UN AIDS agency fires whistleblower after misconduct probe

1010 WINS Newsroom
December 16, 2019 - 3:12 pm

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, April 8, 2019, showing the headquarters building of UNAIDS in Geneva. The UNAIDS agency has fired two staffers for financial and sexual misconduct, according to information Monday Dec. 16, 2019, including a whistleblower whose claims of being sexually assaulted led to months of turmoil. (AP Photo/Jamey Keaten, FILE)

TORONTO (AP) — The United Nations' AIDS agency has fired two staffers for financial and sexual misconduct, including a whistleblower whose allegations of being sexually assaulted sparked months of turmoil at the organization. Last March, Martina Brostrom publicly accused a senior UNAIDS director of forcibly kissing her and trying to drag her out of a Bangkok elevator in 2015. She also said he had sexually harassed her on other occasions.

But before those allegations became public, Brostrom herself and a supervisor were being investigated by U.N. officials for their own sexual and financial misconduct, as revealed in an Associated Press story in April. Brostrom had previously reported the assault to her family and friends almost immediately after it occurred in May 2015 and to senior UNAIDS officials on several occasions later that year and the following year, according to her lawyer, Edward Flaherty. Internal documents obtained by the AP showed U.N. officials had “evidence” Brostrom and a supervisor had taken part in “fraudulent practices and misuse of travel funds.” Among other charges, the two were reprimanded for “abusing U.N. privileges by requesting special U.N. rates for the purpose of booking hotels for sexual encounters.” UN investigators also wrote that they found evidence suggesting the pair routinely used their work email accounts “to exchange messages with explicit sexual language, profanity and nudity.”

Brostrom said that she was fired from UNAIDS last week in an act of retaliation for reporting that she had been sexually assaulted.

"I spoke up about what happened to me and what was happening in UNAIDS. As a consequence, I have suffered tremendously," she said in a statement. Brostrom's supervisor was also terminated.

Brostrom was credited by some for starting a #MeToo movement at the U.N. and her complaint that she was sexually assaulted led to two inquiries — a U.N. investigation that concluded there was insufficient evidence to support her claims and an independent assessment of the agency’s management that found a culture of impunity and “defective leadership.” In an email on Saturday that did not identify Brostrom by name, agency spokeswoman Sophie Barton-Knott said that “two staff members were dismissed from UNAIDS after an independent investigation concluded beyond reasonable doubt that they had misused UNAIDS corporate funds and resources and had engaged in other misconduct, including sexual misconduct.”

Barton-Knott said the investigation began eight months before one staffer filed allegations of being sexually assaulted. She said any claims the employee was fired as payback for lodging sexual assault claims were "baseless and misleading."

Brostrom's lawyer, Flaherty, said she will be appealing her dismissal.

“She categorically denies the allegations,” he said in an email. The ongoing scandals have been a damaging distraction for UNAIDS, an agency at the center of multibillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded U.N. efforts to end the global AIDS epidemic by 2030. The virus affects more than 37 million people worldwide and kills more than 900,000 people every year.

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