The United Nations, which aspires to protect human rights around the world, is struggling to deal with an embarrassing string of sexual-harassment complaints within its own ranks.
Many U.N. workers who have made or faced accusations of sexual harassment say the current system for handling complaints is arbitrary, unfair and mired in bureaucracy. One employee's complaint that she was sexually harassed for years by her supervisor in Gaza, for example, was investigated by one of her boss's colleagues, who cleared him.
Cases can take years to adjudicate. Accusers have no access to investigative reports. Several women who complained of harassment say their employment contracts weren't renewed, and the men they accused retired or resigned, putting them out of reach of the U.N. justice system.
"No matter which way the cases go, they mishandle it," says George G. Irving, a former U.N. attorney who now represents clients on both sides of such cases.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged that the system is troubled. "I fully share your concerns regarding sexual harassment and sex discrimination," he wrote in February to Equality Now, a women's rights group that had complained to him. "This scourge remains a high priority issue for me."
On July 1, the U.N. plans to make changes to its internal justice system for handling all employee disputes, including harassment complaints.
Yasmeen Hassan, an Equality Now attorney and former U.N. employee who met with Mr. Ban in December to discuss the issue, says she has "no faith" that the new system will be better, in part because complainants apparently still won't have access to investigative reports to help them with appeals.
The Wall Street Journal examined the U.N.'s handling of five sexual-harassment cases, reviewing hundreds of pages of confidential U.N. documents and interviewing U.N. employees who brought the complaints, supervisors they accused, the lawyers involved and U.N. officials.
It is impossible to know whether sexual harassment is a bigger problem at the U.N., whose global staff numbers about 60,000, than at other large multinational organizations. Officials in the secretary-general's office say they don't know how many sexual-harassment cases are filed at the world body because each U.N. entity tracks cases separately, and confidentially. The secretariat, the U.N.'s main administrative body, says it handles between five and eight cases a year. But those figures include only cases referred to its human-resources department for possible disciplinary action, not complaints that have been dismissed.
A spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund, or Unicef, said it has handled 15 complaints since 2004. Five alleged perpetrators in those cases have been dismissed, and two others were issued lifetime employment bans from Unicef because they resigned during investigations. Disciplinary proceedings are being initiated against another accused staffer.
In one important respect, the U.N. handles such problems differently than other large organizations, such as multinational corporations. Many U.N. managers have diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution or civil litigation. Except when the U.N. lifts immunity, its internal justice system is the only one workers can turn to.
The current system, which dates back to 1946, has a bewildering array of investigative channels and appeals processes. Many of the 10 U.N. agencies, programs and funds have their own investigative systems. A multilayered appellate process includes "joint appeals" boards that can review departmental decisions. The U.N. Administrative Tribunal is the final authority.
The system gives the secretary-general the authority to rule on appeals. Confidential U.N. records in two cases show that Mr. Ban rejected the recommendations of an appeals board and ruled against the women who brought those cases. A spokesman for Mr. Ban declined to discuss any specific cases. Under the new system, the secretary-general no longer will play a major role in the process.
Last year, Mr. Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister who became secretary-general in 2007, issued a bulletin stating that "any form of discrimination, harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority is prohibited." A spokeswoman for the secretary-general said in a statement that the U.N. has "zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. And we take seriously every single case."
In 2002, Joumana Al-Mahayni, a Syrian, was working as a secretary to Yusuf Mansur, then chief of the Kuwait office of the United Nations Development Programme, or UNDP, the U.N.'s global development network.
The following year, U.N. records show, she filed a complaint alleging that Mr. Mansur had made sexual advances, including grabbing and kissing her hands while saying "my darling, my darling" -- then refused to renew her contract when she didn't respond to his advances.
In an interview, Mr. Mansur, who now lives in Jordan, denied the allegations, calling them "baloney."
U.N. documents state that the UNDP's investigative report found evidence that Mr. Mansur had subjected Ms. Al-Mahayni to "physical assault," "verbal abuse," "unnecessary touching," "patting," "constant brushing against a person's body" and "pressure for sexual activities." The coordinator of the UNDP's investigative panel asked its human-resources director, Brian Gleeson, to take "appropriate action" against Mr. Mansur. In April 2004, 10 days after the investigative report was filed, Mr. Mansur resigned, U.N. records show.
