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UNICEF India Chief Faces Sexual Assault Charge, Fired Whistleblower Barred From Ethics Office

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, October 24 -- In India the minister for Woman and Child Development has recommended that immunity be lifted to allow the prosecution of UNICEF's top representative Cecilio Adorna, on charges of sexual abuse. The complainant appears now to also have suffered retaliation, having had her contract terminated two months after she blew the whistle on Adorna.

   While many, including the U.S. Mission to the UN, have expressed surprise at the UN Development Program's claimed exemption from the UN Ethics Office's jurisdiction to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, UNICEF under Executive Director Ann M. Veneman has adopted the same position as UNDP, that while it will be "under the overall guidance of the Ethics Office at the UN Secretariat," UNICEF will run its own parallel Ethics Office.  This is contrary to the recent brief by the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, which in 2005 gave technical assistance to the UN to improve its "internal oversight and transparency," to "apply the rulings of the Ethics Office to the UN Funds and Programs," which include UNICEF.

   The case of the complainant against Adorna make clear that UNICEF may have the same need for outside Ethics review as does UNDP, currently the subject of both an external audit ordered by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a separate investigation into charges of retaliation. Meanwhile, a week after Inner City Press asked UNICEF for its policy on providing copies of audits to member states and to the press and public, no policy has been provided.

Ms. Veneman, India's president and Mr. Adorna, UN Ethics Office not shown

            In India, it is reported that

An informal government inquiry has found the India representative of UNICEF prima facie guilty of sexual harassment of a female colleague. Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chowdhury, whose ministry conducted the probe against Cecilio Adorna, has requested External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukerjee to withdraw diplomatic immunity against law given to the UN official. Complainant Rema (name changed) worked in the Delhi office of UNICEF till December 31, 2006 -- till two months after she formally lodged a complaint against Adorna. Her contract was terminated

            This complainant contacted Inner City Press some months ago. Out of respect for UNICEF, Inner City Press gave time to response, and took UNICEF's denial at face value. (It has been repeated, that "the evidence did not support the allegations raised by the former staff member.")  But now the relevant Indian minister has upheld the allegations, and asked for immunity to be stripped. UNICEF's response has been a "no comment," that they were not aware of the minister's inquiry. They should have been.

            According to records provided to Inner City Press by the complainant, UNICEF's Ann Veneman received on January 23 an e-mail that

Ma'am, it was too humiliating and excruciatingly painful for me to admit in front of the Committee that I was not merely sexually harassed, but was sexually abused... It has resulted in reoccurrence of nightmares that have haunted me for almost a year: his face, his smile, his smell, his filthy words, the triumphant look in his eyes and feel of his hands and mouth which violated my innermost parts. The memories come flooding back even during drug-induced sleep and leave me perspiring and trembling, with a palpitating heart and terrible ache within core of my being. Is being a woman such a big crime? Even inside UNICEF? Even when it is you who heads this organization?

      One external witness was given a copy of his statement by the Committee on his request. This person has seen with his own eyes an incident when Mr. Adorna was forcefully squeezing my breasts while trying to pull my face towards him to try and kiss me... Now my family and I look up to you for justice. I leave the decision to you and your conscience.

            When asked, UNICEF would not state if or how Ms. Veneman reads her e-mail: "UNICEF considers the process by which it manages its email traffic an internal matter. However, as stated yesterday, we reaffirm that all emails received that contain complaints by or against staff members are forwarded to the relevant part of the organization for appropriate review and/or action." Asked when Ms. Veneman would appear at UN Headquarters for a press conference, UNICEF's spokesperson stated that along with UNDP spokesman David Morrison, she had "spoke[n] about the possibility of organizing press briefings for the agencies." Four months later, nothing has been done on this.

            Even on the simple issue of whether UNICEF works with the de facto authorities of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, two recent UNICEF responses dissemble. First, UNICEF stated that "the humanitarian assistance to Abkhazia and South Ossetia is an integral part of the country program of cooperation between the Government of Georgia and UNICEF." When Inner City Press pointed out that Georgia has no presence in Abkhazia, UNICEF issued a second response, that

"The statement  is factually correct, in that Abkhazia is not a sovereign state, so any cooperation agreement would have to go through the Government of Georgia.  UNICEF's work must have a sound legal underpinning, so the agency signed documents and agreements with the legally recognized state, in this case, Georgia."

            How is it a "sound legal underpinning," to base a program in an agreement with an entity which, while sovereign, does not have control over the territory in which the program is taking place?

  Again, because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540