GENEVA, Switzerland – AIDS experts have voiced concern over the future of the United Nations body tasked with fighting the epidemic after top officials stood behind a former agency chief accused of serious mismanagement.
Opinions on the former executive director of UNAIDS, the Malian national Michel Sidibe, remain deeply divided.
An Independent Expert Panel (IEP) report commissioned by UNAIDS' governing body said he "created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority".
The agency's culture under Sidibe also failed "to uphold the United Nations' laws and values", the IEP said.
But UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who is due to choose a new UNAIDS chief within weeks, has continued to praise Sidibe.
Sidibe, who was born in 1952, left UNAIDS in May after a decade-long tenure to become Mali's health minister.
After Sidibe resigned, Guterres applauded his "dedication and championing of an AIDS response that is people-centred and anchored in human rights".
"It is rather unfortunate that the secretary general himself, despite all these problems we have found, would still go ahead and praise (Sidibe)," said Penninah Iutung, the Africa bureau chief for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, one of the world's largest HIV/AIDS organisations.
"Culture change is very difficult," Iutung told AFP, adding that UNAIDS reform will require leadership that does not equivocate about the past.
In an email to AFP, Sidibe did not criticise the IEP report, saying only: "The report was duly considered by the UNAIDS Program Coordination Board (PCB) together with the UNAIDS Management Response and the PCB has decided on actions it deemed appropriate and relevant."
A good leader 'indeed'
The IEP report was submitted in December after several managerial issues emerged at UNAIDS.
Sidibe had been reprimanded for mishandling a sexual assault investigation involving one of his top deputies.
He was also heard fiercely criticising whistleblowers in a leaked recording of a staff meeting.
The IEP's research showed reluctance among staff to report abuse because they believed nothing would be done.
The report included a submission that described UNAIDS "as a predators' prey ground".
"You can use promises of jobs, contracts, and all sorts of opportunities and abuse your power to get whatever you want especially in terms of sexual favours," the testimony said.
Instead of facing consequences, alleged wrongdoers were "moved aside, promoted or given extended administrative leave".
The "failure of (UNAIDS) leadership to meet its responsibilities is reflected in repeated examples of favouritism, preferment, and ethical blindness", the IEP said.
Sidibe himself "accepted no responsibility," for the agency's problems, it added.
Despite these findings, UNAIDS' acting executive director Gunilla Carlsson has publicly backed him.
Asked by AFP last month if Sidibe had been a good executive director, Carlsson said "yes, indeed," citing "a lot of good progress in the AIDS response over the last 10 years".
'Rules were followed'
Internal UNAIDS contracts given to AFP show that Sidibe's wife, Christine Sidibe, was hired in 2015 by the agency's Djibouti country office to assist with resource mobilisation.
The documents show the initial contract was for 15 working days. UNAIDS, which confirmed the authenticity of the documents, said it was valued at $14,000.
The contract also fell below the threshold that required approval by a "financial or administrative authority", the documents show.
UNAIDS stressed that Christine Sidibe had the requisite experience for the role.
The contract was "approved at the regional level and the former executive director was not involved in the contracting or the work carried out", the agency said.
"The applicable rules were followed."
In an email, Christine Sidibe told AFP she had "intensive experience working in HIV/AIDS issues," including 13 years at the World Health Organization.
After retiring from WHO, she consulted for several major organisations, she added.
"The Executive Director of UNAIDS was not involved or aware of this (UNAIDS) work until I accepted the offer," she said.
The IEP nevertheless found that under Sidibe "every aspect of human resources-related decision-making (was) subject to the Executive Director's authority and discretion".
IEP members however declined to answer follow up questions from AFP, including concerning Christine Sidibe's contract.
Paula Donovan of the Code Blue Campaign, which has been at the forefront of exposing alleged abuses at UNAIDS, told AFP that "from an ethical viewpoint" Christine Sidibe's contract should have been subject to oversight at the headquarters.
If the executive director's wife getting a contract that "skidded in just below the level requiring vetting... is not firmly against the rules, then the rules must be changed," added Donovan, co-director of the NGO AIDS-Free World.
'Cult of personality'
AFP has also received internal UNAIDS emails that show staff discussing funeral arrangements for Sidibe's mother Jeanne, who died in 2017.
The emails also indicate that several UNAIDS employees flew to Mali's capital Bamako for the funeral.
There is no evidence of agency funds being spent on the funeral.
Those who travelled to Mali did so on their "own time and personal expense," the agency said.
Emails among staff about the funeral were necessary because there was a need for "security measures to be put in place", it added.
The IEP found that Sidibe fostered a "cult of personality" around himself, where personal loyalty was prioritised.
Donovan argued that there was "probably no better evidence" of this personality cult than the fact that staff participated in funeral logistics over work email with no apparent objections.
Responding to AFP's questions about the Djibouti contract and his mother's funeral, Sidibe said: "I can assure you that all the actions described by you were taken in accordance with the applicable regulatory framework and approved at the relevant level."
'Action management plan'
Guterres has received a shortlist of candidates to replace Sidibe. He should make his decision "quite soon," Carlsson told reporters.
Meanwhile, the agency was advancing its "action management plan," to ensure UNAIDS secretariat is "a healthy, equitable and enabling workplace for all staff," she said.
But Iutung warned these efforts may be too late, as the damage done during Sidibe's tenure has left some "questioning whether UNAIDS is still relevant".
Sidibe "should have left a lot sooner," she said. – Rappler.com