Statement: Independent Expert Panel report on abuse of power at UNAIDS

Statement regarding the Independent Expert Panel’s report into allegations of abuse of power, sexual harassment and misconduct at UNAIDS.

The following statement is from Christine Stegling, Executive Director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, in response to the Independent Expert Panel’s report into allegations of abuse of power, sexual harassment and misconduct at UNAIDS.

Mrs Stegling delivered an abridged version of this statement at the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board meeting on 11th December 2018.

In June this year, I spoke publicly of my horror at UNAIDS’ inadequate response to the multiple allegations of human rights violations against members of its staff. I noted the organisation faced a crisis of accountability at the very time when a strong, credible UNAIDS was critical to the AIDS response.

I spoke out for two reasons. First, because such violations are never acceptable and especially not at an organisation that has at its core a fundamental belief that violating human rights, especially those of women, deepens the vulnerabilities that exacerbate poor health and increase the risk of HIV. Second, because at a time when AIDS still contributes to close to a million deaths per year and new HIV infections remain stubbornly high at 1.8 million, we need UNAIDS to provide bold and effective global leadership on AIDS. That is why I strongly supported the establishment of the Independent Review Panel and why last week I joined calls from civil society and beyond for the full and timely publication of the panel’s report.

The report offers a devastating analysis of the working culture at UNAIDS – one far worse than many of us had feared. The report highlights a culture of preferment, patriarchy and circumvention of process. It details a non-transparent environment that allows inappropriate behavior to happen with impunity and leaves those who have the courage to speak up living in fear of retaliation. The report is as sad as it is shocking and paints a picture of an organisation operating in an entirely unacceptable manner.

This is underlined by the findings of structural abuses of power that underpin a leadership approach, which, willfully or otherwise, misunderstands the nature, and gravity of harassment. It is inconceivable that the deep-rooted issues highlighted throughout the report’s 73 pages can be addressed without fundamental and wide-ranging change. And this can only start when the UNAIDS leadership accepts full responsibility for the report’s findings.

This report comes at a time when we need an effective UNAIDS more than ever. We are at a tipping point both epidemiologically and politically. Infections and mortality have decreased but, as UNAIDS itself noted in July, the response is off track. Many of us are fearful that HIV is slipping down the global health agenda, and we face many challenges as we seek to integrate HIV services into Universal Health Coverage, and ensure that ending AIDS remains a visible priority within the Sustainable Development Goals. We need a credible, intelligent and inclusive UN agency that gives voice to the fact that AIDS is not over and that a well-resourced response remains vital.

I strongly believe that the darkest moment is immediately before the dawn. UNAIDS is currently in its darkest moment. We must work together to ensure that the Independent Expert Panel’s recommendations are accepted and implemented rapidly and comprehensively . After that, we must all recommit to a human rights based approach to HIV that ensures that everyone, including the most marginalized, have access to prevention, testing, treatment and care. UNAIDS must embrace this approach in all that it does and become an exemplar, not just in the UN system but for all partners in the AIDS response and beyond. It must re-emerge as an organisation where all forms of abuse are unacceptable and swift action is taken against those who do not meet the highest standards of conduct.

Above all, we must never find ourselves in this position again. The lives of millions of people depend on it.

Read the Independent Expert Panel’s report

This article was written as the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, before we changed our name to Frontline AIDS.

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Human RightsUNAIDS