UNAIDS head to quit post early following scathing report

UNAIDS head to quit post early following scathing report
FILE - In this July 18, 2018 file photo embattled UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibe poses for photographers before attending a press conference, in Paris, France. The head of the U.N. agency focusing on AIDS says he’ll leave his post in June, an early departure announced a week after independent experts looking into sexual harassment at UNAIDS blasted its “defective leadership.” (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, file) (Thibault Camus)

GENEVA (AP) — The head of the U.N. agency focusing on AIDS says he'll leave his post in June, an early departure announced a week after independent experts looking into sexual harassment at UNAIDS blasted its "defective leadership."

Executive director Michel Sidibe made the announcement during a UNAIDS board meeting Thursday in Geneva, said agency spokesman Mahesh Mahalingham. He did not elaborate.

Sidibe's term was supposed to end in January 2020.

On Friday, a panel of experts released a report citing a culture of impunity and a toxic working environment at UNAIDS and said it could not be changed unless Sidibe resigned. Citing a "vacuum of accountability," they said UNAIDS leaders had failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.

Sidibe, a native of Mali, has denied claims that he tried to force an employee to drop allegations that she was sexually assaulted by his former deputy. And despite the scathing report, Sidibe insisted Friday that he was the right man to turn around the organization.

UNAIDS staffer Martina Brostrom went public earlier this year with allegations originally laid out in a sexual harassment and assault complaint in 2016. In it, she alleged that Luiz Loures, once the agency's deputy director for programs, had forcibly kissed and grabbed her in a Bangkok hotel in May 2015 — claims Loures denied. He left UNAIDS earlier this year.

The World Health Organization office that investigated the case concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support Brostrom's claims.

Despite their critique, the four experts pointed to Sidibe's "outstanding contribution" to UNAIDS' work and called him a "passionate and effective advocate" for the world's most vulnerable. It said he had "spoken bravely" about the risks of HIV/AIDS among adolescent girls and women.

A statement from the U.N. agency on Thursday made no reference to last week's report, simply saying that Sidibe wants to "have an orderly transition of leadership at UNAIDS" and would resign the end of June.

Critics pounced. Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, which works to end impunity for sexual abuse by U.N. personnel, said Sidibe "doesn't deserve to leave on his terms and on his timeline."

"A leader of any other major institution who was accused of the wrongdoing described in ... the report would have been summarily fired," she said, criticizing a "failure of leadership" by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres — who can fire Sidibe — and the UNAIDS board.

"This is the culmination of the abuse of power and authority that has marked Sidibe's tenure," Donovan said. "The culture of impunity remains intact. Zero tolerance is ... nothing more than empty slogan."