By PETER JAMES SPIELMANN
When U.N. staffers on peacekeeping missions were accused of misconduct or corruption over the last couple of years, more than two-thirds of them were exonerated by the U.N.’s internal tribunal system, according to research provided to AP by a whistleblower-protection group.
Extensive interviews conducted with current and former U.N. staffers in eight peacekeeping forces who lodged complaints against higher-ups found widespread frustration over “managers who committed misconduct and were rarely sanctioned,” said the Washington-based organization, Government Accountability Project (GAP).
The U.N.’s tribunal system was reformed under Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at the insistence of the General Assembly, in 2009 but appears to be worse at rooting out mismanagement than the old procedures, according to the GAP study, which was being released publicly Friday.
After the reforms adopted higher standards of evidence and proof, GAP found 19 cases of misconduct allegations against peacekeeping staff over two years, of which 13 were exonerated — 68 percent.
GAP’s study showed, however, that in a 2 1/2-year period before the reforms, nine misconduct cases were filed against peacekeeping staffers and just four were exonerated — a 44.4 dismissal rate.
“Too often, bad apples are getting away with misconduct that they commit in the peacekeeping missions, at the expense of citizens across the globe,” GAP international program staffer Shelley Walden, co-author of the study, told The Associated Press.
The United Nations is pledged to uphold justice worldwide. But as an international institution, its 75,000 staffers worldwide are ruled by an internal U.N. tribunal system that judges complaints of mismanagement, harassment or corruption. National courts do not have jurisdiction over U.N. employment issues.
GAP’s research focused on the problems of whistle-blowers in the U.N. system who spoke out against mismanagement, corruption or harassment that can go as far as death threats and assault.
The most serious crimes are dealt with by having the United Nations discharge the staffer and send them to their home country for possible prosecution. This is how the U.N. handled several notorious cases of U.N. peacekeepers accused of rape or soliciting prostitution in Congo and Haiti.
Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said in a statement late Thursday that the new system in place since 2009 is an important part of the “architecture” of accountability at the U.N. and is closely monitored with the intent of strengthening managerial accountability.
“The system is still evolving and, as such, it would not be prudent, at this point, to draw firm conclusions about the direction of the emerging jurisprudence,” he said in the statement.
Part of the problem with the 2009 reforms, Walden said, is that it raised the standard of proof of misconduct, making it harder for disciplinary measures to stick in misconduct cases.
A report by Ban to the General Assembly in July verified that, saying that many cases “failed to meet the higher evidential and procedural standards” of the new tribunal system.
These also led to long delays in investigating some cases, Ban said. Some complaints were deemed not credible. And some cases were not pursued because managerial changes had already been made.
These “factors resulted in cases that were not pursued as disciplinary matters or closed with no measure,” Ban said.
Walden said that “They are not pursuing as many cases, so the pendulum has swung back the other way.”
The GAP report said that U.N. tribunal judges “have been hesitant to refer cases to the Secretary-General for possible action to enforce accountability.” In almost tribunal 500 cases the GAP study examined, over a range from disputes over severance pay to actual threats and assaults, judges had asked Ban for enforcement only four times, and it was unable to find out if he had actually taken action in those four cases.
“The secretary-general has not upheld the rule of law within the organization,” Walden said.
The appeals process “is almost never effective when it is higher level staff, I think that’s a political problem within the insutution,” George G. Irving, a private attorney who is a consultant to the U.N. Staff Union, told the AP. He was one of the experts interviewed by the GAP study.
“The tone at the top is really a problem — you might get accountability at the lower levels,” Walden said.
Ban’s report summed up specific staff problems that had actually resulted in firing or other discipline over the past year, including:
— seeking sexual favors from a job applicant.
— making derogatory and sexual comments on fellow workers and storing pornography on a U.N. computer.
— verbal abuse including threats to kill a supervisor.
— beating a spouse, who was a U.N. volunteer, with a table, causing multiple injuries requiring hospitalization.
— theft and sale of U.N. computers, radios cameras, and rolls of copper wire.
— a “long-running and widespread” scheme to use forged U.N. airline vouchers for travel by unauthorized persons “and companies.”
— submission of phony dental care claims to the U.N.’s health insurance plan.
— leaking information involving internal UN investigations “to the press and outside government agencies.”
It appeared that even criminal activity may go unpunished. Ban’s report said the U.N. had reported seven “credible” cases of criminal conduct by U.N. officials or experts on U.N. missions to national authorities, but he “is not aware of any action taken in respect of such cases by the Member States themselves.”