An Interview with Priyanka Chirimar


PILnet Fellow Ray-Yun Hong sat down with Priyanka Chirimar, the Founder and Director of the Action Against Prohibited Conduct (AAPC), to discuss the challenges in providing legal assistance to international civil servants across international organizations.

Since the start of the #MeToo movement, interest in and support for its cause has grown at an unprecedented rate. Just one indicator of its growth has been the list of hashtags developing out of it, including #AidToo, #UNToo, #SpeakUp, and #TimesUp! The spillover social movement against sexual harassment quickly expanded to include the aid and development sector, including the prestigious world body, the United Nations. Despite the many voices and stories, not much attention has been paid to the problem of sexual harassment in these international organizations by mainstream coverage.

At the PILnet Global Forum 2019, I spoke with our panelist Priyanka Chirimar, the founder of Action Against Prohibited Conduct (AAPC). The organization, which she started just a year ago, provides expert legal services to international civil servants who encounter prohibited conduct, which at the UN includes harassment, sexual harassment, abuse, discrimination, retaliation, and so forth, before international administrative courts. We discussed the experiences of international civil servants who have faced sexual harassment and discrimination in their organizations, the challenges for AAPC’s work, the controversy around suing the UN, and her hope for change, one case at a time. By supporting and encouraging the survivors of harassment, AAPC aims to support everyone’s right to a workplace free from sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination.

On the Establishment of AAPC

RH: What is your motivation in working to end harassment in international organizations?

PC: For 6 of the 10 years that I worked for the United Nations, I was an elected staff representative and helped the staff with administrative matters in the internal justice system, which allows a staffer to challenge the decisions and actions that impact their employment. Since most staff typically approach their union representative when they have a problem, I ended up learning the UN’s internal justice system quite well by assisting staff. After I resigned from the UN in 2017, I continued being asked for help by former colleagues, but I no longer wanted to be involved in these purely employment-related issues.

This changed when I was contacted by two women I didn’t know through Facebook groups for women humanitarian workers. These women had been sexually harassed by a supervisor and raped by a colleague, respectively. I couldn’t ignore these messages. I helped in whatever way I could. I felt a sense of duty towards other women in the humanitarian world, who work far away from home and have a right to feel safe at work.

The help was informal, and mostly an act of support and solidarity. However, after two to three months of advising, the women decided to file a formal complaint. At that point, I suggested they hire a “proper” attorney since I didn’t litigate at the time. But it was surprisingly hard to find such lawyers, and after much digging we found one or two names. I learned that the UN staff legal aid office only has 10 lawyers globally, which means 1 lawyer for every 13,000 UN employees.

I also realized then that there was a huge need for “activist lawyers” who understand the survivors, the system, and the safeguarding standards — those willing to stand with the individual against the big bureaucratic machines.

That is how I started the work I’m doing now.

RH: What were the challenges in establishing AAPC?

PC: Initially, I tried to do this work secretly and got three former UN colleagues on board too. But it was, of course, impossible! I couldn’t expect people at their most vulnerable to trust a nameless and faceless entity just because we offered help. At the same time, my friends warned me about being blacklisted and ruining any future UN career if I went public.

I decided to go public right before the Safeguarding Summit in October 2018, and officially launched AAPC in January 2019.

RH: Why did you choose to be an independent advocate for international civil servants facing prohibited conduct, instead of working from inside international organizations?

PC: Simply because it’s the most effective way to do it!

Firstly, like in any big organization, the UN requires you to toe the company line and high-level managers decide whether and how to litigate cases against their own staff. One can try to influence the decision, but at the end of the day the strategy comes from the top. I wouldn’t have the independence and autonomy to do what I thought was right,such as not litigating against a survivor of sexual assault by a colleague. Providing help from within the system comes with heavy restrictions. To be able to truly help, I would also need the trust of the complainants, which could not be earned without being independent.

Secondly, I wanted to be able to support personnel across international organizations, not just the UN, which is where I had been working.

I also realized then that there was a huge need for “activist lawyers” who understand the survivors, the system, and the safeguarding standards — those willing to stand with the individual against the big bureaucratic machines.

Towards a Safe Working Environment for International Civil Servants

RH: What is the goal of the AAPC and some of the challenges it faces?

PC: AAPC aims to support survivors who choose to speak up against prohibited conduct in order to encourage more reporting and, ultimately, promote more survivor-centric approaches in international organizations by raising the cost of doing business as usual one case at a time.

I quickly realized how little people knew about the extent of sexual harassment and other misconduct in international organizations. Even employees of these bodies were so focused on their own mandates that they barely informed themselves on their employment rights and protections. As a result, AAPC does awareness-raising both within and outside the insular world of international organizations. We collect and publicise data, policy documents, and research relevant to organizational culture change through our website and at an individual level, we help survivors navigate the complaint mechanism from drafting to how best to protect yourself from reprisal.

Further, no strong working woman in the roughest parts of the world likes the label of “victim,” as they are aware of their vast privilege over the people they serve. Their careers are hard won and their reputations are everything. Putting that in jeopardy while also calling into question the goodwill of the organization for which they work is a massive internal battle for those who speak up. And of course, the well-known stories of the swift retaliation is the biggest deterrent there is!

RH: What does a safe working environment look like for international civil servants?

PC: International civil servants, especially those working in the field, have several safety concerns mostly attributable to a “cowboy culture.” In the field, people should only have to worry about being at risk by a belligerent force on the ground, not from the attacks of their officemates. Effectively, these persons have been deprived of the only safe space they have. But of course, prohibited conduct is equally rampant in HQ and other non-field locations. A safe work environment is respectful and professional, allows for both your growth and contribution, and is free from all forms of harassment and discrimination. A safe work environment is a right!

