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UN chief calls for culture change after Oxfam allegations

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that a culture change is required to enable women across the world to work without fear of sexual harassment.

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Nic Robertson
James Masters (CNN)
MUNICH (CNN) — UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that a culture change is required to enable women across the world to work without fear of sexual harassment.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Guterres said that the allegations that have engulfed the British charity Oxfam served as a reminder of the "serious problem that is everywhere."

Guterres, whose own organization has faced criticism over abuse by peacekeeping forces, said "everything possible" must be done to change the culture that has allowed

"No form of sexual harassment... is acceptable," he told CNN.

Oxfam's reputation has taken a battering after it was accused of attempting to cover up the behavior of some of its senior staff members deployed to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake.

"I think we need to be fully aware that this is a serious problem that is everywhere, in public administrations, in the private sector, in international organizations like the UN... in the civil society and in nongovernmental organizations," Guterres said.

"There is a central question. We still live in a male-dominated culture, in a male-dominated world, and so these things happen and people are afraid to come out, to speak up, to denounce. So, we need to do everything possible to change this culture."

The UN has faced its own abuse scandals. In 2016, there were 80 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by uniformed United Nations personnel and 65 allegations against civilian workers who support the peacekeeping missions, according to a report by Guterres published last year.

As a result of the report, Guterres unveiled recommendations from a task force attempting to eradicate sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the field.

"We have already appointed eight global victim advocates in the areas more dramatically impacted to make sure that there is support to the victims, for the victims to be able to come and denounce what has happened. Not to be afraid," Guterres told CNN Friday.

In Oxfam's case, the aid workers -- including the Oxfam country director at the time, Roland van Hauwermeiren -- were accused of using prostitutes in a villa rented by the organization.

Addressing the allegations, Van Hauwermeiren acknowledged his behavior was unacceptable. "I should have known better, I'm a man of flesh and blood," van Hauwermeiren told Belgian TV Thursday.

"Nobody is perfect, but I'm no pig. I don't feel good about the people who are told by perhaps less professional journalists that Oxfam is used to hold sex orgies with the money from good citizens, but that is absolutely... it is absolutely not correct."

'Urgent review'

On Friday, Oxfam announced that an independent commission would carry out an "urgent" review into the allegations alongside a "comprehensive action plan to stamp out abuse."

In a statement, the charity's international executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said Oxfam is "absolutely committed to ensuring justice for survivors of abuse."

"What happened in Haiti and afterward is a stain on Oxfam that will shame us for years, and rightly so," she said. "From the bottom of my heart I am asking for forgiveness."

Oxfam said the commission would be headed by leading women's rights experts. I t has also pledged to triple its annual safeguarding funding to just over $1 million.

The charity said it was committed to publishing its 2011 internal investigation into the Haiti scandal "as soon as possible." The names of the men involved have already been shared with the Haitian authorities,it said..

Since the revelations were first reported in The Times last week, Oxfam has lost two high-profile ambassadors, the actor Minnie Driver and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On Monday, its deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence resigned.

The British government has warned it could lose millions of pounds in public funding because of the scandal. Oxfam received about £32 million (about $44 million) from the government last year.

The UK Charity Commission, an independent regulator of charities in England and Wales, opened a statutory inquiry into the allegations.

Oxfam did not deny the accusations against its staff members, but it denied a cover-up, saying that it launched a swift internal investigation after it became aware of the allegations. Four people were fired and another three resigned, including van Hauwermeiren, the charity said

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