United Nations Appeals Tribunal To Announce Judgment In Sex Discrimination Case


27 October 2010

Contact: Lakshmi Anantnarayan
Phone: (212) 586-0906

WHAT: Judges of the United Nations Appeals Tribunal will announce a synopsis of judgments in 35 cases at the United Nations in New York on Friday, October 29, 2010. Amongst the much anticipated judgments is a case of sex discrimination that international human rights organization Equality Now has been closely monitoring and supporting for over two years. A brief description of the sex discrimination case is enclosed with this Advisory.

Equality Now has been campaigning for a reform of the UN internal justice system, so that victims of sexual harassment and sex discrimination within the UN have an effective redress mechanism. Over the past two years at least three sexual harassment cases and one sex discrimination case in different agencies within the UN system from different parts of the world have been brought to the attention of Equality Now. In studying these cases, Equality Now has noticed several trends in the response by the various UN agencies handling each of these cases, including a lack of transparency and accountability. It should be noted that victims of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the UN do not have access to outside courts due to immunity enjoyed by the UN. This was seen recently in the sexual harassment case of Cynthia Brzak where the US Supreme Court declined to review the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals' decision that the United Nations and its officials are "absolutely immune" from lawsuits, leaving Ms. Brzak, who has no faith in the UN internal system of justice, without redress.

Over a year ago the UN carried out a reform of its internal system of justice. While this reform did not touch on investigation of claims, it established a new justice system with independent judges (as opposed to UN staff members) reviewing cases. The United Nations Appeals Tribunal is in its third session.

Yasmeen Hassan, Deputy Director of Equality Now says, “We hope that the new system is more transparent, provides due process to complainants and is effective in imposing action against the perpetrators. If the UN is truly committed to gender equality and to gender parity in the UN, it must start by assuring female employees who have been sexually harassed or discriminated against on the basis of their sex that their complaints will be treated with utmost seriousness.”

WHO: The United Nations Appeals Tribunal
WHEN: Friday, October 29, 2010 at 3.00 pm
WHERE: The United Nations, North Lawn Building, Conference Room 1, New York

(Journalists without UN press accreditation should refer to the website of the Media and Accreditation Liaison Unit for details: http://www.un.org/media/accreditation/ or call +1 (212) 963-6934)


Summary of Olga Suhair El-Azzouni’s* case (2010-079)

Underlying facts of the case: Ms. Olga Suhair 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 beginning in November 2007 he began to systematically harass and discriminate against Ms. El-Azzouni, apparently because of an animus to work on women’s rights which he saw as contrary to Islam.

The Executive Secretary is alleged to have (i) prevented publication by the Centre for Women of a handbook on the use of progressive interpretations of Islamic law to demonstrate compatibility with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on the basis of comments he sought from conservative Muslim clergy and the Dean of Shari’a at Qatar University (who described CEDAW as “appearing merciful and embedding torture, fearing it may be a ploy to demoralize Arab women”); (ii) made comments that indicated a pride in “honour crimes” as a part of Arab culture; (iii) expressed views that Arab countries were forced to ratify CEDAW by Western States; (iv) told a colleague that as a Christian it was improper for Ms. El-Azzouni to be engaged in gender issues in the Muslim world; and (v) reprimanded Ms. El-Azzouni 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.1 In addition, showing his disregard for the mandate of the Women’s Center to promote women’s rights in the region, he deleted the title “Equality, Equity and Justice” on a newsletter prepared by Ms. El-Azzouni.

In April 2008 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.

Process within the UN system:
Ms. El-Azzouni brought her case to the Joint Appeals Board (JAB) in May 2008 requesting a suspension of the decision not to renew her contract. She also brought a case of discrimination and harassment to the Panel on Discrimination and other Grievances (PDOG) in May 2008.

In August 2008, the JAB found that the non-renewal of Ms. El-Azzouni’s contract violated her due process rights and unanimously recommended suspension of action until the PDOG report had been completed. The Secretary-General’s office, however, did not accept the JAB’s recommendations and her contract expired.

In September 2008, the PDOG found the non-renewal of Ms. El-Azzouni’s contract by the Executive Secretary of ESCWA to be an abuse of discretionary authority. In its report, the PDOG expressed dismay in learning “of instances in which the personal views of the Executive Secretary determined institutional policy rather than the norms and standards of the United Nations.” The PDOG recommended that Ms. El-Azzouni “should be offered a new fixed-term contract to serve at the discretion of the Secretary-General, within the field of competence of the Complainant and in an area agreeable to the Complainant...” The PDOG also recommended that she should receive monetary compensation for no less than 3 months net base salary and recommended “mandatory gender sensitivity and cultural diversity training for ESCWA staff at all levels.”(emphasis in the original) The Secretary-General has not responded to these recommendations.

In October 2008, Ms. El-Azzouni submitted an appeal to the UN JAB on the decision of the Administration of ESCWA not to renew her fixed term appointment, which the Secretary-General responded to, including by challenging the finding of the PDOG and stating that Ms. El-Azzouni had not met her burden of proof to show abuse of authority. The case was reassigned to the UN Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) on 1 July 2009.

A hearing was held on 5 January 2010 and the UNDT rejected her claims on 14 January 2010 holding that a “mutual loss of confidence” between Ms. El-Azzouni and the Executive Secretary was sufficient for the latter not to renew Ms. Azzouni’s appointment. This is contrary to established UN jurisprudence that non-renewal cannot be based on improper motives such as an animus to gender equality work underlying the “mutual loss of confidence” in this case.

Equality Now wrote to the UN Appeals Tribunal in March 2010 expressing concern about the UNDT’s opinion which ignored the testimony showing that underlying basis of the Executive Secertary’s animus towards Ms. El-Azzouni was her commitment to gender equality which was central to her job.

Ms. Azzouni’s appeal to the UN Appeals Tribunal was filed in March 2010. The Executive Secretary retired in September 2010 without completion of Ms. Azzouni’s case and without any disciplinary action being taken against him. A synopsis of the UN Appeal Tribunal’s judgment is expected to be delivered at the UN on 29 October 2010.

Next steps:
• The Secretary-General should accept the findings of the PDOG.
• Ms. El-Azzouni should be reinstated in her job or be provided a comparable job within the UN system.
• Ms. El-Azzouni should be compensated for the harm done.

1. Report of the Panel on Discrimination and Other Grievances, case number 05/01/2008, 30 Sept. 2008.
* sometimes referred to as Suheir Mashi Azzouni