UN’s new harassment policy: You win some, you lose some
In September 2019, the United Nations adopted a new policy on discrimination, harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority (ST/SGB/2019/8), which replaced a decade old ST/SGB/2008/5. Here’s a quick stock-taking of the promise of the new “survivor centric approach” that the Policy promises.
26 May 2021


1)      Introduces neutral terminology and recognises range of impact from a single act of misconduct. The Policy uses “targeted individual”, “affected individual”, “impacted individual” separately, and explicitly addresses “non-staff personnel”. It recognizes that entire teams, offices, and indeed organisations suffer when acts of prohibited conduct occur.

2)     Big focus on Prevention. Paragraph 3 gets many things right: recognises need for internal capacity building for all first responders; introduces a much broader requirement of “by-stander intervention”; ensures the right messaging is coming from the top; hints at witness assistance; recognises for the first time the very specific harassment that transgender and gender non-conforming individuals face; and finally requires ALL staff to report prohibited conduct, lightening the burden of the targeted individual.

3)     Encourages early intervention. Recognises that a wide range of training will have to be developed to internalise and implement the spirit of the policy; encourages screening of new applicants; accepts that it is only possible for affected individuals to approach offenders in limited circumstances; impacted persons can seek intervention from a range of personnel.

4)      Introduces ClearCheck. A system-wide background check for new applicants on a global database managed by INTERPOL, it has to be populated with names of offenders from across the UN global system by HR and meant to stop the rehiring of accused who escape accountability by resigning ,mid-investigation. This is a progress report on its implementation.

5)      Marginally expands rights for complainants. It provides for the right to regular progress updates every three months minimum; control over whether an investigation is launched or not; and a commitment that all cases of sexual harassment will be investigated. Access to regular updates is a massive and much needed improvement for complainants.

6)      Greater clarity, accountability, and training for managers. Managers play a pivotal role in implementing this Policy and it’s a genuine worry that many are not properly equipped – even if they are inclined – to help complainants or to intervene early in a situation or generally create a supportive, harassment-free work environment. Managers are meant to be trained in effective communication as well to deal with reintegration and work performance issues related to complaints of prohibited conduct.

7)      Duty of care is a recurring theme. Paragraphs 3, 4.5, and 6 expound on various forms of duty of care owed to affected persons, none of which is made contingent upon the veracity of the complaint.

8)      Centralises data collection and reporting of Sexual Harassment & Abuse (SHA). Paragraph 5.4 requires OIOS to be included in all reports, which allows closer monitoring of SHA prevalence, severity, patterns, repeat offenders, action taken, and relief provided, while OHRM is tasked with compiling data for publishing reports (para. 7) with details on disciplinary measures taken. Collecting and publicizing this information are not only deterrents but also a step towards promoting cultural change.

9)     Addresses false reporting. Investigating, documenting and levying sanctions against proven malicious complaints is important to ensure the process works for everybody. Global data shows false reporting hovers around 3-5%, the UN data on this should also be published.

10)  Access to criminal process. For the first time, the policy explicitly allows for referral of cases demonstrating criminal conduct to law enforcement (para. 5.8) and clarifies that the affected person can directly approach criminal authorities at their duty station where the conduct meets local definitions of crime.

 11)  Introduces follow-up action. Measures in paragraphs 6.8-6.10 on interim measures are helpful but should only be instituted with the consent of the complainant to ensure complainants don’t feel penalised. Paragraphs 6.12-6.13 address reintegration by mandating monitoring of the situation for all parties, particularly to prevent retaliation as well as making special arrangements for return to work from prolonged leave and organizing sufficiently separate work spaces.


1)      Retains the “unwelcome” standard for determining harassment. Several scholars have commented on the deficiencies of this subjective standard and why it immensely prejudices the complainant. An alternative to consider is the ILO C190’s objective standard of “unacceptable” conduct. Read more here.

2)      Removes time limits on investigations. The Policy removed(!!) the previous time-limit on investigations, a truly regressive change. Firstly, without time-limits, investigations can drag on. Secondly, delays are a huge source of anxiety for complainants and can exacerbate the trauma of narrating and reliving the incidents far further along a path to recovery. Thirdly, a drawn-out investigation can affect the quality of evidence.

3)      Fails to recognize the right of complainants to crucial reports. Paragraph 5.5 (e) only requires that the OIOSto inform the complainant and affected individuals of the report it submits, but still does not recognise their right to a copy of the report, leaving them to litigate for it in order to exercise their right to due process.

4)      Still excludes lawyers. Survivors have universally conveyed that after psycho-social support, they need legal assistance. The Policy overlooks this simple ask. Most international organisations have a provision which addresses access to legal representation (although nobody pays for them without Tribunal orders).

5)      Ignores staff unions and representatives. While paragraph 3.2 (d) mentions them as individuals who should be trained, they are ignored in other crucial areas. Staff representatives are a huge support system within the UN and one of the few resources that staff have been able to trust. To ignore them seems intentional, giving the impression that the UN seeks to keep full control of the process.

6)      Continues to use online modules for primary prevention training. There is absolutely no data that these online training modules have worked. Research shows that real-life examples of inappropriate conduct through video recreations followed by a facilitated discussion work best in changing attitudes.

7)      Oversells the Speak Up helpline. The helpline is described as a place to obtain “confidential advice about possible sexual harassment”. In reality, all the helpline does is give out contact details of persons or offices based on your location, position, and nature of complaint. Its staffed with barely trained volunteers ill-equipped to provide any advice about sexual harassment or deal with vulnerable callers. The UN ought to be transparent about the helpline’s capacity.

8)      Investigation not always guaranteed. All prohibited conduct, but sexual harassment, can still be investigated by staff trained to investigate instead of professional investigators. It is particularly disappointing that the SG’s promise to treat all complaints of SHA as Category I complaints that are investigated without exception by the OIOS does not find mention in the Policy.

9)      Immunity not waived. Another SG’s promise that the UN would not invoke immunity in cases of SHA has also not found a place in the Policy, effectively turning the access to criminal justice into a sign board to a dead-end.

* Priyanka Chirimar is the Founder of, an expert legal service for complainants against prohibited conduct in international organizations and can provide pro bono legal counselling on misconduct matters.
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