The bullying must end. Dear UN Agency Officials, UN Independent Experts, and representatives of international organizations:
Sunil Babu Pant/Pahichan – I am writing this memo to share my experience as the founder of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS), Nepal’s largest sexual health and rights organization, and an activist with more than a decade of experience in high-level forums for HIV and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights work. Beginning in 2013, BDS came under an official investigation by the Global Fund’s Office of the Inspector General. It was a grueling process, not only due to the demands the OIG placed on BDS staff during the investigation, but also in the broader impacts the process had on our work — including by fanning the flames of rumors of corruption and mismanagement, refusal to share information, and fostering distrust between BDS and its constituents, partners, and donors. The GF OIG’s investigation contributed to a deteriorating not only of BDS’s relationships, but also our security. I call on international human rights mandate holders to pressure the Global Fund to increase its OIG’s transparency and accountability, and bring its practices in line with the human rights commitments the Global Fund has made.
Recently, I was in Geneva for a meeting to formulate additional principles of Yogyakarta Principles — ten years after I was invited to participate in the original YP drafting process. On 18th Sept 2017, I met with the Global Fund Office of Inspector General to clarify my still-outstanding questions.
BDS has been a sub-recipient (SR) of the Global Fund’s Nepal grant since 2010 through a project titled “Reducing the impact of HIV on men who have sex with men and transgender populations in South Asia.” Population Services International (PSI) the principle recipient (PR) at the beginning of the project in 2010. And since 2011 through Save the Children Nepal as PR to address the impact of, and vulnerability to HIV of men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender populations in Nepal.
While one of the PRs (PSI) has changed, (UNDP is now the main recipient of funds), the project is ongoing.
In 2013, in the midst of Nepal government’s crackdown on BDS’s operations, which was triggered by tabloid media accusing BDS of corruption and mismanagement (see Human Rights Watch’s statement: https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/01/nepal-climate-fear-imperils-lgbt-people), the Global Fund OIG launched its own investigation in July of that year. While they were occupying our central office in Kathmandu during the investigation, OIG staff explained to me and other BDS leadership verbally that they had come “due to whistle blower’s filing-complain with ‘credible information’ against BDS on mismanagement and corruption.”
OIG staff arrived on July 8th, 2013. I was outside the country, but I asked my colleagues at BDS to cooperate and provide with documents the OIG asked for. I returned to the office on the 11th of July 2013, surprised to see not just two officers from OIG interrogating BDS staff across several levels, but they were also accompanied by an independent IT expert hired from India to collect information from our computers.
Each day, they would arrive at the office and select which computers they wanted to investigate, then copy the hard drives. The next day they did the same to more computers — regardless of whether the computers had been purchased with Global Fund money or whether they were being used by staff who worked on Global Fund projects (BDS receives several funding streams; some staff and all of their work never engaged with Global Fund projects).
OIG officers interrogated BDS staff, asking the same questions repeatedly as if they assumed they were lying. BDS is a community based organization and the office is shared with a drop-in center, a STI/HIV clinic, a counseling room, and other meeting rooms. During the investigation, over the course of more than a week, the whole office space was occupied by OIG and we couldn’t do anything else other than maneuver around the OIG’s staging. They never said when exactly they would show up, or when they would leave. Each day, they came back with a list of new names or computers they would like to interview or open/copy the hard drives.
They told us repeatedly that “any interference in our investigation would have serious consequences”, without qualifying or describing what would they consider “interference.” I watched as my staffs were helpless, demoralized, and frightened.
