Is there Gender Parity & Reverse Sexual Harassment at UN?

By Thalif Deen

Faced with growing allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in the UN system, Secretary-General Antonio Guterreslast year announced a “zero-tolerance” policy to fight harassment in the world body.

But UN Women, which was created in July 2010 and dedicated to gender empowerment, has moved one step further– and appointed an Executive Coordinator and Spokesperson on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination, perhaps one of the few UN bodies to do so.

Dr. Purna Sen, UN Women

Holding that new position is Dr. Purna Sen, Director of Policy at UN Women, who under the newly-created role, will build on the current momentum “to find lasting solutions to stop, prevent and respond to sexual harassment both, within and outside the UN.”

Asked whether there have been any charges of sexual abuse or sexual harassment at UN Women, she told IPS that in 2015, one case of sexual harassment was reported: theallegations, which involved a contractor for UN Women, were substantiated, and the contract was immediately terminated.

In 2016, she said, two cases of allegations of sexual harassment were reported. None of the allegations were substantiated.

In 2017, there was one case of allegations of sexual misconduct against one UN Women staff member. The case is still under investigation.

As part of her mandate, Dr Senwill be calling upon and supporting states, government administrations and the private sector to ensure actions are taken to respond to women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

She begins her assignment with two calls: firstly, asking women to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault and secondly, asking for examples of good practices, policies and laws dealing with harassment.

The email address follows:

Announcing Dr Sen’s appointment, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director PhumzileMlambo-Ngcuka said: “UN Women was established to protect and promote women’s rights. We have a unique role to play in driving action towards accountability.”

“This means zero tolerance for violence and harassment, and actions to ensure that victims are supported. We currently see practices and cultural norms that enable harassment and penalize victims. This has to change.

”In her new role and with her directly relevant background, Purna will help address the deep-rooted patterns of inequality and abuse of women”, she declared.

In an interview with IPS, Dr Sen also responded to charges of “reverse sexual harassments” and the status of gender parity in the UN system.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: What is your response to charges of sexual harassment in reverse – where some high ranking UN officials point out cases where “women staffers throw themselves on their bosses to advance their careers?.”

Dr Sen: “Let’s decipher that statement: is it claimed that women are offering sex for jobs or promotion? If so, surely there are some clear responses.

Any muddying of professionalism, competency and recruitment with matters of sexual behaviour is inappropriate and not for defending. That holds whether it is powerful, high ranking officials (mostly men) or junior staff (more likely to be women, young people, national staff etc). Sexual activities in exchange for career advancement is of course unacceptable.

This possibility or practice must not be treated either as a distraction from the seriousness or ubiquity of gendered, structured sex discrimination that is manifest in sexual harassment, abuse and assault or riposte to accusations.

Those men in high ranking positions making these allegations have no doubt had the opportunity to use their positions to raise this issue over their careers. Has this been done? Or are these issues being raised now when women are calling for accountability for those who abuse?

Treating sexual harassment as isolated incidents, or as incomprehensible acts of individuals (as the formulation in the question suggests) is problematic. It leads to obfuscation or denial of the structural and systemic basis of sexual harassment and assault: these are expressions of patterns of unequal power structures where powerful men (predominantly) hold authority and control over junior staff (more likely to be women, local staff.) such that they can influence their careers or experiences at work.

Denial, distraction and excusing of sexual harassment and assault illustrate cultures where the seriousness and harm of harassment is not recognised or prioritized”.

IPS: A General Assembly resolution going back to the 1970s — and reaffirmed later– called for 50:50 gender parity amongst UN staffers, particularly in decision-making posts. How is UN women conforming to this resolution? What is the breakdown of your staff in numbers between men and women?

Dr Sen: UN Women is supporting the SG’s gender parity efforts through its unique mandate to lead and coordinate the UN system’s work on gender equality, as well as promote accountability, including through regular monitoring of system-wide progress.

UN Women is also a source of substantive guidance on gender parity and related issues for the UN system, and serves as a repository for best practices, provides guidance and tools, and analyses overall UN system trends to identify obstacles to and key drivers of change in advancing towards equal representation.

