Government urged to consider stopping funding for 'boys club' UN agency hit by sexual assault claims

UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibé faces calls to resign over sexual misconduct allegations about the organisation

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Thursday 31 May 2018 21:19 BST
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UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom has called for intervention after saying she was sexually harassed
UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom has called for intervention after saying she was sexually harassed (Stewart Williams)

The government has been urged to consider cutting off millions of pounds of funding to a top UN programme after whistleblowers claimed it was run like a “boys club” with a culture of impunity for sexual abuse and harassment.

Campaigners also issued a plea to Theresa May to intervene to remove Michel Sidibé as executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). He has come under fire over his management of sexual misconduct allegations in the organisation.

Martina Brostrom, who has worked at UNAIDS for 12 years, said in 2016 she made the allegation she was sexually assaulted by former deputy executive director Luiz Loures in 2015, in Bangkok, Thailand. He denied the claims and was recently cleared of any wrongdoing. He stood down from his position in March.

The UK has provided more than £75m to UNAIDS since 2013 and is currently the chair of its programme coordinating board.

Appearing alongside several whistleblowers at a press conference in London organised by the Aids Healthcare Foundation, Ms Brostrom claimed that a culture of impunity had been allowed to exist and compared it to the culture of silence around disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The allegations come amid an ongoing scandal over sexual harassment within the aid sector, sparked by allegations that Oxfam workers hired prostitutes in earthquake-stricken Haiti.

Ms Brostrom said yesterday: “I want to seize this opportunity today to publicly make a plea to the UK prime minister Theresa May to intervene and stop my torment and the torment of others facing sexual harassment, dealing with sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape in the UN system.

“As chair of the UNAIDS board, the UK is uniquely positioned to ensure that sexual assault and violence will no longer go unpunished.”

She said UNAIDs had allowed a “sexist culture where women are more window dressing than actually recognised for their performance”, and called on Mr Sidibé to resign or be dismissed from his post for his handling of her complaint.

A new probe was launched into her case in April but Ms Brostrom said the organisation would play the role of “police, judge and jury” – and it would serve as a PR exercise rather than a meaningful investigation, she claimed.

Describing her “nightmare of a life” after making a formal complaint, Ms Brostrom said she was taking medication and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the height of the Oxfam crisis earlier this year, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said the organisation agreed to withdraw from applying for government funding until the scandal had been resolved.

Asked if the Department for International Development (DfID) should reconsider its funding of UNAIDS, Ms Brostrom said: “I want to move them from passive donors to active partners.

“I think the time of not holding to account your own investments and the agency that you invest in to safeguard the very values that are being abused can happen no more.”

Labour MP Gareth Thomas, a former international development minister, urged the government to use “financial leverage” to bring about a culture change at UNAIDS.

He told The Independent: “It is far from clear to me that the British government are recognising the need for reform at UNAIDS to root out bullying behaviour, bad management and sexual harassment as seriously as they have done in British NGOs.

“It is high time now that Britain used its financial leverage and diplomatic skill to force a change in the leadership at UNAIDS if the international effort to fight Aids is not going to seriously suffer.”

Sophie Barton-Knott, a UNAIDS spokesperson, told The Independent the organisation was “committed to ensuring an enabling working environment for all its staff” and had brought in mentoring and leadership programmes for women, boosting the number of female country directors to 48 per cent last year.

She added: “UNAIDS has recently launched a five point plan to ensure that inappropriate behaviour and abuse of authority are identified early on, that measures taken are properly documented and that action to be taken follows due process and is swift and effective, with appropriate protection both for victims and whistleblowers.

“In addition, the executive director of UNAIDS has called an independent external panel to be established to provide recommendations to UNAIDS on how to further strengthen the implementation of UNAIDS’s zero tolerance policy on harassment.

“The panel is being established by the bureau of the UNAIDS programme coordinating board, which is chaired by the UK.

“UNAIDS and its executive director are firmly focused on moving forward and on continuing to empower and support all staff, so that collectively UNAIDS can deliver results for people affected by HIV.”

DfID has vowed to take all allegations of sexual harassment seriously and has made it clear it will not work with organisations that fail to measure up.

A spokesperson said: “An independent expert panel will be appointed to carry out a review into UNAIDS.

“We will expect them to look at all the allegations raised and to make recommendations for what needs to change.

“We have been very clear that we will not work with any organisation that does not live up to the high standards on safeguarding and protection that we require.”

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