By MICHELLE NICHOLS
(Reuters) – U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and the world body’s Ethics Office failed to properly review an internal inquiry into a whistleblower’s claims that he suffered retaliation for alleging corruption in the U.N. mission in Kosovo, a U.N. Dispute Tribunal has ruled.
The ruling “sends a message to the Ethics Office that the judges in the new U.N. internal justice system are monitoring it and that they will not tolerate failures to properly apply the U.N. whistleblower-protection policy,” said the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit whistleblower watchdog.
The decision by the three-year-old tribunal involved the case of James Wasserstrom, an American who complained in 2007 to the Ethics Office that he suffered retaliation for reporting alleged misconduct while head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Oversight of Publicly Owned Enterprises in Kosovo.
Wasserstrom had told the United Nations he was concerned about corporate governance in Kosovo and alleged the possibility of a kickback scheme tied to a proposed power plant and mine that involved top politicians and senior U.N. officials.
Instead of being protected as a whistleblower, Wasserstrom claimed he suffered retaliation, which started with his U.N. public utility watchdog office in Kosovo being shut down and his U.N. contract not being renewed.
Wasserstrom quickly took a job advising Pristina airport and Kosovo’s telecommunications industry. This contract sparked an investigation by the United Nations, during which Wasserstrom says his passport was taken away, his car and home were searched without a warrant and he was treated like a potential criminal.
“It was a terrible time for me, my family and anyone associated with me. I thought my life was in danger, and I knew that if I disappeared, no one in the U.N. would ever come to look for me,” Wasserstrom, now a senior anti-corruption adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, told Reuters on Tuesday.
The U.N. Ethics Office found there was a prima facie, or self-evident, case of retaliation and asked the U.N. Investigations Division to probe further. But after receiving its report in 2008, the Ethics Office concluded there was no retaliation.
The Government Accountability Program (GAP) found that the Ethics Office has dealt with nearly 300 complaints of retaliation since it was created in 2006. A prima facie case of retaliation was found in about 2.7 percent of those cases, but relief was only recommended in one case.
“So 99.7 percent of U.N. staff members who sought protection under the Secretariat’s whistleblower protection policy were ultimately not protected from retaliation,” said Shelley Walden, GAP’s international program officer.
Wasserstrom took his case to the U.N. Dispute Tribunal, which began work in July 2009 by hearing complaints from staff and former staff on administrative decisions. It handed down its ruling on Wasserstrom’s case late last month.
“The Tribunal finds that the Ethics Office should have taken note of the fact that, as the principal agency promoting the observance of human rights norms and practices and respect for the rule of law, the United Nations could not, and would not, have countenanced or condoned such humiliating and degrading treatment of a member of its own staff,” the ruling said.
“The Ethics Offices should have pursued further enquiries to ascertain the reasons for such treatment. Without having done so, their finding that the treatment was not retaliatory is fundamentally flawed,” the tribunal said on June 21.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said that while the U.N. Dispute Tribunal had ruled on liability, it had not yet made a decision on compensation and remedies. The Tribunal is due to hold a hearing on compensation in October.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan approved in 2005 a whistleblower policy to protect U.N. employees from reprisals when they accused more senior officials of misconduct. The policy was developed after a staff survey found U.N. employees believed little was being done to root out unethical behavior and that workers who exposed wrongdoing might suffer for it.
Wasserstrom said he felt vindicated and relieved by the tribunal judgment. He declined to comment on what compensation he wanted, but said it would involve “financial and non-financial actions on the part of the U.N. Secretary General.”
“I sent him (Ban) emails along the way asking him to intervene directly, to stop his representative in Kosovo from violating rules, regulations, policies and procedures, and my legal rights. He chose to ignore me,” he said.
Wasserstrom said he had been told the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services investigated his initial allegations of corruption and misconduct in the U.N. Mission in Kosovo, but added “that report never saw the light of day.”
“I don’t know its content,” he said.