When the OIG came to Kathmandu, rumors were already flying around the city about BDS. The smear campaign run by tabloid media and exploited by corrupt government officials was making our day-to-day operations nearly impossible. (Note that Chudamani Sharma, the Kathmandu Chief District Officer who launched the government’s corruption investigation into BDS that same year was arrested by CIAA-Nepal in 2017 for corruption himself). The gossip reached fever pitch just as the OIG arrived: “It is matter of few months before BDS get closed down after the OIG’s investigations,” we heard; “the leadership and staff of BDS will be jailed”; “the OIG may have asked local police to tape and listen our phones”; and “there may be airport travel alert against Sunil Babu Pant from running away from Nepal.” These damaged morale, and horrified our community. The OIG, in their refusal to explain clearly or publicly the parameters of their search, and their alleged side meetings with ‘couple of BDS staff’ outside of the office to ask for intelligence on the organization’s finances and operations, did not help the situation — in fact, such behaviors only made it worse for all of us.
In my 14 years at BDS, I had never have seen community members and staff feeling so sad, disempowered and vulnerable as they were during the OIG’s investigation. It was palpably worse than the government crackdown during the state of emergency of Nepal from 2003–06. Several staff asked me: “Is it true that OIG will put us in jail?” Community members asked: “what will happen to us if BDS gets closed down? Who will fight for our rights, how will we get HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention and care services? Who will conduct all the advocacy work?”
It became extremely difficult to hold everything together as the district government and tabloid media intensified their malicious attacks on BDS based on the fact that they knew the OIG was in town, and the OIG refused to clarify the parameters of its investigation.
On the 17th day they told us that their physical verification was completed and the investigation will be completed within next 9–18 months. They said they would share the results with us then.
What happened after the OIG’s physical verification — for the next 4+ years
There were few email exchanges for next 2–3 months with OIG basically then asking more addition documents but we never heard responses from them when we sent them the materials they requested. There was nothing to be done (again were told not to interfere — again without knowing what might trigger interference) except waiting silently and patiently.
More rumors kept flowing across, several accounts of slanderous attacks, sarcastic comments, verbal abuse against BDS and its leaderships but we had no defense. We were all waiting to hear the results from OIG’s investigation so we could respond and put an end to the attacks, but we waited in vain.
After the OIG departed from Nepal and ceased communication with us, the next time we heard about the investigation was in 2014 when the OIG’s investigation of BDS was mentioned at UNDP’s regional “Being LGBTI in Asia” report, saying: the investigation was inconclusive, and remains unpublished.
We wrote to UNDP, asking what they knew about it — since we had heard nothing. We also noted that we thought the inclusion of such information in a United Nations human rights report was unnecessary, irrelevant, and damaging to the LGBTI rights work going on in the country. The fact that it was included in the UNDP report suggested that someone on UNDP’s team knew more than us. I asked OIG for clarification but we didn’t hear back from them for this time either .
Their silence continued as our sadness and frustration mounted.
(Now, UNDP acknowledges that it was irrelevant and unnecessary, why they choose to mention this into their regional LGBTI rights report which has no relevance?, where did they get this information from? shouldn’t UNDP explain it?).
I decided to write the OIG on 03 Feb 2016.
This time I heard back for the first time from (a nameless officer) called Inspector General on 22 Feb 2016. Which said:
The OIG has completed its work in connection with our visit to BDS in July 2013. We do not need any additional information from you at this time and we thank you for your inquiry.
Office of the Inspector General
I shared the news then to our well-wishers, donors and few friends with sense of relief and pride that was badly wounded and heard all the praising and faith they still kept with us.
But the OIG’s answer was still ambiguous. They said: “We do not need any additional information from you at this time”.
I wanted to hear them say “the case is closed”.
So I wrote Kate Thompson, Head, Community, Rights and Gender and Civil Society Hub, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Who also expressed concerns the way OIG’s conducted their investigation on BDS. She tried her best so that either to raise the concerns that I have/had on OIG’s conduct or I could meet the OIG directly, since early 2016.
