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Indian Civil Society Organisations demand UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé’s immediate resignation following the mishandling of sexual harassment allegations

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NEW DELHI / CHENNAI (17 May, 2018) – About 100 women’s rights activists from civil society and community- based organisations, along with volunteers working in non-governmental organsations assembled at the Press Club of India to demand the immediate resignation of Mr. Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) following his mishandling of sexual harassment allegations brought forth by a female colleague against Sidibé’s former deputy director.

In a wide-reaching protest, more than 40 civil society organisations working in India on various global and national projects expressed their solidarity in demanding the immediate resignation of Mr. Sidibé by endorsing and signing a joint statement, which was sent to the office of the UN Secretary-General Mr. António Guterres.

In recent months, the scandal surrounding UNAIDS received global attention from a number of prominent news outlets, including multiple stories by The Guardian, CNN, The Lancet, and AFP. These stories detail Mr. Sidibé’s actions and his attempts to vilify Ms. Martina Brostrom, one of several women who has spoken publicly about alleged cases of sexual misconduct within UNAIDS.

From the media reports, it is apparent that Mr. Sidibé was protecting his former deputy, Mr. Luiz Loures (the alleged assailant) and conducted a flawed internal investigation which took almost a year to complete. The questionable findings nullified Ms. Brostrom’s claims and amounted to victim-blaming instead of ensuring justice. During the investigation, Mr. Sidibé also approached Ms. Brostrom and offered her a promotion in an attempt to persuade her to withdraw the complaint against his deputy. All efforts by the victim to secure justice were stalled and thwarted by Mr. Sidibé and eventually the investigation was closed, while Mr. Loures was permitted to complete the remaining months of his employment contract.

The Indian civil society representatives say they view Mr. Sidibé’s actions as completely inappropriate, unacceptable and as a misuse of power and position. Mr. Sidibé’s conduct has undermined the trust that women across the world had placed in him – that their dignity and rights would be protected. As a consequence of willful and culpable actions, Mr. Sidibé has forfeited the moral authority to lead UNAIDS and must resign in an effort to mend the credibility of his organisation.

Emblematic of the #MeTooUN turmoil which has seen allegations of sexual harassment surface across several UN agencies, the press conference also witnessed a testimony from an Indian woman, Ms. Prashanti Tiwari. She is pursuing a case against a former UNFPA chief who has been accused of sexual assault. Ms. Prashanti shared her story of a struggle with a protracted case which so far has had no positive outcomes. There have been serious attempts to influence, instigate, and delay all efforts to resolve the case by UNFPA leadership. Thus in both cases, the misuse of diplomatic status and immunity associated with higher positions in the UN system is evident.

Indian civil society and community-based organisations have taken a stand of “ZERO TOLERANCE” on sexual assault, molestation or rape in any form against women in the Indian development sector and/or civil society.

“Women are often looked down upon as a commodity across the world and face attempts of sexual abuse on a day- to-day basis in the community and workplace. I am surprised as to how Mr. Michel Sidibé could protect such acts and pursue and sabotage any attempt to ensure justice to a victim who was his colleague,” said Ms. P Kousalya, President, Positive Women’s Network (PWN+). “Mr. Sidibé has to go and we demand a change of leadership, a cleansed redressal system, and a WOMAN LEADER to head UNAIDS.”

Prashanti Tiwari, feminist and victim of sexual assault at UNFPA India said, “More and more women today are becoming a victim of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the hands of the UN and its many agencies who have been misusing their power and special privileges while exhibiting blatant misogyny and contempt for victims. Despite such cases of sexual assaults becoming pervasive, there still exists a culture of impunity that allows such heinous crimes. I have been a victim of sexual assault by the country representative of UNFPA, Diego Palacious, and have been fighting to get justice while facing aggressive retaliation from UNFPA staff. But after too much dismay, I have learned there are no means or mechanisms to hold such perpetrators accountable or prosecute them, when the UN itself becomes the protectors of such violators. When the UN starts sheltering and harboring them like UNAIDS and UNFPA have been doing, it gives them a way to commit further crimes of this nature and still escape scot-free.”

