A policy advocate who made allegations of sexual misconduct against a senior UN adviser has urged member states to fund efforts to stamp out harassment and bullying at the organisation.
Steve Lee said that, in making his claims against Ravi Karkara public, he hoped to highlight an urgent need for resources to overhaul a broken system designed to protect the UN brand rather than the alleged victims of abuse.
The Canadian also defended UN Women, the division from which Karkara has been suspended, insisting that the scandal should not detract from the underfunded organisation’s efforts to empower women.
Lee’s appeal follows last month’s warning from the UN secretary general, António Guterres, that the UN is facing an unprecedented cash deficit and will need to make widespread cuts without additional funding.
In an interview with the Guardian, Lee, 25, said: “The current secretary general ran on the platform of prevention, and reportedly implored member states to not only fund issues that make them look like heroes in the media.
“His vision is not being achieved due to lack of financial and political support. As the public’s trust in the UN declines, it becomes politically more difficult for member states to provide money to fix it.”
Lee said that, as allegations continued to surface throughout the UN, a negative reaction from funders, similar to that which followed the Oxfam scandal, would only harm vulnerable people who rely on the services of the organisation.
Lee said he hoped his story and others like would mobilise support for reform funding so “no more children and youths are affected by those who abuse their power”.
He said: “The past two years have been difficult for me, but none of it is worth losing credibility and funding for UN Women, in turn forcing it to suspend programmes that empower women in the most vulnerable contexts.”
In June 2017, Lee filed a 23-page complaint against Karkara, who was subsequently suspended on full pay pending the outcome of an internal investigation. No criminal charges have been filed against him.
The claims made by Lee in the report, seen by the Guardian, include allegations that Karkara sent him links to pornography, grabbed his genital when they were alone in a hotel room, made suggestive innuendos and mocked him for his religious convictions.
Lee is among at least eight men who have accused Karkara of sexual harassment, according to claims made in the US publication Newsweek.
Now Lee is calling for a sea change in the way sexual harassment allegations are handled, with funding provided for system-wide reform.
“There is no clear system for redressing a misconduct claim and a solution requires financial input,” he said. “In the face of famines and wars, overheads like human resources are the first to be cut. They are left to the bare bones, and without the capacity to deal with this internal crisis.”
Young people should be involved in the reforms and have an opportunity to make recommendations, he added. “Interns, young staff and youth representatives coming to the UN need to be properly supported and given training about what is appropriate behaviour and how to complain without fear of repercussions.”
Lee said UN Women had been supportive throughout the complaint process within the constraints of the system: “To UN Women’s great dismay, they are not really allowed to do anything. It’s difficult to communicate fairly to the public what is happening. For them, it’s really frustrating.”
UN Women, created in 2010, is the youngest UN agency and receives just 2% of its total from the UN regular budget. The UN Development Programme is handling the misconduct investigation, which is now in its 14th month.
“I am quite sure the management which has been dealing with this case was hoping for a speedier resolution,” said Purna Sen, the UN’s spokesperson on sexual harassment and discrimination. “I know for the alleged victims this timeframe doesn’t work, and we need to specify a tighter timeline.
“The monitoring of allegations is really important. There is a proposed tracking system, which should be launched imminently, that will be tracking completed and upheld investigations.
“But we all know many reports do not go through to the investigation stage, so we have work to do now on how to catch that whole range of incidents and experiences. We need to serve victims better than we do now.”
Lee urged young people who have been harassed or assaulted to report allegations directly to the UN: “By speaking out you will do a lot more good, and bring about real change, than if you remain silent.”
A UNDP spokesperson said the agency was unable to comment on the investigation, but added: “UNDP and UN Women take all allegations of sexual misconduct extremely seriously, and wish to see the speediest possible resolution to any case involving alleged sexual misconduct by their personnel.
“Cases such as these are complex and take time to investigate thoroughly … to confirm the facts of the case.”
Karkara has not replied to the Guardian’s request for comment on the allegations.
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