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A report on the culture of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS calls for the firing of Michel Sidibé, its executive director.

Denis Balibouse/REUTERS

Panel investigating bullying, harassment at UNAIDS finds ‘boy’s club,’ calls for firing of head

An independent panel that reviewed the culture at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva, Switzerland, has issued a scathing report that calls for the ouster of Executive Director Michel Sidibé. The panel, which was initiated in July by Sidibé after public allegations of bullying, sexual harassment, and abuse were leveled at UNAIDS, interviewed and surveyed a total of 500 staffers. It concluded that a “boy’s club” culture exists that does not effectively prevent or address sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.

The panel said UNAIDS has a “vacuum of accountability” and concluded: “The UNAIDS Secretariat is in crisis, a crisis which threatens its vital work.” UNAIDS issues authoritative epidemiological updates about the epidemic, highlights shortcomings in responses and funding, and leads campaigns to address problems.

“This is a damning indictment of the senior management of UNAIDS; radical reform is now essential. First Michel Sidibé has to resign. He was the right appointment once but now he is the biggest blockage to change,” says Gareth Thomas, a member of the U.K. Parliament for Harrow West and former U.K. minister for international development who supported Sidibé’s appointment.

And Paula Donovan, co-director of the international advocacy group AIDS-Free World in New York City, issued a statement saying, “The report points to one brutally obvious conclusion: Abuse of power reigns when the UN is allowed to police itself. The UN system must be overhauled to put oversight in the hands of authorities who are truly independent. In 30 years, I have never heard of an independent report that delivered such a scathing indictment of internal UN leadership.”

“This is a clear wake-up call for UNAIDS,” says Robin Gorna, former executive director of the International AIDS Society in Geneva. “The report demands big change and fundamental reform. Of course, it is distressing to see the agency’s failings laid bare. And it is also a massive relief for the women (and men) whose lives have been so badly damaged, to know that at last they have been truly heard. The UNAIDS Board must now find the courage to make the huge changes that are essential if the U.N. is to rediscover its moral compass, to refocus on its core mandate, and nurture the people who are determined to work together to end the AIDS crisis.”

UNAIDS issued a 54-page “management response” to the panel report, but Sidibé shows no signs of stepping down immediately. “I have taken on board the criticisms made by the Panel,” he said in a statement. “In proposing this agenda, I am confident that we can focus on moving forward. I will spend the next 12 months implementing this agenda for change and making the UNAIDS workplace one where everyone feels safe and included.”