Victims key to tackling sexual harassment, says UN adviser

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By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON, Oct 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A top U.N. adviser has urged the global body to put victims at the heart of its efforts to combat sexual harassment, saying it had to do more than pay lip service to zero tolerance.

Purna Sen said the United Nations too often sidelined victims in favour of technocrats, citing the current practice of sharing the outcome of internal investigations only with the suspect - and not the complainant.

"This sort of inequality of treatment ... is problematic and it also doesn't serve to build confidence among victims that they are being taken seriously," said Sen, who was named UN Women's executive coordinator on sexual harassment in May.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said earlier this year he was concerned by reports of sexual harassment at the United Nations and promised to uphold a zero-tolerance policy.

The U.N. has been rocked by dozens of cases since early 2017 as the #MeToo campaign has emboldened women to speak out against their abusers.

In February, a senior official at the U.N. children's agency UNICEF resigned over inappropriate behaviour towards women in his previous role as head of Save the Children UK.

"(Victims) know what's needed, they are the experts ... second guessing what can make a difference isn't good enough," Sen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during an interview in London.

"In the U.N. we are not accustomed to not being the experts."

In August an independent oversight body said U.N. agencies must improve ways for staff to report harassment, retaliation and other forms of misconduct and safeguard whistle-blowers who are prepared to reveal cases of abuse.

Sen said victims had called for a more transparent system, with investigations carried out by an independent body.

U.N. Women was hit by the scandal last month when it fired a senior member of staff over sexual misconduct. Media reports said he had been accused of groping and sending indecent images to younger male colleagues.

Sen described the case as "tough" and "painful". "It has shaken us," she said.

With the #Metoo movement showing that no sector - from cinema to politics - is immune, Sen said all employers should go the extra mile to address it.

Drawing up a new policy or having staff undergo a training session that can be completed while watching television do little good if women are left feeling they are not listened to and those responsible go unpunished, she said.

"Zero tolerance has to be more than an expression, it has to be a practice, and that practice has to be led by the senior leadership of an organisation," said Sen.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit