“One case of harassment, one case of misconduct of power is too many. We are striving to get to zero”

This was the statement of Gunila Carlsson, deputy executive director during the Special Session of UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB)[1]. AIDS Action Europe participated in this meeting because we think that only a strong organization that is willing to counteract any kind of sexual harassment is able to lead by example and serve the people living with and affected by HIV.

The special session of the UNAIDS PCB was called together to follow up on the situation of sexual harassment and abuse of power within the UNAIDS Secretariat. It is one of the developments of the situation around UNAIDS for the last 12 months that started from media taking upon a case of sexual harassment within the organization and the organization´s inability to adequately response to it.

As part of the response, during the 42nd UNAIDS PCB meeting that took place in June 2018, an Independent Expert Panel (IEP) was set up, whose task was to investigate the situation within UNAIDS, existing instruments and structures, and to provide recommendations on how the situation can be improved.

The IEP’s report became public on December 7, just three days before the 43rd UNAIDS PCB meeting. However, the publication of the report was preceded by a round of discussion within the UNAIDS Board on whether the report should be available for the public or not. Finally, the Member States decided to go for a vote on publishing the report - a first time for the PCB - as they have worked by consensus in the past.

The findings of the report showed that UNAIDS failed not only in responding to the victims of sexual harassment but also in providing a safe space for its employees. A safe space where they can be who they are regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV-status. The findings of the report concerned not only the Secretariat in Geneva but also at the country offices, including all levels of staff. But since UNAIDS is a programme of the UN, similar to UN agencies, it goes under diplomatic protection, which means that employees cannot go to local courts for legal remedies to have their rights protected, but staff should search for justice within the UN system which sometimes fail to adequately response to misbalance of power.

The report was followed by the UNAIDS Secretariat Staff Association´s (USSA) survey, and based on its findings a report that was put together in a record time to be presented at the meeting. Findings of the survey supported most of the findings of the IEP’s report. However, besides expressing their full support to those who have suffered, many staff members of UNAIDS, who are passionate about their work, felt being under attack by the amount of criticism and attention that UNAIDS received for the past 12 months, created an unhealthy atmosphere and working environment.

During the December PCPB meeting, where the IEP’s report as well as its recommendations were presented and discussed, clearly showed a division on the issue not only between the member states but also within the civil society organizations. Even though, every delegation stated zero tolerance to sexual harassment and abuse of power, the findings of the report especially its recommendations that the necessary changes within the UNAIDS cannot be done under the current leadership were received differently.

During the meeting the current executive director, Michele Sidibe, announced that the June 2019 meeting will be his last meeting, meanwhile the UNAIDS Secretariat developed their Action Plan to address the issue of harassment and sexual abuse. The PCB also decided to have a special session on discussing and addressing the findings of the IEP report latest by the end of March 2019.

The one-day Special Session meeting that took place on March 28 focused on two agenda items:

  1. Update on prevention of and response to harassment, including sexual harassment; bullying and abuse of power at UNAIDS Secretariat
  2. Selection Process of the next Executive Director of UNAIDS

During the meeting both the Action Plan to address harassment at UNAIDS and an update on the recruitment process were presented.

The subsequent comments and discussion showed again the division between the member states. Some countries flagged that even though they acknowledge that the action plan is work in progress, they asked for further information on the monitoring of the progress. They also reminded the Board that previous cases should not be forgotten and need to be addressed. Other member states, however, expressed their reluctance to discuss the details of the IEP report, as in their views the IEP overstepped its mandate, the report and its findings are unbalanced and the situation around it created an unfortunate division of the member states, a precedent the UNAIDS won’t be able to manage.

AIDS Action Europe made two interventions during the meeting one on each of the topics, highlighting the need for change at all levels of UNAIDS. You can read the interventions here and here.

[1] The PCB, the governing body of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which usually meets twice a year to overlook the work of UNAIDS,. The UNAIDS PCB consists of 22 member states, the 11 co-sponsor organizations (other UN agencies) and the 5+5 NGO delegates. AIDS Action Europe held a seat at the NGO Delegation to the UNAIDS PCB for the period of 2016-2018, representing the WHO Europe region. AAE decided to continue participating at the UNAIDS PCB meetings as an NGO observer to support the work of the NGO Delegation and bring forward the voice of communities living with and affected by HIV and civil society in Europe on the global agenda.