UN employee who blew the whistle on sexual harassment by superior fired one year after his exit

Martina Brostrom, a policy advisor at the United Nations' global AIDS (UNAIDS) program, revealed in a 2018 interview that she had been sexually assaulted by her superior in 2015

A UN employee, who complained against her superior's sexual harassment at the work place last year, has been finally shown the exit door on allegations of financial and personal misconduct, which she denies and terms her dismissal as a retaliation.

Martina Brostrom, a policy advisor at the United Nations' global AIDS (UNAIDS) program, hit headlines in a 2018 interview to the media that she had been sexually assaulted by Luiz Loures, former Deputy Executive Director of the program, in 2015. Brostrom claimed that the investigation against her was initiated by Loures, and that her dismissal is a retaliatory response to her reporting his sexual misconduct.

Martina Brostrom
Martina Brostrom was fired Friday, Dec.13, 2019 from UNAIDS in what she described as a blatant act of retaliation Photo: Mark Henley

Assault on Brostrom in 2015

Brostrom alleged that Loures' sexual assault took place in 2015 when she had been forcibly kissed and groped by Loures inside an elevator in Bangkok. She blamed it on her superiors who had advised her against filing a complaint but finally filed one in November 2016. However, Loures was cleared of the charges after a 14-month probe that found "insufficient evidence." Following Brostrom's public revelation, it was reopened and is currently ongoing.

Loures has denied the allegation and maintained that it was an attempt to hamper his career at UNAIDS. "The baseless charge based on a supposed incident in Bangkok in May 2015 against me was to divert attention from the misconduct and to thwart my career at UNAIDS," Loures told media.

Sexual Assault
Representational Image

After-effects of the revelation

Following Brostrom's public disclosure, pressure started mounting on UNAIDS to address the issue, especially on Michel Sidibe, then Executive Director of UNAIDS. A report commissioned by UNAIDS in 2018 after a series of allegations and complaints against senior executives of sexual misconduct pointed out that three other women accused Loures of sexual harassment. The report also slammed Sidibe for letting a climate of "patriarchy" and allow abuse of power under his watch.

The report said, "The executive director of the UNAIDS secretariat has created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority and in his interviews with the panel he accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review."

The UNAIDS Independent Expert Panel called for a change in leadership (of Michel Sidibe) at UNAIDS. (UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe) Eskinder Debebe

Sweden, a major financial contributor to the UN program, threatened to withdraw funds until Sidibe was removed as Brostrom revealed in one of her interviews to the media that Sidibe had offered her a promotion in exchange for dropping her claims against Loures. Finally, Sidibe stepped down from the post six months in advance and returned to his country Mali to head the ministry of health.

Financial misuse probe against Brostrom

Even before Brostrom's public claims, Loures is said to have launched an investigation against her, and a colleague who is also her partner. The investigation is said to have stemmed from an anonymous complaint filed against her in 2017. According to the investigation, Brostrom and her partner had allegedly abused expenses, and also of misusing UN email and property to engage in a personal relationship.

Luiz Loures
UNAIDS former Assistant-Secretary-General Luiz Loures (UN Photo / JC McIlwaine) UN Photo / JC McIlwaine

"Such conduct may have exposed UNAIDS to high reputational risk, both internally and vis-a-vis external partners," an internal oversight director told CNN. But Brostrom has denied the allegations. "I spoke up about what happened to me and what was happening in UNAIDS. As a consequence, I have suffered tremendously." she has also presented CNN with her performance review as excellent by her supervisor in 2017, the year in which the anonymous complaint was filed.

Talking about the alleged misconduct that she and her colleague had engaged in, she told CNN, "And if they are referring to having a relationship with a UNAIDS colleague, that person is the father of my child and my partner in life that I am living with today. So I don't understand how that is misconduct."

UNAIDS building in geneva
UNAIDS building in Geneva UNAIDS

UNAID being accused of retaliation

In a statement, the AIDS-Free World's Code Blue Campaign criticized UNAIDS and alleged that it was retaliating to Brostrom's complaint, as it had "shone a public spotlight" on the sexual harassment and misconduct perpetrated against women "with impunity" at UNAIDS.

Paula Donovan, Co-Director of the Code Blue Campaign, said in the statement that, "The UN is comfortably stuck in the 1950s, untouched by feminism or the #MeToo movement, rigorously adhering to its ancient double standards: men are protected and women are hounded."