GENEVA (AP) — The head of the U.N. agency focusing on AIDS said he would leave the job six months early, bowing to apparent pressure just a week after independent experts looking into sexual harassment blasted the “defective leadership” at UNAIDS. At least one major donor reportedly threatened to halt its funding.
Executive Director Michel Sidibe revealed his plans to leave in June at a UNAIDS board meeting Thursday, agency spokesman Mahesh Mahalingham said. Sidibe took up the job in 2009.
Sexual harassment allegations at UNAIDS have been an unwelcome distraction for the agency, which has helped get millions of people infected with HIV on antiretroviral therapy. It spearheads U.N. efforts to end the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030 — a key United Nations goal.
Media reports suggested Sweden, the agency’s No. 2 donor last year, was preparing to stop funding the agency over the crisis. Sweden provided $30.8 million to UNAIDS in 2017, second only to $82.4 million from the United States.
“We do not trust him. He must leave now. We are freezing our support until he is gone,” Swedish International Development Cooperation Minister Isabella Lovin told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.
Outside experts released a report last week saying a culture of impunity and a toxic working environment at UNAIDS cannot be changed unless Sidibe resigned. It cited a “vacuum of accountability” and said agency leaders failed to prevent or adequately respond to allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.
Sidibe, a native of Mali, has denied allegations that he tried to force an employee to drop her sexual assault accusation against his former deputy. UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom went public earlier this year with allegations originally laid out in a sexual harassment and assault complaint in 2016.
The World Health Organization office that investigated the case found insufficient evidence to support Brostrom’s claims.
UNAIDS spokeswoman Sophie Barton-Knott said Thursday that Sidibe wanted to “have an orderly transition of leadership at UNAIDS” and “would complete his duties at the end of June 2019.”
Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, which works to end impunity for sexual abuse by U.N. personnel, said Sidibe “doesn’t deserve to leave on his terms and on his timeline.”
She criticized a “failure of leadership” by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who can fire Sidibe, and the UNAIDS board.
“The culture of impunity remains intact. Zero tolerance is … nothing more than an empty slogan,” she said.
The independent experts conceded that Sidibe had “spoken bravely” about infection risks for adolescent girls and women. After the report’s release, he initially insisted he was the right person to turn the organization around.