Suheir El-Azzouni

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Challenging the UN on Sex Discrimination
Suheir El-Azzouni
“How can women at the UN work against gender discrimination when they themselves face such discrimination from within the system?”

Equality Now has been advocating for more transparent systems within the UN to address sexual harassment and sex discrimination cases of female UN employees. Ms. Suheir El-Azzouni is one of the plaintiffs we supported in a sex discrimination case, which she recently won at the UN Appeals Tribunal after pursuing her case for two and a half years. Ms. El-Azzouni speaks to us about her experience and thoughts on how to improve the system in this partner profile.

Ms. Suheir El-Azzouni began work as Chief of the Centre for Women at UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in June 2006 on a two-year fixed term contract. In July 2007, Mr. Bader Al-Dafa was appointed the Executive Secretary of ESCWA and Ms. El-Azzouni’s supervisor. Soon after his appointment, according to Ms. El-Azzouni, Mr. Al-Dafa began to effectively harass and discriminate against her apparently because of an animus towards working on women’s rights which he saw as contrary to Islam.

Among other things, the Executive Secretary allegedly prevented the Centre for Women from publishing a handbook on the use of progressive interpretations of Islamic law; made comments indicating a pride in “honor crimes” as part of Arab culture; remarked that it was improper for Ms. El-Azzouni, as a Christian, to engage in gender issues in the Muslim world; and reprimanded her for forwarding him an open letter pertaining to a gang rape case in Saudi Arabia because it was too sensitive an issue for the Centre for Women. In April 2008, despite a stellar professional record, Ms. El-Azzouni was told that her contract would not be renewed. While requesting review of this decision, she was laterally transferred to a non-supervisory position without consultation.

In the cases of sex discrimination and harassment within the UN that were brought to the attention of Equality Now, we noticed delays, blocks, and lack of transparency during investigations conducted by the UN. Ms. El-Azzouni had to go through several hoops within the system and it took two and a half years for her to see justice. Interestingly, while the UN Panel on Discrimination and Other Grievances (PDOG), as early as 2008, found “prejudice and abuse of discretionary authority” on part of the Executive Secretary, it took the internal justice system an additional two years to resolve the case in favor of Ms. Azzouni and this decision came after the Executive Secretary had already left the organization.

1. Did you expect to win the case and how did you feel the day you heard you had won?

Initially, I expected to win the case which I thought was fairly straight-forward. I was subjected to sex discrimination by my supervisor for doing my job according to UN values and principles of gender equality. However, when I lost the case at the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) on 14 January 2010 on the grounds of “mutual loss of confidence” and the judge refused to hear 22 out of 23 witnesses willing to testify to the harassment I was subjected to, my faith in the fairness of the UN justice system was eroded. Although I was resigned to the fact that I would lose the case at the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (UNAT), I knew that I had to fight till the very end.

When I won, I was shocked. I had prepared myself psychologically to take another blow from the UN justice system. When I received a brief e-mail message from Equality Now on 29 October 2010, informing me that I won, and that the judgment was reinstatement or two years net salary, I froze before the computer screen not believing what I saw. I was alone in a hotel room on a work mission away from home, and it took me several minutes to comprehend the meaning of the short message received. I felt numb and faint staring at the screen. Since I had no one around to celebrate with, I wrote a collective message to my husband, children, sisters, former colleagues and to many of my friends informing them that I won after the two and a half years of struggle. That night, I felt too elated to sleep. I stayed up behind my computer screen. Congratulations messages kept coming till the early hours of the next morning when I had to pack and board the plane back home.

2. Could you talk a little bit about the process in trying to get justice within the UN system? What could have been done differently and what was the hardest part of bringing this case?

Within a few months following his appointment, I started to experience harassment and serious obstruction to my work on gender equality from my supervisor Mr. Al-Dafa. I contacted the head of the Office of the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues (OSAGI) who instructed me to contact the UN Ombudsman’s office, and I did so in early March (2008). After several sessions of narrating my story to the Ombudsman’s office, they simply said they sympathized with me but were unable to act on hearsay. I also feared that I would not be evaluated fairly in my Performance Appraisal (PAS), and as anticipated I received a contradictory performance review and my contract was not renewed.

I filed a case with the PAS Rebuttal Committee and also with the Panel on Discrimination and Other Grievances (PDOG). I also filed a Suspension of Action with the Joint Appeals Board (JAB) requesting that the refusal to renew my contract be re-examined. The PAS Rebuttal Committee investigated issues relating to my performance and issued a report on June 26, 2008, recommending changing the competencies my supervisor had rated as “developing” to “competent.” Later, the JAB issued their report and unanimously recommended a suspension of action of the decision to not renew my contract.