Additionally, UN Women supports interagency knowledge-sharing and collaboration, as well as capacity building of gender expertise, through system-wide gender networks, including the Gender Focal Points, IANWGE and the UN-SWAP network

Another important step UN Women is taking is the upcoming development of the Guidelines on Enabling Environment, containing system-wide recommendations and practical measures aimed at creating a work environment that is free from discrimination, harassment and abuse of authority, as well as supports women in their careers through family-friendly policies, work-life balance and professional development programmes.

As of today our overall workforce breakdown is 71% female; 29% male.

IPS: What is your response to the argument that jobs in the UN system should go to the most qualified and the most competent – rather than based on gender equality?

Dr Sen: “The problem with this question is that it assumes a contradiction between being ‘the most qualified and the most competent’ on the one hand, and the pursuit of gender equality, on the other. That is a false premise. It assumes that the goal of gender equality jettisons competency and good qualification.

What lies behind this assumption is the belief that women (for it is in general the appointment of greater numbers of women that makes up actions towards gender equality in staffing or representatives’ profiles) cannot be the best qualified or the most competent.

Therein lies a fully gendered belief in the essential incompetence of women and, in contrast, the innate competence of men. I reject that assumption and there are many examples that support such rejection.

In a nutshell, women can be and are both competent and qualified, including the most competent and qualified, in any sector. More pertinent is the question why is it that competent and qualified women are not being appointed?

The same gendered assumption that pre-supposes that women can be neither, is what stops their true talents, skills and competencies being recognized and rewarded. Cultures of gender inequality are insidious and have long passed their expiry date.

The writer can be contacted at

From Fake News to a Fake Death

Arkady Babchenko. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Ed Holt
KIEV, Jun 14 2018 (IPS)

When news broke on May 29th that journalist Arkady Babchenko had been murdered in Ukraine, serious questions about the safety of journalists in the country were raised.

When news broke less than 24-hours later that Babchenko’s murder had been staged by the Ukrainian security service, serious questions about the credibility of journalists in the country were raised.”Now we know we should check everything the authorities say not twice, but three or four times.” –Anna Babinec

Now, say global press freedom advocates, efforts to keep journalists in Ukraine and other parts of the world safe have only been hampered by the deception.

Johann Bihr, Head of the East European and Central Asian Desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS: “This discredits journalists and hampers efforts to effectively protect them.

“The global impact of this story means that it will have an effect in other countries. Whenever something similar happens, doubts will be raised.”

Babchenko, a former Russian soldier who had fought in Chechnya, had been a vociferous critic of the Kremlin for years. He fled Russia last year fearing for his life and eventually moved to Kiev where he had been working for the Tatar TV channel ATR.

When reports of his death first emerged, there was immediate speculation of Russian involvement – a theory Ukrainian authorities swiftly confirmed.

In the hours after the killing was reported, Moscow denied any involvement and, after Babchenko appeared alive, claimed it was evidence of Kiev’s anti-Russian propaganda.

But as soon as Babchenko appeared at a press conference held by the Ukrainian security services (SBU) the day after his apparent death, revealing he had been co-operating with the SBU in an operation to expose people apparently planning to kill him, press freedom watchdogs were outraged.

In a statement, Philippe Leruth, President of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), described it as a “complete circus” and told the Ukrainian authorities it was “intolerable to lie to journalists around the world and to mislead millions of citizens”.

RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said there “could be no grounds for faking a journalist’s death”. He said staging the killing “would not help the cause of press freedom,” adding in a tweet: “It is pathetic and regrettable that the Ukrainian police have played with the truth, whatever their motive…for the stunt.”

And the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned it could potentially “undermine public trust in journalists and to mute outrage when they are killed”.

The SBU, and Babchenko, have continued to defend the operation. In posts on Facebook, Babchenko said he did not care about criticism questioning the journalistic ethics of what he and the SBU had done, saying he was grateful that the operation had saved his life.

