Dr Richard Horton said that the international AIDS response “cannot afford to have UNAIDS in crisis” and that the credibility of the entire United Nations is under threat.

Sidibé has been under pressure from many quarters to step down because of his handling of a sexual assault investigation against his former deputy, Luiz Loures. Loures opted not to renew his contract recently.

In November 2016, UNAIDS staff member Martina Brostrom accused Loures of sexually assaulting her in a lift, but in January 2017 – 14 months later – an internal investigation found that Brostrom’s claims were unsubstantiated.

Meanwhile, a second ex-UNAIDS member has made similar claims against Loures, while the Guardian newspaper reported that Sidibé had been warned by other staff members that Loures was a “sexual predator”.

In late March, UNAIDS Country Director for Ethiopia, Miriam Maluwa, who has worked for the UN for more than 25 years, was placed on administrative leave. She was a key witness in the Loures investigation.

New investigation

UNAIDS recently announced that a new investigation will be conducted, this time by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, and will be complete by December 2018.

Civil society groups including South Africa’s SECTION27, Sonke Gender Justice and the Treatment Action Campaign have called on Sidibé to resign. They have also condemned Sidibé for attempting to bribe Brostrom with a promotion, allegations she has made publicly.

Meanwhile, 23 African women leaders in the HIV field recently wrote a letter to Sidibé, asking him to step down. One of the signatories, Vuyiseka Dubula, has since been vilified in social media for being an agent of “white men” with a vendetta against Sidibé – an apparent reference to AIDS Free World’s Stephen Lewis, who has been part of the campaign to get Sidibe to resign.

“My view is it’s impossible for Sidibé to continue as an effective director while this investigation takes place. I believe he should suspend himself,” said Horton, speaking in Johannesburg yesterday (9 May) at the launch of a sexual and reproductive health and rights report jointly released by The Lancet and the Guttmacher Institute.

“If he doesn’t suspend himself the credibility of the entire organisation will be placed in jeopardy,” said Horton.

The Lancet-Guttmacher report highlights the need for all nations to tackle gender-based violence so that the basic human rights of all women and girls are realised, especially in the context of sexual and reproductive health.

Prompted by a question by head of Section27 Mark Heywood, Horton said that as “authors of this report, if we cannot come out with clear [statements] in difficult instances like this then there is no point coming out with this report”.

The report notes that worldwide nearly one in three women experience gender-based violence “in the form of intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence”. – Health-e News.