UNITED NATIONS (AP) - An international women's rights organization urged the United Nations on Thursday to reform its internal complaint system to ensure that allegations of sexual harassment are properly investigated and resolved, saying it is very difficult to obtain justice.
The U.N. management chief countered that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has a "zero-tolerance" policy toward sexual harassment and said the new U.N. internal justice system, which goes into effect on July 1, will improve the way all cases - including those involving sexual harassment - are tackled.
The new system will have some of the same problems as the old system, said Yasmeen Hassan, the deputy director of Equality Now, which has received complaints from women in the U.N. system over the way their allegations of harassment were handled.
U.N. agencies and departments "were basically investigating themselves" and they will still be doing that, she said. Employees who make complaints will still not be entitled to obtain reports on the outcome of their case, which means they don't have "a basis to challenge the findings of the report," she said.
"Although we know that the United Nations is committed to gender equality and fighting violence against women, the same wasn't true about the internal policies of the U.N. to deal with sexual harassment against women," Hassan said in an interview. "We didn't feel there was transparency or objectivity in the process."
Undersecretary-General for Management Angela Kane called sexual harassment "a very grave issue." Because the U.N. includes people from many different cultures in which gestures and actions may have different meanings, all U.N. staff members are required to take a course on sexual harassment, she said.
"I think there are fewer cases than there used to be simply because it is a zero-tolerance, and we've shone the spotlight on it, and because there has been action taken in terms of disciplinary or other measures by the secretary-general," she said.
After the initial investigation by the department, a case now moves on to panels composed of staff members who make a recommendation on the case. Kane said that system is being replaced by a more formal one with judges and lawyers. Staffers who want legal help now must get it on their own, she said.
"I think it will be good," she said. "It puts the system on a professional basis where you have lawyers dealing with both sides ... and it will increase the speed of having these cases go through."
Kane was responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that said the U.N. was struggling to deal with an embarrassing string of sexual harassment complaints within its own ranks.
"We hope to bear upon the U.N. the urgent need to break the silence around sexual harassment cases within the U.N. and help women who have been sexually harassed obtain justice," Hassan said.
She cited the case of U.N. staff member Archana Pandey, who brought sexual harassment charges against the head of UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, in India. She said a UNICEF investigation failed to substantiate her claims but a parallel investigation by the Indian government's Women and Child Development Ministry found evidence of sexual harassment.
In another example, a woman staffer who complained about severe sexual harassment by the head of the U.N. agency dealing with Palestinian refugees in Gaza was told in late 2005 by the U.N.'s internal investigators, the Office of Internal Oversight, that they were unable to substantiate her claims, Hassan said.
Several of her requests for the investigation report were turned down, but in January 2009 the OIOS report was leaked. She discovered that the investigation had evidence that "tends to support a finding that ... (she) was sexually harassed," Hassan said. No action could be taken, however, because the perpetrator had retired.
She said Equality Now is currently working on four cases - those of Pandey and the Gaza U.N. refugee chief, as well as sexual harassment complaints from the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission, which probed the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
In all of these cases, Hassan said, the alleged perpetrators were allowed to transfer or retire before the complaints were resolved.
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