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Whistleblowing is arguably the most important practice for strengthening transparency and holding governments, businesses and organizations to account. But for an individual courageous enough to come forward and report the misconduct, the act of actually blowing the whistle is a very risky business.

To discuss the issues that surround the act of whistleblowing, Beatrice Edwards, the former executive director of the Government Accountability Project, moderated a discussion at the 16th annual International Anti-Corruption Conference in Malaysia. Present for the discussion was Griffith University Professor of Public Policy and Law, AJ Brown, and whistleblowers Aicha Elbasri, and Martin Woods. The conversation focused on the state of protection for whistleblowers today and recommendations for improving those protections in the future.

In popular literature, Edwards said, a whistleblower is usually portrayed as someone who discovers an irregularity, makes a disclosure, and is rewarded as a result. Retaliation, she noted, particularly from an employer, is largely missing from public discourse surrounding this issue.

A great incentive, though, for businesses to support effective internal reporting measures that the panel discussed, is to keep employees from going to the media. Instead, businesses should encourage employees to come to them first.

Martin Woods, who blew the whistle at Wachovia after discovering the bank’s money laundering conduct involving Mexican drug cartels, could not get another job in the banking industry after his disclosure; he now works as the Head of Financial Crime for Thomson Reuters.

“Whistleblowing as a concept that may be fueled by reward could have a lot of benefits,” Woods said. “In the past, when a police officer blew his whistle he was looking for help. In many instances, whistleblowers are looking for help.”

Aicha Elbasri says she joined the UN to make a positive difference in peoples lives, “not to be an accomplice in crimes against humanity.” A former spokesperson for the UN joint mission with the African Union in Darfur, she blew the whistle when she believed the UN was not speaking truthfully to the press about human rights violations in the region.

“Unfortunately the way the UN system deals with whistleblowers shows that the system is really broken,” she said. “In order to fight corruption we need to fight corruption and accountability inside the UN first.”

Elbasri drafted a  letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to address issues critical to improving whistleblowing and protecting current whistleblowers within the UN.

Her list of 8 improvements is as follows:

1. Recognize whistleblower rights are human rights

2. Publicly release the external study of whistleblower protections at the UN conducted by the Justice Louise Otis

3. Submit the proposed revisions to the UN protection against retaliation policy for public consultation and seek feedback from UN whistleblower coalition among other experts

4. Extend whistleblowers protections to UN peacekeepers, police officers, contractors, victims and any other person who provides information about misconduct

5. Immediately end the practice of subjecting known UN whistleblowers to lengthy internal appeals processes

6. Establish an external independent mechanism for claims of retaliation against UN whistleblowers

7. Provide an external arbitration option for all whistleblowers

8. Provide whistleblowers with appropriate psychological support and counseling, as well as career development

Despite the fact that protections for whistleblowers need to be strengthened in a variety of sectors, the grave risks an individual could face in choosing to come forward may not be enough to defuse a whistleblower’s motivation.

As Edward Snowden once said, “Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it.”

Abby Ellis