation is allowed to continue, and is perpetrated by those at the most senior levels.
The UN Feminist Network calls for the UN system to learn from its past. Too often, perpetrators have been protected and victims/survivors have been left traumatized and without recourse. We call for an independent audit by gender justice experts of the UN’s internal justice and oversight system from a gender perspective, focusing on the protection of those who are courageous enough to come forward to identify harassment and abuse; an end to impunity; and the need for robust, independent investigation processes. Such a team would examine the UN’s current practices, prioritize the voices of survivors, and make recommendations based on global best practice.
As members of the UN Feminist Network, we passionately believe in the mission and values of the United Nations. We stand ready to assist with this work in whatever ways we can.
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The End sexual harassment and assault at the United Nations petition to UN Secretary General was written by UNFeministNetwork and is in the category Gender Rights and Issues at GoPetition.