The U.N.'s Own Humanitarian Crisis
New York magazine|September 13 - 26, 2021
Four years after promising to address its internal “scourge” of sexual assault and abuse, the massive, multinational, extralegal institution remains in conflict with itself.
By May Jeong

In the fall of 2010, Kirstie Campbell, a 32-year-old aid worker from Edinburgh, met a colleague named Mick Lorentzen at the bar of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan. Campbell and Lorentzen were both working for the United Nations World Food Programme, providing humanitarian relief to victims of Pakistan’s recent floods, one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. Campbell mentioned that although she had worked for the WFP on and off for the past five years, she was still on short-term contracts, some lasting just 30 days. Lorentzen, who ran the WFP’s security unit and said he was a former British Royal Marine, suggested that Campbell work for him on a fixed-term contract, which comes with better working conditions and a pension. “You know I can get you that job,” he said, adding, “So when should we go and have sex?”

Campbell recalled being alarmed but not wanting to draw attention, she would later tell investigators. Hiding her phone underneath the table, she texted a friend who was with other aid workers in the bar, asking for help. When the friend walked over and invited Campbell and Lorentzen to join the larger group, Lorentzen, who is physically imposing at about six and a half feet tall and 250 pounds, told the friend they would not be joining him. The friend left, and Campbell again tried texting for help. Lorentzen leaned over and, she recalled, whispered in her ear, “You fucked up, you fucked up.”

Campbell left the bar. Later, she was hesitant to do anything about what happened. She said Lorentzen had told her that his security officers had been accused of sexual harassment but that those complaints “all go across my desk.” Also, Lorentzen was head of security; his job was keeping track of everyone’s whereabouts at all times, including Campbell’s.

A week or so after the encounter at the hotel bar, Campbell said she told her immediate supervisor that Lorentzen had offered her a job in exchange for sex. Soon after, Campbell spoke to a WFP counselor, who took notes and seemed concerned, until she named Lorentzen as the man who had harassed her. The counselor closed his notebook. “I am terribly sorry,” she recalled him saying. “There is nothing I can do. He is my boss.” The counselor tried to comfort Campbell by telling her that Lorentzen was moving to a new position at the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, the agency’s security-services arm.

Campbell considered filing a formal complaint with the WFP’s ombudsman. Lorentzen, however, had told her that he was a close associate of the WFP’s executive director who, Campbell believed, was in turn close to the ombudsman. Campbell’s belief rested on the fact that they were both Americans in an organization where factions form along national lines. (“Any suggestion that the ombudsman could value the views of one person above another is based on misconception,” a WFP spokesperson said this month.) Campbell decided not to report the incident until the WFP named a new ombudsman. By the time that happened, six years had elapsed; she had finished her contract in Islamabad and gone on to work for the WFP on Libyan and Syrian aid. When Campbell finally looked into filing a formal complaint, she learned that the six-month statute of limitations had long since passed. She had left the agency and eventually left humanitarian work altogether. Years later, an outside investigator would substantiate a sexual-harassment allegation against Lorentzen, but not the one made by Campbell.

The U.N.’s attempts to balance its lofty mission with its responsibilities as a sprawling global employer have led to deep contradictions. According to its standards of conduct, “the United Nations and the specialized agencies embody the highest aspirations of the peoples of the world.” But its more than 100,000 staff, thousands of volunteers and interns, and tens of thousands of contractors are governed by varying, and at times inconsistent, sets of regulations that often contravene host-country laws. “This idea that we are special is undermining us,” a longtime U.N. manager who has served in both the field as well as headquarters told me. “We are special, yes, but the organization is also made up of human beings, and human beings screw up.”