By raising the cost of ignoring misconduct for an organization, litigation makes sexual harassment and abuse a “business” and “bottom-line” issue.

On AAPC’s Challenges

RH: What are the main challenges for AAPC’s work so far?

PC: Fighting against big international organizations, like the UN, which represent the highest aspirations for a common good of all humanity, is by nature controversial. It is hard to get lawyers to support AAPC because those who know how to do this wouldn’t want to ruin their careers, and commercial lawyers don’t want the bad optics. In a world where the very idea of human rights is under challenge, donors don’t want to fund an organization challenging the UN or other such bodies.

RH: How do you ease these concerns?

PC: Frankly, these concerns are a misunderstanding on the part of law firms. One of the concepts that needs to be clarified is that the UN is not one giant monolith. The UN is made up of the Secretariat, and specialized agencies, funds, and programs. These would include UN Women, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, etc. These are all independent legal entities to a large extent and have nothing to do with each other operationally, though they are part of the UN global family.

If a law firm has one UN entity as client, it isn’t precluded from taking individual clients against another UN entity. So let’s say, if a law firm has UN Women as a client, it is not conflicted out of taking a staff case against UNICEF. However, in most instances, law firms value having UN bodies as clients and want to grow this client base in the future, and hence, don’t wish to jeopardize a possible future relationship by being part of an adverse litigation against any UN body.

Another thing to bear in mind is that these lawyers would essentially be part of a whistleblower protection system, and of the victim/survivor support system. It takes great courage and fortitude to decide to bring forward cases against big, powerful employers and these litigants deserve the moral and legal support of lawyers.

From my experience, survivors are not interested in suing their organizations. No survivor wants to fight against the organization they love and work for. The reason they took that job in the first place was because they have great respect, dedication, and passion for the mandate of the organization. These cases are usually the result of a survivor’s disappointment at being let down and deserted, and of course the total lack of justice.

Additionally, most survivors are not keen to engage in the kind of adversarial litigation that we are trained in. They’re not looking to make life difficult for these organizations nor make a quick buck (which anyway doesn’t happen in the UN justice system). They are looking simply to have their experience recognised and the situation righted, to be adequately compensated for the loss of earnings and emotional trauma and, most importantly, to be able to return to work. So, it is really not in their interests to burn bridges with the employer. Law firms need to understand that this is not a purely adversarial kind of litigation. Hence, I argue that law firms with UN clients are not conflicted out of representing a survivor.

RH: How important is it to challenge these misconceptions? Does it affect how you work with them?

PC: While I do try to change the minds of the pro bono directors of law firms, I would much rather have a law firm that takes the case of a survivor because they believe in justice for her. If I must convince a law firm to take the case, I’m not sure that the law firm will be committed to the survivor. Once that survivor has made the tough decision to come forward, I believe they deserve total commitment from the lawyer representing them.

RH: How does AAPC work to reduce retaliation against survivors of workplace sexual abuse?

PC: I founded AAPC on the belief that greater access to legal support and services will encourage more women to report and bring more successful cases. This in turn may lead to increased sanctions for misconduct, acts as a deterrent, and ultimately changes the organizational culture towards creating an environment in which everybody feels safe. We also posit that there’s strength in numbers, If more women come forward, retaliation at mass scale becomes impractical. I believe there are other benefits to this strategy. By raising the cost of ignoring misconduct for an organization, litigation makes sexual harassment and abuse a “business” and “bottom-line” issue. The less attention they pay to the misconduct, the more time, money, and personnel they will have to divert towards such cases. Essentially, AAPC uses the law to change the law.

Visions for the Future

RH: Where do you see AAPC going in the future?

PC: My vision, through AAPC, is to build a global network of specialized lawyers who are committed to providing legal support and representation to survivors who report misconduct in international organizations. We want to create an open referral system based on what is best suited to the facts and needs of a particular survivor. Eventually, we would also use the network to undertake training at international organizations to build the capacity of staff union representatives and managers who play a great role in early intervention, but as well of law firm employment lawyers to enable them to take these case as a normal part of their work. Ultimately, we need to reach local lawyers in places where international organizations are most active and equip them to represent national-level personnel, who are most vulnerable in the gross power imbalance against massive international organizations.

At a more nuts-and-bolts level, AAPC needs to secure funding to support its huge pro bono undertaking, to eventually grow the team to include policy researchers and analysts, communications and administrative support staff, etc.

How Lawyers Can Get Involved

RH: Do you have any suggestions for young lawyers who are interested in fighting against prohibited conduct in international organizations?

PC: To young lawyers keen on this new niche of “international administrative law,” I would say that they can pursue masters at Leiden or Amsterdam on the subject seek internships with the UN, ILO, or World Bank administrative tribunals; train under one of the established practicing attorneys around the world; and undertake research papers while in law school.

To other lawyers who are with law firm or in private practice, the first thing that I would recommend is to familiarize themselves with the UN system and the field of international administrative law. This would include learning what an ideal whistleblower protection policy should look like, what the standard of evidence in the court should be for these cases, how to be supportive of survivors, how to prevent secondary trauma while in the legal process, how to reduce reputational damage for both the complainant and the organization. Secondly, be prepared for the“secondary trauma” that comes from working with survivors, for the emotional labor of this work. So lawyers must ensure they undertake sufficient self-care for the long haul. Finally, be realistic with your client about what they can expect from the system.

It takes great courage and fortitude to decide to bring forward cases against big, powerful employers and these litigants deserve the moral and legal support of lawyers.