Over recent months, UNAIDS has faced public and media scrutiny related to how allegations of bullying, sexual harassment and abuse were handled. In response, the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB), established an Independent Expert Panel (IEP). The mandate of the IEP was to review the leadership and culture of UNAIDS, assess the causes of low reporting of harassment, evaluate the effectiveness of existing policies and make recommendations for improvements. The IEP published a report with its findings and recommendations on 7 December.
STOPAIDS found the IEP’s report alarming. The IEP found that a significant proportion of UNAIDS staff (44% of men and 48% of women) do not think UNAIDS culture is effective in preventing harassment. Of those who had reported harassment, just 14% reported that their claim had been ‘addressed to their satisfaction’. The IEP drew links between the way bullying, sexual harassment and abuse were handled and the leadership and culture at UNAIDS. The panel stated that staff described UNAIDS leadership as ‘characterised by charism, influenced by a personality cult, patronage, and favouritism rather than by UN human rights based laws and policies’. This created an environment where some individuals are seen as ‘safe’ and ‘unable to do wrong’ if they are close and well liked to senior leaders. The IEP also strongly criticised the implementation of UNAIDS policies and processes which were seen as too long and complex to see a complaint through. The role of the Executive Director within the complaints process was also assessed by the IEP to undermine the independence and validity of the process.
As we outlined in our first statement about these issues at UNAIDS on 7 June 2018 STOPAIDS believes in a zero-tolerance approach towards the perpetrators and enablers of sexual harassment and assault and stands in solidarity with all those who have experienced this behaviour in the workplace or elsewhere. We are deeply concerned by the IEP’s findings and express our full support for the implementation of all its recommendations. This includes the Panel’s suggestion that for UNAIDS to recover a new leader needs to be appointed. We share the panel’s doubts that ‘the current leadership can deliver cultural change when that leadership has been largely responsible for the current malaise’. Alongside this, we support the IEP in calling for increased oversight of the ED function from the PCB going forward and support the IEP’s proposals for changes to UNAIDS policies and procedures.
It is essential that UNAIDS addresses these significant challenges because UNAIDS continues to play a critical role in the global HIV response as we work towards ending AIDS by 2030. UNAIDS is the only organisation of its kind, playing an essential role in setting the strategy for the global HIV response and in monitoring the progress towards ambitious global targets like 90/90/90. It is the ‘go to’ institution for the latest data on the challenges and effectiveness of the response informing the interventions of multilateral and bilateral donors and civil society. UNAIDS also plays a key coordinating role between civil society, donors, governments and other stakeholders, particularly around global processes like UN High Level Meetings and the development of the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives. As a champion of the ‘Leave No-one Behind’ principle UNAIDS has also focused on promoting human rights for the most marginalised and has published useful terminology guidelines to ensure stakeholders’ language supports rather than stigmatises those most affected by HIV. UNAIDS has been and continues to be a key partner to STOPAIDS in working with UK stakeholders to be at the forefront of the global HIV response.
It is therefore vital that donors continue to fund UNAIDS while also supporting UNAIDS to implement the IEP’s recommendations so that it can continue its leadership role within the global HIV response. There is an annual funding gap of $4.9bn gap within the global HIV response and all donors and governments need to be stepping up funding rather than reducing it if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goal target of ending AIDS by 2030.
Over the past year the UK government has been the Chair of the PCB, represented by a senior civil servant from the DFID Global Funds Team. Within this capacity, the UK was instrumental in calling for the Independent Expert Panel to be set up. Following the IEP’s report, DFID has published a Written Ministerial Statement as well as a press release that similarly recognise UNAIDS’ role with the global HIV response and urgently call on UNAIDS to implement the IEP’s recommendations. STOPAIDS commends the leadership that the UK has shown as the Chair of the PCB in tackling these issues and we look forward to continuing to work together to support UNAIDS to resolve these important issues. The UK currently contributes £15m to UNAIDS each year and in 2016 committed to do this through to 2021
The challenges faced by UNAIDS are a reminder of the underlying systems, norms, institutions and culture that allow sexual harassment and assault to occur across communities around the world. Regardless of what happens at UNAIDS, this situation acts as an important reminder that we as individuals and organisations should reflect on our own internal policies and practices and act urgently to tackle these injustices, wherever and whenever women find the courage to report them. No new individual UNAIDS Executive Director can hope or be expected to transform the organisation on their own. This crisis demands of us that we all take responsibility to drive this process forward wherever we are – firmly, decisively, inclusively and collaboratively.