UN settles sex assault ‘retaliation’ case after 15 years

The UN on Monday settled a case filed by a former investigator claiming she faced retaliation for raising concerns 15 years ago over the handling of a suspected rape case.

UN settles sex assault 'retaliation' case after 15 years

“In the interest of both parties in seeing this matter resolved, a mutually satisfactory settlement has been reached today,” the UN refugee agency and former senior investigator, Caroline Hunt-Matthes, said in a joint statement.

No details of the deal were revealed, but UNHCR said it “accepts there were matters which in hindsight could have been better managed in relation to the separation.”

Hunt-Matthes told AFP her contract with UNHCR was terminated after she raised concerns in 2003 over the way investigations of suspected sexual assault and rape cases were handled.

According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), an NGO that supports whistleblowers, the “15-year retaliation case (is) the longest in the history of the United Nations internal justice system.”

The settlement comes as the UN, like other institutions, is caught up in a global reckoning over sexual misconduct, spurred by the #Metoo movement.

Read also: Can a United Nations treaty really help the #Metoo movement?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who was head of UNHCR at the time Hunt-Matthes was fired, recently reiterated the world body's “zero tolerance” towards sexual abuse, and vowed to do more to investigate and to ensure accountability. 

Hunt-Matthes first challenged UNHCR over sexual assault probes after she was deployed to Sri Lanka in October 2003 to follow up on a rape investigation initially handled by a senior manager on site.

The alleged victim, a refugee hired to work as a UNHCR cleaner, had been fired while the alleged rapist, a local UNHCR staff member, was transferred.

'Unprecedented obstruction'

Hunt-Matthes, today an adjunct professor in Geneva and Grenoble, says she faced “unprecedented obstruction of the rape investigation, both before, during and after.”

Her probe did eventually lead to the firing of the alleged rapist. UNHCR told AFP he was “summarily dismissed” on September 1st, 2004.

But a month prior to that, Hunt-Matthes herself was let go after she criticised the lack of independence.

She said UNHCR sent her an email saying her fixed-term appointment was terminated while she was in hospital recovering from a work-related car accident.

The documentation justifying her dismissal, a poor performance report, was drawn up after she was let go, she said.

A ruling by the United Nations Dispute Tribunal in 2013 found that Hunt-Matthes's firing was an act “of retaliation against her for questioning the (agency's) investigation methods … and requiring investigations into the conduct of some senior officials.”

The UNHCR appealed that ruling in 2014, and that new case was finally settled Monday.

UNHCR spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly told AFP that while the agency acknowledged it could have handled matters better, “there has been no legal finding that the non-renewal of Ms. Hunt-Matthes' contract was retaliatory.”

But the former investigator stressed that UNHCR's appeal was “on a technicality (and) doesn't change the substance” of the prior court ruling that her firing was “retaliation”.

“My case illustrates that every UN internal recourse for justice and whistleblower protection failed,” she said.

She especially slammed the UN's continued use of internal investigation procedures.

“You can't be a party to a system and the judge,” Hunt-Matthes said, calling for “true independence and neutrality.”

Hunt-Matthes said she had settled “because 15 years is too long for anybody.”

“I feel an enormous sense of relief that this is finally over.”


How women artists are bringing #MeToo reckoning to Basel fair

Mannequins display inflatable, white airbag dresses created to protect women from workplace harassment, while nearby details of the alleged sexual misdeeds of 170 public figures cover four long walls, splashed in red.

How women artists are bringing #MeToo reckoning to Basel fair
A visitor looks at Anne Collier's "Woman Crying (Comic) #7" at Art Basel. Photo: AFP

The #MeToo movement that exploded on the global stage in late 2017 has inspired several works exhibited at this year's Art Basel, the world's biggest contemporary art fair, which opens to the public on Thursday.

Women artists have taken centre stage at the show's 50th edition, with in-your-face installations expressing disgust and exasperation at persisting gender inequalities and culturally condoned abuse and harassment of women.

Spanish artist Alicia Framis has filled a room with delicate, white mannequins wearing different styles of dresses made from airbag material, which inflate to protect different parts of the female body.

The piece called “Life Dress” consists of dresses “to protect women in all work situations where there is some kind of abuse,” Framis told AFP.

The 52-year-old artist said she had spoken with victims of harassment and abuse and allowed their stories to inspire the dress designs, using “fashion to demonstrate against violence.”

Where Framis uses humour to spotlight abuse, Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Bowers's massive archival project “Open Secrets” radiates rage.

Andrea Bower's “Open Secrets” has already caused controversy. Photo: AFP

It consists of reams of photographic prints on red backgrounds, each listing the name and occupation of a public figure accused of sexual harassment or abuse, their public response to the accusations and details of the case.

'Rape culture'

Disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose misconduct first sparked the #MeToo movement, has two full panels dedicated to his long list of alleged misdeeds.

US President Donald Trump also figures in the piece, as do his predecessors Bill Clinton and George Bush Senior, two Supreme Court justices, as well as actors, journalists, musicians and other public figures. 

“I just felt like the #MeToo movement is perhaps one of the most important feminist movements of my lifetime,” Bowers told AFP, explaining her inspiration for the piece.

The 54-year-old self-described feminist activist artist said she had been shocked to realise “what it was like for me growing up, that it was rape culture, where … young men were given permission to sexually violate me and my friends.”

With the #MeToo movement, such behaviour is finally “being acknowledged,” she said. “I hope that it's a historic shift.” 

During a preview earlier this week, men in particular lingered in front of the piece which covers two long walls, back and front, in the middle of the fair's Unlimited exhibition space.

“You can see a lot of men standing here and being a bit unsure how to react,” said Vanja Oberhoff, a young German art investor standing among some dozen men gazing at the articles.

“It's a very strong piece,” he told AFP. 

Not all reactions have been positive.

Helen Donahue, who in 2017 tweeted out photographs of herself bearing the marks of alleged abuse by freelance columnist Michael Hafford, voiced outrage that Bowers had used one of the pictures.

“Cool that my fucking photos and trauma are heading art basel thx for exploiting us for 'art' ANDREA BOWERS,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

Bowers, who insists on the importance of trusting survivors, quickly issued an apology for not seeking Donahue's consent before using the picture and removed the panel from the exhibit.


The artist also told AFP that showing her piece at Art Basel had been more challenging than she had expected.

The VIP opening of the show drew “some of the richest people in the world, and they actually know many of the people on the walls, because these are also some of the most powerful people in the world,” Bowers said.

“This is an emotional piece for a lot of people here because it is very personal.”

The piece shows “we have to change our thinking, and not everybody is ready to do that… There is still a lot more work to be done.”

This year's Art Basel is also abuzz with discussion about disparities between the prices raked in for pieces made by male and female artists, as well as access to gallery representation.

Clare McAndrew, a cultural economist who writes the annual Art Market Report released each year ahead of Art Basel, told AFP that women still face “stark under-representation” in the art world.

“Only five percent of the work sold last year at auction were by female artists, and the higher up the price point you go, the worse that gets,” she said, adding that even at galleries only showing contemporary art, women account for about a third of the represented artists.

Marc Glimcher, who heads Pace Gallery, a global leader in contemporary art, acknowledged that the most talented women artists have long made only about a 10th of the amount made by contemporary male artists, if they were lucky.

But he told AFP that “an equalisation is taking place”.

“The market recognises that there was an arbitrary depression of value, and a possible opportunity.”