, Geneva, Switzerland, Feb 14 – A sexual assault probe that cleared a senior United Nations official of wrongdoing has raised questions over whether the world body is capable of credibly investigating its top leaders.
The allegations against the deputy executive director of UNAIDS, Luiz Loures, resemble other cases that have emerged amid the #MeToo movement, where a man is accused of misconduct with a junior female colleague.
An internal UN investigation, seen by AFP, concluded there was no evidence to support claims that Loures, a Brazilian national, sexually assaulted or sexually harassed his accuser, whose identity is not public.
But activists and a legal expert said the probe was mishandled.
“The UN is completely ill-equiped to investigate this kind of stuff. They shouldn’t be in the business of investigating sexual assault”, said Ed Flaherty, a lawyer who has represented international civil servants for more than two decades.
“The UN is not a sovereign authority endowed with the rights to investigate criminal action”, he added.
“When there is a claim of criminal action the UN should involve the domestic authorities”.
A UNAIDS spokesman said Wednesday that Loures did not want to comment on the case.
In two recent press releases, UNAIDS has underscored its “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and voiced confidence its internal investigative processes.
– Harassment? –
The case is recounted in a September 2017 report by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (IOS) at the World Health Organization, which has administrative links to UNAIDS.
In November 2016, a female employee made a complaint to UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe, alleging that Loures began sexually harassing her in 2011 and assaulted her in May 2015.
The alleged harassment included comments on her appearance and touching, she told investigators.
Loures told IOS that he often engaged in physical contact while greeting colleagues — male and female — and admitted to occasionally kissing his accuser and holding her hand.
IOS ruled that Loures’s behaviour “may be viewed as inappropriate, especially given his senior position”, but determined there was “insufficient evidence” to support claims of sexual harassment.
– The ‘assault’? –
The alleged assault occurred at a Bangkok hotel, where UNAIDS was hosting a reception ahead of a key meeting.
The claimant said Loures pressured her to have a private drink within the hotel, but away from the reception.
Loures denied that he pressured her, but confirmed the private conversation to IOS.
The accuser said the conversation began with work-related topics and then became more personal, but that nothing exceptional was discussed.
She claimed that while in the elevator afterwards, Loures forced himself on her, kissing her and grabbing her breasts.
She further alleged that when the elevator stopped at his floor, he forcefully tried to pull her out, in what appeared to be an attempt to bring her to his room for sex.
Loures denied the assault but claimed that over drinks his accuser divulged details of her sexual tastes.
Asked why a junior female employee would disclose such intimate personal details to a male supervisor, investigators said Loures was unable to fully answer.
Immediately after the alleged assault, the accuser called her mother and a friend to tell them what had happened.
Three colleagues who saw her at the hotel after the alleged attack described her as “distressed, crying and very upset”, according to the IOS.
The claimant also contacted her supervisor after the alleged incident. The supervisor also said the claimant was “upset, crying and distressed”, the IOS reported.
– Burden of proof? –
The IOS concluded that there was “no evidence” to back up claims that Loures committed sexual assault.
For Paula Donovan, an activist with the Code Blue Campaign that has worked to expose sexual abuse within the UN, the Loures case marks another example of the UN’s inability to investigate its senior officials.
She also said that IOS had “an antiquated approach” to sexual assault probes, with a burden of proof standard that was “decades behind (many) countries”.
“It doesn’t matter to the UN, to UNAIDS, if the claimant called her mother, a close friend and her supervisor immediately following the assault… This is discounted as ‘he said she said'”, Donovan told AFP.
Donovan and Flaherty agreed that a serious investigation would have involved a closer examination of Loures, to see if there was a pattern of inappropriate behaviour, especially given his unsubstantiated claim that he had a graphic sexual conversation with a female colleague.
“IOS takes into account strong circumstantial evidence in making its recommendations,” UNAIDS said in a statement.
“The IOS… has independence to pursue the line of investigation they choose,” it added, while declining to comment on the details of the Loures case.
The IOS findings also criticised UNAIDS chief Sidibe for trying to broker a quiet deal between Loures and the accuser even as an official investigation was under way.
Flaherty said the probe was consistent with a pattern he has observed in numerous cases involving the UN.
“The system protects the senior officials in the organisation and God help the people below it”, he said.