At a press conference in London yesterday, women’s rights advocates called on the UK Government to act on the sexual harassment scandal at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) by supporting appeals from civil society to initiate comprehensive reforms at the UN agency and put pressure on the Secretary-General António Guterres to dismiss Executive Director Michel Sidibé.
The press conference at King’s Fund in central London was covered by a number of media outlets including: The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Guardian and The Telegraph. Geneva-based UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom, who accused Sidibé of covering up a sexual assault which she was subjected to at the joint programme, was a key speaker at the event.
“I want to seize this opportunity to publicly make a plea to UK Prime Minister Theresa May to intervene and stop my torment, and the torment of many others facing sexual harassment, or dealing with sexual assault and rape in the UN system,” said Brostrom.
Referring to the Department for International Development’s role as chair of the UNAIDS Program Coordinating Board and its upcoming meeting in Geneva at the end of June, Brostrom said, “The UK is uniquely positioned to ensure that sexual assault and violence will no longer go unpunished.”
A cornerstone of the UNAIDS mission is the empowerment of women and girls across the world, particularly in Africa and Asia where women are often the most marginalized group. South African women’s rights advocate and academic Vuyiseka Dubula joined the press conference via Skype and reiterated calls for an independent panel to investigate abuse and harassment allegations at UNAIDS.
“From our side as African women who have been leading in the AIDS response in Africa, we feel that the UNAIDS response, especially in the recent complaints against sexual harassment, not just the response but also in the leadership, has been inadequate,” said Dubula.
“UNAIDS is an institution that really spearheads and leads the AIDS response globally and we need UNAIDS as a very strong institution. UNAIDS can be strong without Michel, and Michel is not UNAIDS. So Michel as a leader must account for his handling of the cases but also step out to allow UNAIDS to reform,” she added.
Prashanti Tiwari, a former sub-contractor with UNFPA India also spoke at the event. She has also endured sexual assault by a co-worker with unacceptable follow-up actions from the UN system.
“Where is the justice, the empowerment that they talk about – they put all of their might into re-victimizing,” said Tiwari. “When I raised my voice after the assault, it was equally as horrific. I was assaulted with questions – which hurt my integrity and confidence. This happens to every woman who raises her voice to the UN and they get away with it because they have diplomatic immunity and protect the perpetrators by turning a blind eye to the victims.”
Deafening calls have rung out worldwide over recent months calling for the resignation or removal of Sidibé—but other than a taxpayer-funded PR campaign using expensive ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Sidibé and UN Secretary-General António Guterres have done nothing.
Zoya Shabarova, AHF Europe Bureau Chief holds up a UNAIDS advertisement which is running weekly in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. “We are questioning this advertisement as a form of expensive damage control, when what is needed at UNAIDS is real and meaningful reform.”
“Sidibé’s complicity fosters a toxic culture of a lack of accountability that promotes harassment, abuse and cover-ups, which has severely damaged the reputation of UNAIDS,” said AHF Europe Bureau Chief Zoya Shabarova. “He is morally unfit to lead the organization and must be removed if he refuses to step down. Even worse, he continues to abuse his power by pressuring civil society organizations to publicly support him. We urge civil society to see beyond the public relations efforts used to mask the scandal. Let us instead demand substantive change – an empowered woman leader and an open, safe and honest UNAIDS.”