The United Nations turns 70 in 2015. Fox News is asking a selection of distinguished contributors occasionally to contribute their thoughts on what it has become, and how to shape its future.
By BEATRICE EDWARDS
In 2015, the United Nations will observe its 70th anniversary. Like all intergovernmental organizations, the U.N. enjoys legal immunities in the countries where it operates. No national law enforcement agency can subpoena witnesses, demand documents or investigate a crime scene on U.N. premises.
Consequently, only whistleblowers, the internal witnesses to corruption, fraud and abuse of authority, have the ability to document and disclose misconduct.
The catch is they don’t get the protection provided by an impartial legal regime and must depend on the U.N.’s internal justice system to ensure their safety in when they point a finger at crime or other kinds of abuse.
Not too surprisingly, the results have been dismal for anyone trying to expose wrongdoing in a system that defies any kind of outside examination.
And yet, honest and idealistic people at the U.N. keep trying. In the past ten years, a small number of U.N. whistleblowers have reported, among other things, their organization’s corrupt complicity with an authoritarian regime, kickbacks involving a coal mine and a power plant, sexual exploitation and cronyism/fraud in U.N.procurement.
Despite overwhelming evidence that their disclosures were true, they suffered retaliation after reporting these crimes, and none of these whistleblowers has subsequently found any justice in the U.N. justice system.
When U.N. investigators and judges confront the whistleblowers’ disclosure, they also confront the Secretary General (whose boat they are rocking), the political forces behind him, the personal connections any wrongdoers may have with the human resources department, and the feudal bureaucratic protectorates that hobble the organization.
As things stand, a whistleblower subjected to retaliatory firing waits three years for his or her case to wend its way through an administrative tribunal.
During those years, all filings are secret, so the truth about the original disclosure is buried until long after the fact. Whistleblowers may be blacklisted and unable to work in their field: they are without an income and professionally ruined.
There is a case like this going on right now. A U.N. police officer in Haiti reported that colleagues sexually abused women in a camp for the displaced – women they were supposed to protect. She also reported gross incompetence on the part of her colleagues.
U.N police officers receive little training and virtually no payment (their governments are paid for their services instead). The officers tend to be young men with weapons and complete control over civilian women displaced by war or disaster. A situation like that is bound to foment abuse.
Yet rather than address the problem, the U.N. transferred the whistleblower to a dangerous late-night shift in a different camp. She was then terminated by the contractor for which she worked directly, and the U.N. denied all responsibility for the action.
She has been unable to find a job in her field since then. The alleged abusers continue in place, and their victims have no relief.
Seeing things like this, other police officers who might be inclined to expose misconduct are more likely to quit or shut down.
Rather than this deeply flawed and inherently lopsided process, there is another way to handle situations like this.
Rather than police itself—a process that isn’t working in cases like these—what the U.N. needs is outside intervention. And a model for how it can work is already in operation.
When international trading partners get into a dispute about whether they are following their own rules, they have recourse to objective, third party dispute resolution. So do sovereign nations caught up in similar wrangles.
Something similar for whistleblowers would go a long way toward straightening out the U.N.
An external arbitration process, with an arbitrator selected through mutual agreement, and the costs of arbitration shared by both parties, would give whistleblowers access to justice, and would also bring their disclosures to public attention and identify retaliators.
The process would also have a meaningful deterrent effect on the corrupt officials who now hide behind U.N. secrecy.
If the allegations were shown to be true in such an arbitration, the whistleblower would be immediately reinstated and compensated for lost wages. Any victims of crime or abuse would be compensated and moved away from a situation where they could suffer further harm. The abusers would be terminated and remanded to the justice systems of their respective countries.
To address the dysfunction of the United Nations, we don’t have to argue geopolitics. We don’t need to debate who belongs on the Security Council or who has moral authority on questions of human rights.
We do have to ensure that ethical staff members who report gross misconduct are protected, their disclosures addressed and their retaliators disciplined — in that order.
If this reform can be implemented, many larger and highly politicized problems might go away. And at the very least, the U.N. would regain some of the credibility that its current scandalous treatment of honest and courageous staff members has helped to undermine.
Beatrice Edwards is the Executive Director of the Government Accountability Project and works with U.N. whistleblowers.