But groups like RSF, CPJ and IFJ say while they are relieved Babchenko is alive, they question whether the mass deception, and subsequent damage to journalists’ and the Ukrainian authorities’ credibility, was worth it.

“We are glad that Babchenko is alive and are in no doubt that the threats he had been facing were real. However, what we are waiting for is the Ukrainian government to present hard evidence that this was worth it and it has really led to some results. So far, they have failed to do so,” Bihr told IPS.

Ukraine has a poor record on journalist safety. Journalists regularly face harassment and physical attacks as well as ‘doxing’ – the publication of their personal information.

Seven journalists have been killed in the last four years in Ukraine, the most recent being Belarusian-born Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet who died in a car bomb assassination in July 2016.

The investigation into his murder has stalled amid claims of a lack of effort from investigators and Ukrainian involvement in the killing.

After Babchenko’s staged murder, Larysa Sargan, spokesperson for Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, drew up a list on her Facebook page of journalists she claimed had been “traitorous” for criticising the operation.

In the wake of the faked murder, while all local journalists have been quick to stress their relief that Babchenko is alive, their opinions on the merits of the operation differ.

Some have praised it as the best way to save a threatened journalist’s life and expose a Russian plot, but many others have been critical of it and some have linked it back to what they say are serious shortcomings among institutions of power towards journalists‘ safety and freedom of speech.

Olga Rudenko, deputy editor-in-chief at the Kyiv Post newspaper, told RFE/RL: “Ukrainian journalists feel even less safe than they used to. To make it a safer place for journalists, the authorities need to investigate crimes against journalists.

“The whole plot to kill Babchenko, if we presume there was one, was only possible in the first place because so many earlier murders and attacks on journalists remain un-investigated, making for an atmosphere of impunity. Who’d sign up to kill a high-profile journalist if they knew all previous killers had been found and punished?”

Anna Babinec, co-founder of the investigative journalism agency Slidstvo.Info, said the incident had, for many journalists, stripped them of what trust they had left in Ukrainian authorities.

She told IPS: “Many journalists who lacked trust in the Ukrainian government before now have absolutely no trust in it.

“As an investigative journalist, working the whole night at the scene of the ‘crime’ was a great test of my skills. Now we know we should check everything the authorities say not twice, but three or four times. We need to check not only if the police are doing their work properly, but whether they are lying about crimes.”

She added: “As a journalist and human being I’m happy that my colleague is alive, but there are still a lot of questions that the security service and Arkady [need to answer] about this special operation.”

This distrust has deepened in the days since the operation with the SBU reluctant to give further details and both the alleged killer and man who hired him claiming to have been working with the SBU all along.

The leak of a reported ‘hit list’ of 47 people, supposedly discovered by the SBU during the operation, has added to the confusion.

The list, which includes journalists and political activists, contains the names of many critics of the Ukrainian authorities, among others, but, pointedly, does not include Babchenko.

Some local journalists believe it is genuine, but others doubt its veracity. Speaking to RFE/RL, three journalists on the list said they had been contacted by the SBU and shown a list with their names on. They said what they had been shown was similar to the list leaked in Ukrainian media, but had a different order of names and, in some cases, spellings.

One of the journalists said they had been questioned by the SBU about their political opinions.

Whether the SBU will give any further details on the operation and show it was, as the RSF said ‘worth it’, anytime soon is uncertain.

But the fact that local and global media were misled by authorities, with the willing help of a journalist, means this is likely to be a boon for those looking to repress free speech or spread propaganda as it leads to questions about the skills and credibility of those who are supposed to be presenting unbiased facts, critics say.

Russian journalist Tanya Felgenhauer told British daily newspaper The Independent: “This story has been a victory of the post-factual world and it makes our jobs even more difficult.

“One of the only advantages we have over social media and state media is accuracy and fact-checking. Here, our fact-checking model wasn’t sufficient, and our credibility has suffered badly.”

The RSF’s Bihr told IPS: “It provides help for organisations who sow doubt and spread misinformation, who blur the lines between truth and fiction. It provides fuel for repressive governments and propaganda media working to hamper freedom of speech.”