Combating Sexual Harassment at the United Nations

Event Video

A panel of UN officials, diplomats, and experts from civil society took up the topical subject of how to combat sexual harassment at the United Nations at a March 28th IPI policy forum, emphasizing that any approach must acknowledge and address systemic gender inequality, and must be victim-centered.

Many of the speakers noted the timeliness of the debate. Jan Beagle, UN Under-Secretary-General for Management, said, “We’re at a pivotal point in terms of looking at this issue. We’re really at a time when it has come to the top of the political agenda, to the top of the media agenda, and we are seeing that it is a problem that goes across all sectors.”

Commenting on the systemic nature of sexual harassment, she said, “I think that there is no industry which has been exempt from it, there’s no culture, there’s no country, there’s no one, however famous; it is an issue that cuts across.”

Considering its prevalence in society, the lack of clear channels of recourse for survivors, and the previously unaddressed and taboo nature of harassment due to widespread impunity, she said that sexual harassment “has really been veiled in silence for too long…we really do need to bring it out into the open, so I’m very pleased that we are here, and we’re here really as a result of courage, of people who have come out with the #metoo and #timesup movements.”

Joanne Sandler, Senior Associate at Gender at Work, and a former executive of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), pointed out that sexual harassment is not about sex, but rather about power, and that makes it harder to root out. “Those who are working to change the current situation need to remember…organizational culture eats organizational strategy for breakfast,” she said.

“It’s about a system,” she continued, “and it’s about abuse of power; without tackling the deep structures that hold gender inequality in place, sexual harassment will just find other spaces and forms to take place.”

The panelists asserted that those who have experienced harassment need to feel that they will not suffer adverse consequences to their jobs and livelihoods when they report harassment. Ms. Beagle said that the UN has actually had a policy on sexual harassment in place since 2008, but conceded that it had not provided women a secure opportunity to bring forth claims. “We need to create an enabling environment where people feel safe to report,” she said.

When the UN is designing policies to address sexual harassment, “It is so important to have the voices of those who have gone through this, who have experienced sexual harassment,” said Ms. Sandler.

Within groups that are formulating policy there must be people who are the “most vulnerable,” she said. “Because if they’re not there, and it’s just a top-down process, then the policies and practices won’t work…So, hopefully there will be that level of inclusion.”

By setting a “tone from the top,” Ms. Beagle explained, leadership should create linked policies that ensure an environment where “people feel safe to speak” about their experience with sexual harassment. She noted that Secretary-General António Guterres had installed a task force on preventing sexual harassment at the UN and that the UN had established new resources for those who had experienced harassment. These included a 24-hour Secretariat helpline available for survivors to seek support, and counseling and investigation procedures for victims.

He installed mandatory training and a survey for staff to make them more aware of procedures and help leaders better understand how to listen to colleagues, she said. The Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has an updated policy to streamline procedure, and Ms. Beagle emphasized the need for harmonization of policies throughout a shared system of best practices.

Koki Grignon, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Kenya, said that even though OIOS was now empowered to act on this issue, it was still necessary to have a “structured way” to take on the task. Even so, she said, “it is not comprehensive enough.” The only way to address this “multidimensional issue,” she said, is through the “societal change of attitudes,” and through “support mechanisms that encourage victims to speak up.” She mentioned as an example the law in Kenya which has a clear definition of sexual harassment and procedures to curb it.

Even so, she said, “it is not comprehensive enough.” The only way to address this “multidimensional issue,” she said, is through the “societal change of attitudes,” and through “support mechanisms that encourage victims to speak up.”

Israel has been a leader in shaping a policy against sexual harassment at the UN, and Orit Sulitzeanu, Executive Director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in the country, said the law there allowed for three channels of action—filing a complaint with the police, filing a civil suit, and filing a complaint at the workplace.

She addressed certain organizational situations that enable sexual harassment to occur more easily. Among them, she said, were significant age gaps between senior male employees and female subordinates, night shifts or irregular working hours, out of office work and travel, physical contact such as in medical treatment and in sports, and multicultural and multi-linguistic organizations in which there can be misunderstandings between coworkers with regards to norms and values.

She described a voluntary, victim-based code for prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace that had been adopted and applied to organizations in Israel. “It makes our organizations, corporations, and workplaces safer, better, more productive, and more respectful environments,” she said. She described sexual harassment as “an acute problem but not an incurable disease.”

Ms. Sandler, expanding on her point about the importance of the policy being centered on the needs of the victims, warned that “if the UN creates a top-down process to produce rules and practices on sexual harassment that are rooted first in protecting the organization rather than the staff, it sends a clear message and reinforces power inequalities. Putting lawyers and human resource people at the forefront of developing policies and resources for survivors and failing to consult with the women and men who are survivors and who have stories to tell signals this is more about the organization’s liability than it is about staff.”

“So if those who have experienced harassment…are not at the table in constructing the UN’s response,” she concluded, “how effective could it possibly be?”

Danny Danon, Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, made opening remarks in which he said he hoped the event would be the start of expanding the discussion of sexual harassment to the “UN system at large.”

Israel last year introduced the first and as yet only UN resolution to ever address this topic, a measure on “preventing and eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace” that was adopted by consensus during the 2017 Commission on the Status of Women meeting.

The forum was co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of Israel, Colombia, and Kenya, and the moderator was Jake Sherman, Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at IPI.