Senior UN official loses his appeal against sexual misconduct sacking

A former senior UN adviser who contested his sacking over sexual misconduct has lost his appeal at a tribunal.

Ravi Karkara, who was tasked with promoting gender equality and youth partnerships at UN Women, was dismissed in 2018 following allegations of harassment against younger men, including an intern.

The agency previously declined to name the former employee, but details of the allegations against him were published in a judgment this month after Karkara took his case to the UN dispute tribunal.

UN Women found Karkara had sexually harassed, exploited and abused two non-UN personnel, harassed a UN intern, and used his work email account to distribute pornography.

The key complainant, Steve Lee, filed allegations in June 2017 after working with the UN as the founder of a youth-led organisation. He was given speaking opportunities and access to working groups by Karkara.

But, according to the judgment, the senior adviser increasingly wielded his power over Lee and suggested he perform sexual acts in return for favours.

At the hearing Karkara said Lee had misunderstood his messages as sexual.

In December 2016, Lee was assaulted after helping Karkara to take his luggage to a Montreal hotel room. The senior adviser opened pornography websites on Lee’s laptop and grabbed his genitals through his trousers.

The judgment reveals that a second non-UN employee made allegations against Karkara. They claimed he sent them photographs of himself in the bath and requested pictures in return.

The unnamed complainant also said Karkara followed him to the toilets at an event in New York and asked to see his genitals.

An intern with the UN also made a complaint, saying Karkara would text requesting photos.

Karkara claimed UN Women’s investigation was biased and that testimonies had been fabricated with the assistance of people in the organisation with whom he’d had disputes.

The tribunal concluded UN Women was right to sack Karkara after finding “clear and convincing evidence” he inappropriately touched Lee and asked for oral sex via WhatsApp. It found his behaviour towards the intern amounted to harassment.

Sharanya Kanikkannan, legal adviser for campaign group Code Blue, welcomed the judgment, but said the system is made harder for victims to navigate by differing rules, standards and complaints processes across the UN.

“A high profile case like this gets held up as an example of how things are working but we learn from it and examine what reforms can be made to improve the system.”

The tribunal confirmed “credible oral victim testimony alone may be fully sufficient to support a finding of serious misconduct, without further corroboration being required”. It also recognised that victims responding to harassment in the context of a power imbalance may not react as expected.

But Kanikkannan said that in another complaint Code Blue had seen, “case investigators rejected the complaint as the exchanges seemed ‘friendly’”, while in other UN cases allegations that could not be corroborated by an eyewitness had been dismissed.

The UN was contacted for a response.