“As an LGBT rights and human rights activist, I am concerned about the recent issue of sexual harassment allegations, which was tolerated by the head of UNAIDS. I am more concerned because a renowned international agency like UNAIDS, which has always advocated for equality and protection of vulnerable and marginalised populations – such as women and sexual minorities – now gives off a feeling of insecurity. If allegations are made, then it’s fair and just to execute an investigation in the interest of those who trust organisations like these,” said Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, Ambassodor for India Cares.

Dr. V. Sam Prasad, Country Program Director for India Cares said, “It can only be viewed as a blatant act of injustice, as Mr. Michel Sidibé protected a heinous act using his powers, including putting all efforts towards delaying the processes and intimidating whistleblowers. Sidibé has set a bad precedent for the UN. To see that a woman is no more safe and protected even to work in the UN system is utterly deplorable. It prompts one to be vigilant and closely monitor the workplace environment where there is direct interaction with senior leaders in the UN system. We need trustworthy leaders who can foster safety and equity for women in the workplace including all UN bodies working in India. Mr. Michel Sidibé has to go!”

Below are the links to news reports on the UNAIDS scandal:

1. 18/1/18 – The Guardian – Sexual harassment and assault rife at United Nations, staff claim – https://goo.gl/gWDsGU
2. 25/1/18 – The Guardian – Senior UN figures under investigation over alleged sexual harassment – https://goo.gl/3fVfLs
3. 7/2/18 – The Guardian – UN 'grossly mishandled' inquiry into alleged sexual assault, say campaigners (Code Blue open letter) – https://goo.gl/uNp7bx
4. 14/2/18 – The Guardian – UN staff say they were urged to support official accused of sexual misconduct – https://goo.gl/z3KV31
5. 23/2/18 – The Guardian – Top UN official accused of sexual harassment stands down – https://goo.gl/QWn2DQ
6. 25/2/18 – The Guardian – 'A boys' club': UN agency accused over sexual harassment claims – https://goo.gl/wFgUun
7. 14/3/18 – The Guardian – UN official questions ethics of sexual misconduct victims in bizarre speech – https://goo.gl/KQrcTU
8. 30/3/18 – CNN – Top United Nations official 'forced himself on me,' employee says – https://goo.gl/b7KhSH
9. 30/3/18 – CNN – (VIDEO) UN employee describes alleged harassment – https://goo.gl/atGY3R

10. 13/4/18 – The Guardian – UN agency chief under pressure to quit over handling of sexual assault inquiry – https://goo.gl/qdSjuk
11. 19/4/18 – AFP (via France 24) – Crisis sparked by sex abuse grips UNAIDS chief – https://goo.gl/MqL7RT
12. 21/4/18 – The Lancet – Claims of sexual harassment and assault threaten UN agency (full story with timeline) – https://goo.gl/HGrUZu
13. 21/4/18 – The Lancet – Sexual harassment and abuse—the sinister underbelly (brief editorial) – https://goo.gl/qamyGE
14. 27/4/18 – CNN – UN reopens sexual assault investigation into top official Luiz Loures – https://goo.gl/pNMMbt
15. 27/4/18 – AFP (via Yahoo) – UNAIDS reopens sexual assault probe into top official – https://goo.gl/wuXs1R
16. 30/4/18 – The Guardian – UN suspends key witness in alleged sexual assault inquiry – https://goo.gl/ojEBzH
17. 8/5/18 – The Guardian – UN sexual misconduct chief was promoted while facing harassment claims – https://goo.gl/jfW5Y1
18. 10/5/18 – The Lancet – Lancet editor calls for suspension of UNAIDS head – https://goo.gl/zFRzEL

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