Since 2017, when the global Me Too movement took off, I have encountered 43 workers who reported they had experienced sexual harassment during their time at the organization. Eighteen reported experiencing violence that the U.N. would classify as a sexual assault. Eight said they were raped, including two who said they had been raped more than once. U.N. workers described being sexually harassed or assaulted at a workshop on emergency management in Norway, during an internship in Spain, on missions in Ethiopia and Somalia, and in the U.N.-headquarter cities of Vienna, Nairobi, Geneva, and New York. The victims of harassment and assault, the vast majority of whom were women with precarious employment status, included an administrative assistant in Pakistan and a legal intern in Cambodia. They identified the alleged perpetrators as U.N. workers investigating humanrights violations in Syria, expanding women’s access to reproductive health care in South Sudan, negotiating the Paris climate agreement, and building cases against war criminals at the Hague. They said the perpetrators included security officers, spokespeople, hiring managers, and human-rights lawyers.

In the course of my reporting, I have watched as the U.N., not unlike other closed organizations facing abuse scandals, such as the Catholic Church and USA Gymnastics, vowed to reform itself. Secretary-General António Guterres has issued multiple policy statements on how his organization would combat the “scourge” of sexual abuse within the U.N. Three high-ranking officials—all women—were named to address issues regarding victims’ rights, sexual exploitation, and sexual harassment and abuse. There have been some policy changes, such as lifting the statute of limitations, which deterred Campbell from reporting; extending access to the U.N.’s internal justice system to cover people who aren’t currently employees; and introducing a screening database meant to ensure that those who are let go from one U.N. agency for sexual misconduct are not rehired at another. There have been changes in firings: In 2016, one person was separated from service from the U.N. Secretariat for sexual harassment or assault. In 2019, that number rose to ten. “My heart goes out to every member of our personnel who has been assaulted, harassed, or abused in the course of their work over the years,” Secretary-General Guterres told New York Magazine this month. “These appalling crimes go against everything the United Nations stands for, and we will do our utmost to investigate all allegations and bring those responsible to justice,” he said.

Despite such proclamations, U.N. staffers told me the day-to-day working environment inside the organization has remained mostly unchanged. The U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services still only has nine investigators for all sexual-assault claims. “It is these nebulous discussions of jobs and offices that the U.N. likes to hide behind,” Priyanka Chirimar, a human-rights lawyer who worked for various U.N. war-crimes tribunals, told me. “High-profile announcements are a standard U.N. response to a public scandal.” In fact, by early 2021, one position born of such an announcement—an executive coordinator to address sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination at the U.N. Women agency— had been dissolved entirely. The Guardian reported that the official who had occupied it, Purna Sen, said that the U.N. had put the issue of sexual harassment “on the back burner.” (When asked, a representative of the U.N. Women agency said the position had been “a time-limited special assignment.”)

The U.N. is by design ill-suited for disciplining its employees. It cannot unilaterally make policies for its various agencies, which span multiple continents, sociocultural norms, and economic realities. The internal justice system answers to the General Assembly, which appoints the secretary-general, who does not have authority over the goings-on at U.N. agencies, some of which avail themselves of the International Labour Organization for settling disputes, while others use the dispute and appeals tribunals, which in turn draw on findings from the Office of Internal Oversight Services, which can only investigate—not sanction—employees accused of misconduct. And so on.

Even when the internal justice process makes a finding, it cannot reinforce sanctions beyond the remit of what a humanresources department can do. The U.N., contrary to right-wing fever dreams, is not a government and has no power to make criminal prosecutions. “The United Nations does not have a mandate to criminally prosecute its personnel or maintain a prison system to incarcerate them,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for the secretary-general.

In 2018, I met the World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, at the agency’s office in Washington, D.C. Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina who joined the WFP in April 2017, told me that the organization was at times overwhelmed by humanitarian crises, implying it could not be held responsible for the actions of every one of its employees. “When I arrived, there were four nations facing famine. There were 80 million people we were trying to feed,” he said. “Twenty-nine million on the brink of starvation we weren’t even getting to. Sixteen thousand employees. When I arrived, Rome was burning. So you gotta tell me what’s more important, saving millions of children or potential abuse?” He paused, then answered his own question: “Actually, both. And neither one should be neglected.”

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