United Nations Reforms Procedure for Sexual Harassment Complaints
Thursday, July 2, 2009 2:02 PM

Following a series of complaints about the United Nations’ (UN) current system for evaluating claims of sexual harassment, the UN has announced that a new system for filing and hearing complaints will take effect on July 1, 2009.  The previous system involved dual hearings panels, a lengthy appeals process, and overall rulings from the Secretary-General.  The new system is designed to be more streamlined and impartial, with a single hearings panel staffed by professional judges, and also places emphasis on more informal means of conflict resolution, such as mediation.  The UN hopes that the new system will be fairer for all parties involved and will contribute to the promotion of gender equality in all UN branches.

A highly controversial sexual harassment case that began in 2004 provided the impetus for the new complaint procedures.  An American staff member, Cynthia Brzak, complained that her superior, Rudd Lubbers, had sexually harassed her and threatened to terminate her employment.  A UN probe found that serious misconduct had occurred, but Lubbers received no disciplinary action.  Brzak attempted to bring suit in a New York federal court, but the case was dismissed because UN officials hold diplomatic immunity.  Numerous other UN employees have complained about their own difficulties in receiving justice after being sexually harassed, and the women’s rights organization Equality Now has complained to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about their concerns that UN internal systems do not adequately promote equal rights for women.  Ban Ki-moon’s public response letter to Equality Now restated his commitment to gender equality at the United Nations, including references to his 2008 bulletin which defined sexual harassment and stated that all staff members are to be “treated with dignity and respect and are aware of their role and responsibilities in maintaining a workplace free of any form of discrimination.”

Compiled from: Stecklow, Steve. “Sexual Harassment Cases Plague U.N.,” Wall Street Journal (21 May 2009); Stecklow, Steve, “Changes to Internal Justice Coming,” Wall Street Journal (21 May 2009); “Secretary-General’s Bulletin: Prohibition of discrimination, harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority,” United Nations Secretariat, ST/SGB/2008/5 (11 Feb 2008).