Mr. Gleeson later told Ms. Al-Mahayni, in an email reviewed by the Journal, that the internal probe "vindicated your allegations and directly contributed" to Mr. Mansur resigning. Mr. Gleeson wrote that he "possibly" could have refused the resignation and pursued disciplinary action, "but advice from legal sources and past practice strongly suggested that it is better to get the person out of the office and the system asap" and avoid litigation. He also stated that "no further action can be taken after a staff member resigns." Mr. Gleeson declined to comment.
Mr. Mansur says he resigned because he was "disgusted" with the U.N., including its handling of the case. "The way the system deals with it, you become accused right away, the person becomes a monster right away," he says. He says he provided evidence that he wasn't in Kuwait when some of the alleged incidents occurred. "I should have hired a lawyer and sued back," he says.
Ms. Al-Mahayni requested compensation for being harassed and losing her job. UNDP rejected the request, saying, in part, that her contract had simply expired. She appealed. In April 2006, the U.N. Joint Appeals Board found that she had "no legal expectancy" that her employment contract would be renewed. But it unanimously recommended that she be awarded $10,000. Kofi Annan, then U.N. secretary-general, accepted the recommendation.
Ms. Al-Mahayni appealed the decision before the U.N. Administrative Tribunal. She argued the compensation was inadequate and she shouldn't have lost her UNDP job. She also requested reimbursement of $8,000 in legal expenses. On Jan. 30, 2009 -- more than five years after she first filed her complaint -- the tribunal rejected her appeal "in its entirety," arguing that the $10,000 award was "adequate in view of the harm caused to her."
Ms. Al-Mahayni, who in November 2006 got a job with the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in Sudan, didn't respond to a request for comment.
In a written statement, the UNDP said it regretted that Ms. Al-Mahayni's supervisor "was allowed to resign before disciplinary action could be initiated."
U.N. records detail other cases in which internal probes supported women's claims of sexual harassment, but the employees they accused went unpunished.
A French woman who worked as a legal officer in Gaza for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East shared records from a case she initiated.
According to the records, in November 2004 she complained that she was sexually harassed by Lionel Brisson, then director of operations for the Palestine Refugees unit. She alleged Mr. Brisson had used binoculars to spy on her while she was in her Gaza apartment, and repeatedly made sexually explicit comments and groped her buttocks, according to a subsequent report by the U.N.'s main investigative unit, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Brisson denied the allegations, calling them "completely ridiculous." He said he had tried to help the French woman advance her career, and "this is the kind of thanks you get."
At first, a probe by the Palestine Refugees agency cleared Mr. Brisson. An agency official says the man in charge of the investigation, the agency's health director, was a "colleague" of Mr. Brisson, and was assigned to investigate because he headed the agency's human-resources committee.
The French woman had also complained directly to the OIOS, which began its own investigation. Mr. Brisson reached his mandatory retirement age and left in December 2005, before that probe was complete. One month later, his accuser's employment contract ran out and wasn't renewed.
In February 2006, the OIOS reported that the evidence "tends to support a finding" that the complainant was sexually harassed. If Mr. Brisson "was still with the Organization," the report said, "we would recommend counseling."
Mr. Brisson, who is French, said the U.N. had rejected his requests for a copy of the OIOS report, and he hadn't seen it until one was provided to him by the Journal. He called its conclusions "very vague" and noted that it didn't recommend any disciplinary action. He said he had pressed the OIOS to investigate because "I wanted to clear my name."
In February 2008, Mr. Ban weighed in on the dispute. The French woman had appealed her case to the U.N. Joint Appeals Board, seeking an equivalent job and compensatory pay. It had urged Mr. Ban to allow her to pursue her case elsewhere in the U.N. system "to ensure both fairness and impartiality." Mr. Ban's office rejected that recommendation, saying that the secretary-general had no "competence" over the Palestine Refugee agency's internal justice system. Her appeal there is pending.
