Skip to content

Instant UNAIDS reform but not at top

UNAIDS said it will take "immediate" steps to recover from a sexual harassment scandal but allow its embattled leader Michel Sidibé to remain until June.

GENEVA (AN) — UNAIDS said it will take "immediate" steps to recover from a sexual harassment scandal but allow its embattled leader Michel Sidibé to remain until June.

The board of the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS, said it would begin addressing problems of "harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power" within its Geneva-based secretariat by setting up a working group to oversee change and report back next March.

The United Nations agency also said it "welcomed" input from a staff association that played a critical role in focusing attention on harassment at the workplace.

“We don’t have a moment to lose in moving forward our management response. Our actions will make UNAIDS stronger and better,” said Sidibé, the agency's executive director, in a statement.

Despite the insistence on urgency, Sidibé essentially ignored his own advice by announcing that he would wait to resign his position until the end of next June. That is six months earlier than he had planned. But Sweden, UNAIDS' second-biggest donor, has demanded his immediate resignation.

The upheaval came in the wake of a devastating report by an independent panel of experts into the organization's handling of sexual harassment allegations. It determined that UNAIDS suffers from "failed" leadership and a "broken" work culture.

The experts’ 73-page report, based on interviews and staff surveys, said the organization's managerial crisis "threatens its vital work.”

Sidibé has denied pressuring UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom to drop her allegations that she was sexually harassed by his former deputy, Luiz Loures. Brostrom went public with her allegations earlier this year.

Though Sidibé asserted he could still save the agency, the panel's report cast serious doubt on that. Within days of the report, he said that within six months he would leave the job he has held since 2009.

“I will work to ensure a smooth transition and pledge to keep my focus on our staff and delivering results for the people we serve," he pledged in the UNAIDS statement.

Calls for immediate resignation

Sweden — which gave UNAIDS almost US$31 million last year, second only to the United States, which provided more than US$82 million — said it would not support UNAIDS if Sidibé remains.

“We do not trust him. He must leave now," Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s minister for international development cooperation and climate, told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. "We are freezing our support until he is gone."

Others echoed that sentiment.

"Mr. Sidibé doesn't deserve to leave on his terms and on his timeline," said Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign against sexual abuse by U.N. staff. "The culture of impunity remains intact. Zero tolerance (for sexual misconduct) is nothing more than an empty slogan."

The panel's report concluded that UNAIDS has become a toxic work environment where sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power run rampant, all of which is made worse by a work culture of impunity and a "patriarchal" management that will take a change in leadership to fix.

"The leaders, policies and processes at UNAIDS have failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power in UNAIDS," it said. "The evidence before the Independent Expert Panel of a broken organizational culture is overwhelming."

The U.N. agency was created to help people infected with HIV and to lead campaigns to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat. Its mission is reflected in the third plank of the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, which urges global improvements in "good health and well-being."

More specifically, that specific goal calls on nations to make "a bold commitment to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other communicable diseases by 2030" through the spread of universal health coverage and access to safe and affordable medicines and vaccines for all.