Finally on the 18th of Sept 2017, I was extremely lucky to be able to meet Mr. Melvyn Young, Manager — Intelligence and Analysis, Office of the Inspector General, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
During the meeting, Mr Young apologized and told me that the BDS case was closed long ago, probably by end of 2013 or early 2014, but reiterated that due to their policy and guidelines the OIG does not make the report public unless they find some kind of discrepancies. He told me that OIG might have shared the report to Principal Recipient, but he was not sure as he told me that OIG does not share their findings to Sub Recipient. I asked him: “what about our right to know the truth?” I asked him double check so that we know what to do; whether to follow up with PRs or file a complaint procedure to OIG itself.
The next day, as I was returning from Geneva, I saw his email confirming that the OIG hasn’t shared the BDS-case report to PR either. He wrote:
It was good to meet with you yesterday, and I am glad that you found our discussions enjoyable and constructive.
As discussed, this case is closed and I can add that the closure of the case was shared with the Global Fund Secretariat only, as per OIG policy and procedures at that time.
May I thank you for your feedback, including your observations and concerns.
This was such a big relief to me.
I find Mr. Young responsive, listening and sensitive. I told him at the end of our meeting on 18th Sept 2017, “I wish OIG’s other officers were as responsive as you are”. He smiled. But, quite frankly, it was too little and too late. The wounds are deep. The people who wanted to damage me personally and ruin BDS did their part. They even got the United Nations to discuss ultimately-untrue corruption allegations at BDS in a so-called human rights report. The web of complicity is wide and strong. I have to ask: Where was the leadership of the UN when this was happening? Where were the officials who profess to care about community-based organizations and grassroots activism? Where were the UN officials who love to ‘highlight’ often for Nepal’s LGBTI rights progress (see here: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2015/12/10/When-people-are-counted-no-one-is-left-behind.html)? Why did no one defend us, even to delete unnecessary and irrelevant sentences from a UNDP report?
When I asked to a colleague at Blue Diamond Society about what they felt during and after the OIG’s investigation and what impact it had on their health and human rights work. He replied:
It was indeed very sad and we were very shocked to hear such issues that alleged BDS and such allegation spread to many parts and at initial stage we could not work well and while meeting with different stakeholders , it was hard to convince them regarding the fall accusation yet people would keep on asking on the report . In the review process of the project too, we were questioned on OIG report. With OIG intervention , we lost faith with some of the stakeholders and we were even not invited in forums to speak on our rights. It was like we were caged and had unease feeling most of the time. The advocacy part was very low and most of the LGBTI Human Right Activists had low esteem to work on the issue.
Here are some concerns and observations I raised to OIG for them to consider seriously:
1) Don’t make affected and vulnerable communities more vulnerable by the way you handle investigations.
2) Be transparent before, during and after the investigation.
3) Tackle rumors before, during and after your visits to investigate the civil society organizations, you shouldn’t create an environment of fear and intimidation.
4) Make sure the organization can carry its vital HIV prevention, care and treatment work while you are in the field to investigate civil society organizations.
5) Be careful about your sources of information. Protecting whistle blower is applicable if the whistle blowers are blowing their whistles against dictator, corrupt and dangerous as well as powerful governments, but OIG must not give the same protection to the ‘detractors and government agents’ who are in disguise as whistle blowers, that are parts and parcel of the campaign to crackdown vulnerable communities.
6) Change your policy of publicly share the negative findings but not share the positive ones — that is unfair to those who are doing good work, and those who cooperate with your investigations.
7) There is no remedy to those who (not just may, but definitely) face negative consequences as soon as OIG investigate civil society organization due to your image, persona and the way you conduct investigations or even (as you love to call it a) inquiry. Don’t punish the good work and don’t treat civil society members like criminals as soon as you have any complaints against them, handle investigation sensibly and respectfully; ensure you don’t compromise our dignity.
My only recommendation and call for action to you is hold OIG, other UN agencies and international organizations accountable so that their action or non-action, at least, MUST not cause harm to human rights defenders, affected and vulnerable communities. Put pressure on OIG or other UN agencies so that it pay due attentions on the suggestions I made for them above.
The bullying must end, wisdom must prevail.
Thank you very much and Namaste!