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When a United Nations investigator reported the rape of a refugee in Sri Lanka, she did not expect the disclosure to force her into a decade-long legal battle with her employer.
Caroline Hunt-Matthes was ostracised and eventually ousted while on medical leave. She has still not secured redress after a decade fighting her case.
Her case was remarkable in duration but not in substance. Hunt-Matthes is by no means the first or only whistleblower to fall foul of the UN system. Indeed, her case highlights neatly one of the UN’s dirtiest secrets: that its staff are reluctant to report abuses or corruption within the organisation for fear of losing their jobs.
“The bottom line is the UN is not a safe working environment at the minute,” said Hunt-Matthes, who has left the UN and now works at a university in Geneva. “You can’t report misconduct and be protected. What could be more serious than that?”
Figures obtained by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which supports whistleblowers, reveal that the UN ethics office had received 447 approaches up to July 2014 from those alleging they have faced retaliation for exposing wrongdoing.
They completed reviews into between 113 and 135 of these cases, identifying prima-facie cases of retaliation in 14, and ultimately establishing there had been retaliation in just four cases – a statistic that is hardly encouraging to those who feel bound to report corruption, malpractice or sexual abuse.
“The percentage of whistleblowers who actually receive relief through this channel remains abysmally low,” said Bea Edwards, the international director of GAP. “We’re now working with UN whistleblowers who have simply resigned rather than endure such a protracted and complex internal process.”
Two striking cases have hit the headlines in recent years. This year, a senior UN aid worker, Anders Kompass, was suspended for disclosing to prosecutors an internal report on the sexual abuse of children by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic.
After a furious row over the treatment of Kompass, the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was ultimately forced to order an external inquiry into the handling of the affair. Two years earlier, the ethics office was found to have failed to protect another UN diplomat, James Wasserstrom, who was sacked and then detained by UN police after he raised suspicions in 2007 about corruption in the senior ranks of the UN mission in Kosovo (Unmik).
The Guardian spoke to a current UN employee who had blown the whistle on organisational malfeasance. “It is all window dressing,” said the staff member, who wished to remain anonymous. “The offices within the UN that are supposed to protect staff members do the very opposite. They side with and report to management. For example, office of staff legal assistance and the ethics office, neither of which are independent. And you cannot appeal decisions of the supposedly independent ethics office because they are now considered ‘recommendations’.”
If the ethics office establishes a prima-facie case of retaliation against a staff member, an investigation is conducted by the UN’s office for internal oversight services (OIOS). OIOS has been beset by problems in recent years, with staff complaining that it lacks the independence required for proper scrutiny.
Peter Gallo is a former OIOS investigator who left the UN in March. He said the office lacked independence, saying: “Management of OIOS has been riddled with cronyism, incompetence and corruption for the past five years.” Gallo, like Hunt-Matthes, has tried to challenge in the UN’s court the ethics office’s decision not to consider him a genuine whistleblower.
“Nothing will change until there is real accountability in the organisation, and that will never happen unless and until there is a truly independent and separate agency established that is not part of the UN secretariat, but reports directly – and separately – to the member states.”
In another example of the UN’s failure to root out villains within its ranks, the Guardian revealed in July that a Russian aviation company, UTair, had been retained as a UN subcontractor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite evidence of sexual abuse at its base uncovered by OIOS investigators.
The OIOS report was kept quiet and marked “strictly confidential” and only became public when it was leaked to the Guardian. The March 2011 report made weak recommendations and UN officials ultimately decided not to sanction the Russian company.
Organisational accountability and transparency is a serious issue facing the next secretary-general, after Ban Ki-moon finishes his second term in 2016. David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said that in democratic nation states, where voters are close to the government, there is a sense that whistleblowing can have a public role in holding government to account.
However, “there just isn’t a public accountability mechanism” at the UN, according to Kaye. “There is not enough clarity about what is happening in the UN system and about how these cases get resolved.” As a result, he said, management was less concerned with being caught out. “That reduces their incentives to do the right thing. There is all sorts of opacity which makes it easy for an employee to suffer retaliation.”
Despite recent reforms to improve transparency and accountability, the organisation remains impervious to public scrutiny, with no established mechanism for freedom of information – a right which more than 100 governments around the world have enshrined in law, and is openly advocated by UN bodies such as Unesco.
“It’s a really broad problem,” said Kaye. “It’s not just a problem of not having a freedom of information law so that journalists and citizens around the world can get information, it’s a broad structural problem. It’s a threat to UN employees and international civil servants, and it’s a threat to efficiency and accountability in the UN system.”
Yet, it is not just investigative staff who struggle with challenging the organisation over malfeasance. Aicha Elbasri was a UN spokesperson in Darfur where she saw first-hand how the UN was obscuring the reality of atrocities being committed against Darfuris, and was failing to protect civilians. The former spokesperson ended her long career with the UN before leaking thousands of documents regarding UN operations in Darfur to Foreign Policy magazine.
“My case shows how dysfunctional the system is. I had no energy or faith in pursuing this system-wide, and I paid a high cost for that,” Elbasri said.
“I had a choice to make. Because the misconduct wasn’t any regular misconduct – it was about crimes against millions of people, it was the fate of a nation, these were no regular crimes, I felt I could no longer work with the UN while I had that on my conscience. I had basically either to keep quiet or leave. I know for sure that UN doesn’t protect whistleblowers.
“Whistleblowers are basically left to decide whether to fight the entire system while working there, or just keep quiet. So most of the time they just keep quiet … civil servants become accomplices to crimes in order to save their jobs,” said Elbasri.