A senior adviser for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women is under investigation for sexual misconduct. The U.N. has “a job of work to do” to reform its culture and restore trust, a U.N. spokesperson said.
At least eight men have accused Ravi Karkara, senior adviser to a former U.N. assistant secretary-general, of using his prestige and position to sexually harass them, five sources with knowledge of the investigation told Newsweek.
Karkara did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week and dating back to December 2017, when the U.N. announced a sexual misconduct investigation (without identifying the subject by name). No charges have been filed in the 13-month ongoing investigation. On July 26, a spokesperson for the United Nations entity, also known as U.N. Women, said that the probe’s “subject remains on administrative leave” and that, while still on U.N. payroll, the person “is not currently performing any active function.”
U.N. officials confirmed on August 1 that an investigation is ongoing but declined to comment on whether Karkara was the subject of the probe.
U.N. Women is the youngest division of the U.N., becoming a distinct branch in 2011. It sets global standards for seeking gender equality and then helps member countries turn those standards into laws, policies and programs.
Mandy Sanghera and Kerry Gibson, international human rights activists and U.N. Women Planet 50-50 Champions, told Newsweek the subject of the investigation is Karkara, who is currently on leave from U.N. Women. Gibson and an alleged victim filed complaints that started the investigation, while Sanghera learned of it through a former U.N. official and confirmed it with several alleged victims.
Two other former U.N. staffers with knowledge of the investigation confirmed that Karkara is the subject of the probe, as did one of his alleged victims whom U.N. investigators interviewed 13 months ago.
Sanghera called the senior adviser “a predator.” Speaking from her home in London, she said, “What’s finally coming to light is a long pattern of inappropriate sexual behavior.”
The U.N. Development Programme’s Office of Audit and Investigation is running the investigation and will ultimately submit its report to the development program’s Legal Support Office to determine whether disciplinary proceedings, administrative actions or a public reporting of findings are warranted. Even if he is charged locally in state or federal court, Karkara could avoid punishment if he has diplomatic immunity.
Sanghera, Gibson and an alleged victim, Steve Lee, said the sexual misconduct accusations against Karkara include touching or grabbing a subordinate’s genitals in a hotel room, using work devices to send pornography and follow-up questions to male subordinates, creating a climate of sexual innuendo and obscene gestures in the workplace, and using his position and access as leverage to initiate sexual encounters. They said Karkara is also accused of nonsexual harassment and abuse of power for his conduct with subordinates in and out of the workplace.
Others associated with Karkara and his alleged victims confirmed the basis of the probe. Aashish Khullar, the former organizing partner of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, said some of the young people in his organization approached the group’s leadership with complaints about a senior staff member at U.N. Women.
Khullar, reached by phone in Boston, said he personally spoke with “seven or eight” young men who reported varying levels of sexual misconduct by Karkara and spoke with investigators from the U.N. Development Programme’s Office of Audit and Investigation.
“There was a prevailing sense among all who had worked with him that misconduct was his modus operandi,” Khullar said of Karkara. “No one was surprised when this was formally raised.”
Lee, a 25-year-old policy activist who has addressed the United Nations and was a member in the Major Group for Children and Youth, is among the men accusing Karkara of misconduct. He spoke to Newsweek and gave his name in hopes that the U.N. would invest more in sexual harassment policy enforcement, as well as human resources and hiring practices.
Lee said he first met Karkara in 2009 as a 16-year-old delegate for UNICEF. They were just acquaintances until January 2016, Lee said, when Karkara invited him to join a policy working group he co-chaired. As Lee began to work more closely with U.N. Women and Karkara’s working group, Lee said Karkara made him feel both grateful and uncomfortable.
Lee said he was naive then, a devout Christian who was inexperienced in relationships, facts that Karkara would harp on—in texts, by Skype, on social media and every time they saw each other. The two men would meet up at 10 events in New York City and across Canada over the next 15 months, Lee said.
On December 1, 2016, Lee made a five-hour drive from Ottawa to Montreal, just to clock in with his mentor—Karkara—who was in town to speak at McGill University, Lee said, and he was staying at the Hotel Omni Mont-Royal.
At the hotel, Lee said, he went upstairs with Karkara to help with his luggage. When the door closed, Karkara and Lee were alone, which made Lee nervous. Whenever they were isolated, he said—whether in Karkara’s office, the U.N. elevator, a car or a hotel somewhere—Karkara would taunt him by making oral sex or masturbation gestures, or asking inappropriate sexual questions. Lee said Karkara would ask: After all he had done for him at the U.N., didn’t Lee owe him oral sex?
This talk about receiving oral sex from Lee became a constant refrain for Karkara, Lee said. “Prepare,” Karkara texted Lee on WhatsApp, in screenshots reviewed by Newsweek. “Practice. See videos…and send me links that you like.”
In the hotel room in Montreal, Lee said, the older man took off his clothes and changed into shorts and a T-shirt while Lee stayed clothed, sitting in a chair and looking at email on his laptop. Then Karkara grabbed the younger man’s computer and started going through his search history, Lee said, keeping it just out of his reach.
Two of Karkara’s former subordinates said this was a common occurrence: He followed minute developments in young staffers’ social media profiles, demanding credit and gratitude, snapping at them if he was not invited to an event, thanked on a program, mentioned in an article or named to a panel. He would grab their phone or device and log in to their email, social media or internet search histories, Lee said, adding that he developed a habit of deleting his recent texts, posts and search history before meeting with Karkara.
Back in the Montreal hotel room, the senior adviser to the assistant secretary-general of the United Nations started asking Lee sexual questions, Lee said. Do you look at porn. What kind? What do you think of it? Are you sexually active? Do you masturbate? Have you been practicing?
Lee said he laughed and asked the senior diplomat to please stop talking that way. As he reached across Karkara to get back his laptop, Karkara grabbed Lee by his genitals through his pants, Lee said.
“He does this with a lot of young men, and I don’t really think it’s sexual favors he’s looking for,” Lee said. “He enjoys the fact that he’s at a position of such high authority that he can do this and they can’t really do anything about it.”
Lee said he pulled away and was leaving the room when Karkara asked a question that disturbed him the most: Was I your first?
U.N. officials have confirmed that the sexual misconduct investigation is ongoing but declined to comment on the subject of the probe. DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
Command and Control
The news of a sexual misconduct investigation into a senior official comes at a precarious time for the United Nations.
>The Guardian and PBS’s> Frontline have investigated U.N. peacekeepers this year over the sexual abuse of vulnerable people in war zones. Frontline identified more than 2,000 victims worldwide and concluded that it is hard for them to get help and that the “unacceptable” U.N. response fell short of justice.
This sexual misconduct probe, by contrast, is looking inside the U.N. headquarters in New York and into U.N.-related events in other cities around the world. National security lawyer Mark Zaid, an expert in international law, said diplomats are usually “the best of the best of their country,” which makes this U.N. probe into a senior staffer more notable and surprising.
“There’s a big difference between U.N. peacekeepers and U.N. diplomats,” Zaid said. “The peacekeepers, they are basically some local nation’s military who could be completely uneducated and just as brutal as anybody else. I would hope to never see it or hear about it, especially from Blue Helmets, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. But when you tell me about an actual diplomat, that’s a problem.”…
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