After the PAS rebuttal and the JAB report were out, the ESCWA Administrator invited me for a meeting and offered a one year contract that would be renewed to a second year, but in another position within the organization, in return for my withdrawal of the PDOG case. I rejected such an offer and informed them I would only withdraw the case if I were given a two-year contract in what I do best, as the Chief of the Centre for Women.

During this time, the OSAGI office sent a report to the Deputy Secretary-General explaining my case. However, while the PDOG was still investigating my case, the Secretary-General’s Office issued a decision not to accept the unanimous recommendations of JAB and to separate me from the organization giving the PDOG until the end of September to complete their work. This in itself was very telling, since, if the Secretary General was seriously keen to take action against any form of sex discrimination within the organization, he would have at least waited three weeks until the PDOG completed their investigation before making a decision.

The PDOG report was issued at the end of September 2008. By that time I had already been separated from the organization. The report expressed dismay to learn “of instances in which the personal views of the Executive Secretary determined institutional policy rather than the norms and standards of the United Nations” and observed incidences of “unprofessional utterances” and “improper conduct” which should have been avoided at the workplace especially by an experienced senior manager. The report recommended reinstatement or compensation as well as compensation for harm I had been subjected to. Since the PDOG only makes recommendations for the Secretary-General to accept or to refuse, I had to prepare yet another appeal for the JAB just in case the recommendations were not accepted.

During this time, Equality Now began to assist me in my case. They got support of other international organizations and met with the Secretary-General to speak about my case. After the Secretary-General received the PDOG recommendations, he simply rejected them. I had no other choice but to submit a second appeal to the JAB with the help of the UN panel of Counsel, Office of Staff Legal Assistance. Soon afterwards, reforms to the UN justice system took place and JAB was replaced by the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT).

A long time elapsed before the UNDT scheduled a hearing to look into my case. The UNDT judge was very authoritarian and dismissive. Of the 23 witnesses I had submitted, he accepted to hear only 1 who was to testify on the issue of religious discrimination. After the judge heard the witness, refusing to hear anything about sex discrimination, and only focusing on discrimination on the basis of religion, he concluded that he had heard “enough.” He ruled that since there was a “mutual loss of confidence”, my supervisor was right to choose not to renew my contract. Hearing that, I became even more determined to fight my case.

I contracted with Mr. Edward Flaherty, a private lawyer, and we appealed to the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (UNAT). Two and a half years had gone by since my initial complaint before my case came before the UNAT. After all I had gone through I did not have much hope that the system would grant me justice. I am happy that I was wrong. The UNAT Judge was fair. She saw that my supervisor’s statements were “contradictory” and that the system had not granted me justice. She ruled that my due process rights were violated and that I should be either reinstated or compensated.

3. Are there any suggestions you would make to change the UN system so that sex discrimination can be prevented in the future?

The UN should ensure that only firm believers in human and women’s rights are selected to head UN organizations. Appointments should not be based on political considerations alone. I think that my case was blocked and delayed in part due to political pressure and in part because the UN chose to stand by its senior administrators even when they erred and worked against the declared values and principles of the UN. If this is true, then this should change.

A third issue of importance is that the Ombudsman and the Ethics Offices should be strengthened and enabled to deal with issues of injustice even when influential individuals/countries are involved. I hope that the newly created UN Women will be better equipped to protect women against discrimination. I also fail to understand why the Secretary-General refused the recommendations of the various committees and bodies created within the UN to protect staff against injustice (like the PAS Committee, JAB, and PDOG). If the recommendations of the still existing bodies continue to be set aside in other cases, then there is no use for them in the first place.

4. What have you been working on since you were forced to leave the UN?

As soon as I went back home, I was offered several consultancies. I have written a chapter in a book published in New York about the situation of women in my country Palestine. I have evaluated a regional program funded by the European Union on women and violence. I have led the preparation of the first ever national gender strategy and action plan for the upcoming three years for Palestine. Currently I am working on the evaluation of the gender component of the work of one of the UN organizations. I have trained board members and senior employees of one international organization on gender mainstreaming. A few months ago, I was given an award by the Palestinian Minister of Women’s Affairs for my national, regional and international work on gender equality.

Today, I continue to pride myself in that most, if not all, people I know, are overjoyed that I have won this case. In less than five days, I received more than two hundred congratulations messages from all around the world and from a big number of individuals working at the UN. I have even received messages from people I hardly spoke to. And I have not yet informed all my friends about the outcome of the case. Last and not least, I would like to record my thanks and deep appreciation to Equality Now and to all the other international women’s organizations for their continued support through this process. Many thanks are also due to Mr. Ed Flaherty, my wonderful and very competent lawyer.

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