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UNAIDS dismisses #MeToo whistleblower

A whistleblower whose sexual assault probe upended UNAIDS was fired over misconduct claims in what she believes is "a blatant act of retaliation."

GENEVA (AN) — A whistleblower whose sexual assault probe upended the United Nations’ AIDS agency was fired over misconduct claims in what she believes is "a blatant act of retaliation," an international advocacy organization said on Friday.

Martina Brostrom, a senior adviser at the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, or UNAIDS, was dismissed due to allegations of financial and personal misconduct that she categorically denies, according to a statement from Code Blue, AIDS-Free World's global campaign to end impunity for sexual abuse by U.N. personnel.

Though the probe into her reported sexual assault ended with the United Nations concluding there was insufficient evidence, Brostrom garnered praise for helping launch a #MeToo movement at the world body.

"The U.N. is comfortably stuck in the 1950s, untouched by feminism or the #MeToo movement, rigorously adhering to its ancient double standards: men are protected and women are hounded," said Paula Donovan, Code Blue's co-director.

Brostrom had reported that Luiz Loures, UNAIDS' second-in-command until March 2018, sexually assaulted her during a Bangkok conference in 2015 by forcibly trying to kiss her and attempting to drag her from an elevator to his hotel room. She said he also had sexually harassed her other times.

Her complaint against him in 2016 put a spotlight on a broader pattern of abuses and harassment within the U.N. agency.

"I challenged the status quo," Brostrom said in the statement from Code Blue, which seeks to overhaul the way that U.N. sexual harassment complaints are handled. "I spoke up about what happened to me and what was happening in UNAIDS. As a consequence, I have suffered tremendously."

Loures denied the allegations and was cleared of charges after a 14-month inquiry, but the case was reopened after the incident went public. He claimed the allegations were an attempt to derail his career. He reportedly launched an investigation against Brostrom and her colleague, alleging sexual and financial misconduct.

"If they are referring to having a relationship with a UNAIDS colleague," she said of the investigation in an interview with CNN, "that person is the father of my child and my partner in life that I am living with today. So I don't understand how that is misconduct."

The Associated Press obtained documents showing U.N. officials had "evidence" of Brostrom and her colleague engaging in “fraudulent practices and misuse of travel funds.” They were reprimanded for “abusing U.N. privileges by requesting special U.N. rates for the purpose of booking hotels for sexual encounters.”

'Restore trust among staff'

Brostrom's dismissal occurred on the same day as a speech by the incoming UNAIDS executive director, Winnie Byanyima, before the agency's board in which she outlined her priorities for 2020.

Byanyima, a humanitarian activist who headed Oxfam International, was appointed in August to replace UNAIDS’ embattled leader Michel Sidibé, who left the job early in May due to allegations he improperly handled Brostrom's inquiry.

A mechanical engineer and former parliamentarian in Uganda, Byanyima told the board that UNAIDS would "step up its work" in four areas: women and girls in Africa; defending the human rights of everyone; putting science, innovation and technology in the hands of people; and financing the global AIDS response.

In an indirect reference to Brostrom's situation, Byanyima, who took over the U.N. agency on November 1, described UNAIDS' greatest asset as its staff. UNAIDS leads a multibillion-dollar campaign to end by 2030 a global AIDS epidemic that kills 900,000 people a year and affects more than 37 million people worldwide.

“Much has been done, but there is still a long way to go," Byanyima said in a statement. "Work must continue to restore trust among staff and with external partners, and to change the culture so that UNAIDS never tolerates any kind of abuse of power, such as harassment, sexual misconduct or bullying, and UNAIDS encourages staff to feel safe and to speak up.”

Byanyima is now in charge of a U.N. agency that an independent panel of experts concluded in a December 2018 report was suffering from “failed” leadership and a “broken” work culture. The experts’ 73-page report, based on interviews and staff surveys that delved into the organization’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, determined the UNAIDS’ managerial crisis “threatens its vital work.”

After the report's release, the board vowed to address problems of “harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” in its Geneva-based secretariat by creating a working group to oversee change.

"The executive director of the UNAIDS secretariat has created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority," the report said of Sidibé, "and in his interviews with the panel he accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review."

Sidibé denied pressuring Brostrom to drop her allegations that she was sexually harassed by Loures. After Brostrom, who is Swedish, went public, Sidibé still asserted that he could save the agency. The panel’s report cast serious doubt on that, and he announced soon afterwards that he would leave his job six months early. Sweden, a major contributor to UNAIDS, had suspended its funding until Sidibé agreed to step down.

Byanyima also weathered a sexual abuse-related crisis in her last post. Last June, Oxfam International vowed to make improvements after it was sternly reprimanded by a British watchdog agency for having a toxic work culture that led to a sexual abuse and exploitation scandal in Haiti.

The scandal surfaced in the aid work that Oxfam Great Britain, a member of Oxfam’s international confederation, did for Haitians displaced by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in January 2010 that killed more than 250,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless.

Byanyima eventually issued a statement in which expressed her pain and anger at how some of her colleagues in the organization acted. “As an African woman, I encounter both sexism and racism in many places I go,” she said. “We are forcefully challenging such unacceptable behaviors.”