In another case, Fatima Moussa, a U.N. translator in Lebanon, had accused a U.N. security officer of raping her. A probe by the U.N. commission where she worked did not substantiate her allegations. She appealed, and calls the investigation a "travesty." The appellate board unanimously recommended that Mr. Ban extend her employment contract until her appeal was heard. On July 15, 2008, Mr. Ban rejected the board's recommendation and Ms. Moussa's contract expired. U.N. records show that Mr. Ban didn't accept the board's findings that Ms. Moussa would suffer "irreparable injury." The man she accused now works for the U.N. in Darfur.
Impetus for Change
Much of the impetus for the U.N.'s effort to change the way it handles sexual-harassment cases stems from a 2004 case. An OIOS investigation concluded that Ruud Lubbers, then head of the U.N.'s main refugee agency and the former prime minister of the Netherlands, had sexually harassed Cynthia Brzak, a longtime American staffer. The probe found that Mr. Lubbers engaged "in serious acts of misconduct" of a "sexual nature."
Mr. Annan, then secretary-general, didn't accept an OIOS recommendation that Mr. Lubbers be disciplined. He said at the time that the findings could not be sustained. Mr. Lubbers, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, resigned in 2005. He couldn't be reached for comment.
Ms. Brzak said she faced retaliation, including threats to abolish her position. She filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Manhattan seeking damages from the U.N., Mr. Lubbers and others. Last year, a federal judge ruled that U.N. officials had diplomatic immunity, and dismissed the case. Ms. Brzak has appealed.
Diplomatic immunity also factored in a more recent case at Unicef in India. In October 2006, Archana Pandey, an assistant communications officer in New Delhi, accused Cecilio Adorna, then Unicef's top officer in India, of sexual harassment. She alleged he threatened not to renew her contract, which was due to expire at year end, if she didn't grant him sexual favors, according to U.N. records and Ms. Pandey, in an interview. She said she suffered an emotional breakdown and had to take sick leave. Mr. Adorna denied all the allegations. That December, Ms. Pandey's Unicef contract wasn't renewed.
Unicef investigated. On Jan. 16, 2007, the agency's top personnel officer sent her a letter stating that its probe failed to find "clear and convincing evidence" to support her claims. The letter, which was reviewed by the Journal, accused her of misrepresentation, and said "if you were still a staff member, Unicef could consider taking disciplinary actions against you."
U.N. records also show that the same Unicef personnel officer sent Mr. Adorna a written reprimand that same day. That letter, which was also reviewed by the Journal, stated that while nearly all the allegations couldn't be supported, the inquiry found that he "at times touched female staff in a manner they considered inappropriate" and had a tendency to tell jokes or make comments with sexual connotations.
"The Investigation Committee itself witnessed one of such comments during your interview when you stated that you would not have invited anybody for romantic drinks in your hotel room, because you 'can't do sex without food first,' " the letter said. "Such a comment is highly inappropriate, particularly in light of the fact that you were being interviewed on sexual harassment allegations." The letter threatened Mr. Adorna with disciplinary action for "any further misconduct."
In a written statement to the Journal, Mr. Adorna said Unicef later wrote to him stating that it couldn't find "clear and convincing evidence" to support Ms. Pandey's allegations. He said the Unicef letter also said: "Insufficient evidence does not necessarily mean that the allegations were found to be false." He accused Unicef of "negligence" for failing to defend him.
In 2007, Ms. Pandey, who is Indian, filed a criminal complaint with the New Delhi police that accused Mr. Adorna, a Filipino, of attempted rape, among other allegations, according to Indian court filings. The police declined to take action because U.N. employees have diplomatic immunity. She has continued to press her case in Indian courts. She also filed an appeal within the U.N. system.
In December 2008, the U.N. appeals board, while not addressing the sexual-harassment allegations, found that Unicef had "let go" Ms. Pandey "wrongfully" and "illegally" while she was on sick leave. It recommended that the secretary-general award her two years' pay, plus interest, or $76,800. In March, Secretary-General Ban accepted the recommendation.
Mr. Adorna retired from Unicef last month. He has filed an appeal with the U.N. seeking, among other things, a public statement of exoneration and monetary damages. He accuses Unicef of making him "its sacrificial lamb" and urging him to resign.
Unicef declined to comment on Mr. Adorna's appeal or his allegations.
Write to Steve Stecklow at email@example.com