On May 11, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez came out in support of Michel Sidibe, the head of UNAIDS, who many argue has mishandled the issue of sexual harassment within his agency. Unfortunately, as the momentum around #MeToo grows, the leadership of the UN seems stuck in the past. It is evident that beyond perpetrators, it is leaders who must now be held to account.
In the last few weeks, there has been a storm brewing at the UN agency responsible for addressing HIV and AIDS. The deputy director of UNAIDS – Luiz Loures – who has just retired, was accused of sexual harassment by a female member of staff. The case took an unacceptably long time to settle, and there have been accusations against the agency’s management of being biased in favour of the alleged perpetrator.
Then, a few weeks ago, Sidibe, made a startling address to staff, in which he spoke of Loures as a courageous person who had taken, “the high road” in how he dealt with the sexual harassment case against him. He also suggested that the people raising concerns about how sexual harassment complaints were handled “don’t have ethics”.
As a former employee of UNAIDS, as someone who knows Sidibe and interacted with Loures, and as someone who has worked for many years on the issues at the intersection of HIV prevention and women’s rights, I have been angered and saddened by the events unfolding at UNAIDS.
I am also painfully aware of the tragedy of watching someone you have admired for many years betray your trust. I do not know Loures well, and the interactions I have had with him did not inspire my trust or confidence.
I cannot say the same for Michel Sidibe. He was a trusted leader, a fellow African, who had demonstrated time and again that he was committed to the right issues. In the past few weeks, as I have spoken to old colleagues and friends involved in global public health issues, I have heard time and again the sentiment of sorrow.
It is one thing when it turns out that a movie producer in Hollywood is a sexual predator. It is quite another for a Brazilian doctor who has dedicated his life to protecting human rights and saving lives to be under the spotlight. It is another thing altogether when a champion of human rights is seen by the public as covering up and supporting the actions of his subordinate.
The last year has shown that there is public appetite for hearing the stories of survivors and victims. People are supportive of punishing perpetrators. However, there simply hasn’t been enough attention on punishing the enablers of abuse. Thus far, for the most part, the leaders who ignore sexist and violent men and the colleagues who laugh off humiliating jokes have gotten away with their actions, have been spared the ire of the public.
For the culture of impunity surrounding harassment and violence in the workplace to end, this needs to change, and bigger heads need to roll.
For the women who cannot speak up as part of the #MeToo movement, what matters most is that the attention and energy on people like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein in every sector are translated into meaningful changes at work. For them, it is crucial that bosses, managers and leaders are also held to account – not just perpetrators.
The institutions they lead today are changing. The momentum is both internal – in the form of women speaking out – and external – in the form of members of the public who support the women inside who are speaking up.
Michel Sidibe is someone I have always liked and respected. He is not a horrible person, in my opinion – though he has done some terrible things and made bad mistakes of late. However, his personality and past accomplishments change nothing.
When Sidibe became the executive director of UNAIDS, I was working for the agency in Johannesburg. He had extensive experience working with communities in his home country of Mali. Sidibe had the charm of a politician but was always genuine. Most of the generation of young African staff I knew who worked within UNAIDS were proud of him and supportive of his leadership.
Sidibe had a way with junior staff more broadly. He managed to be paternal without being paternalistic. He was also someone whose commitment to human rights was consistent. Sadly, even within the UN system, one cannot always be sure that heads of agencies believe in the rights of sex workers and drug users and prisoners. Sidibe did, and he understood the link between recognising the rights of people on the margins of society and winning the battle against the AIDS epidemic.
Sidibe wasn’t perfect. He was accused of having a strong patronage network and rewarding those who were loyal to him. These concerns didn’t worry me: Every boss I had ever had in the UN system did the same. It was part of the UN culture. Indeed, when people made that charge against him, I often found myself defending him, arguing there was a tinge of racism about the accusation.
In 2005 I left the UN family for good, headed to greener pastures, and to an institution I believed was less bureaucratic and more activist in its orientation. I continued to have friends and colleagues at UNAIDS, however, and I continued to see Sidibe from time to time at large gatherings.
Over the years, I heard worrisome stories about Sidibe’s deputy, Loures. I had little knowledge of him until 2015 when I was asked to facilitate a meeting at which he would be present. Staff working under Loures seemed nervous about how I would manage the meeting. Ironically, one of the people who seemed most anxious was the head of the gender team, Malayah Harper. Harper now heads up the World Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), but at the time she was an employee of UNAIDS. She has recently spoken out about being harassed by Loures – and it is evident to me that her experience was at the core of the toxicity I encountered at the time.
I had managed many meetings over many years, however, so I was convinced that any reasonable person would find my skills to be up to scratch. When I met Loures, I quickly realised why his team seemed nervous. He was a bully. He was patronising, arrogant and demeaning and the environment around him seemed toxic.
Loures attempted to undermine me in public during the meeting by repeatedly interrupting me and making rude remarks. I challenged him, but it was a terrible experience. I am lucky enough to have choices, and so I opted never to work for UNAIDS again. I decided then and there that no matter how much they offered me in compensation in the future, I would never work for them under any circumstance. I am pleased to say I have stood firm in this decision.
Needless to say, when Martina Borstrom filed her complaint of sexual harassment against Loures, alleging that he attacked her in a lift, and then sought to intimidate her, I was not surprised. I believed her.
I assumed that in his capacity as Loures’ boss, Sidibe would manage a proper process and ensure that the rights of all parties were protected.
Unfortunately, as various sources seem to indicate, Sidibe’s desire to protect allies and preserve patronage networks – so fundamental to the leadership culture of the specialised agencies of the UN, not only UNAIDS – seems to have kicked in.
A few years ago, Sidibe’s conduct would probably not have led to such an outcry. After all, men in the UN system have been getting away with harassment and bullying for years. But the world has changed in a very short period. The momentum created by the voices of women in all sorts of institutions has changed the game.
Mr Sibide facilitated a smooth exit for Loures in spite of evidence that he may not have deserved his respect and trust. He did not do this five years ago, or even three years ago. Sidibe mishandled this case in the midst of the #MeToo moment when it was patently clear that he had principled options. As a result, the actions he took – enabling a painfully slow process, intervening in the case by speaking to the complainant, and then seeming to chastise staff in order to deter future cases – demonstrate that he is a dinosaur.
The world is changing, and if the UN wants to change with it, men like Mr Loures will need to face the consequences of their behaviour. Men like Mr Sidibe will also need to pay the price for institutional complicity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.