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When an organization lacks reliable internal oversight practices, whistleblowers become an essential early warning system for the leadership as problems develop.
The United Nations system learned this the hard way when the Oil-for-Food scandal broke in 2004. The episode exposed senior officials and the institution itself to lasting damage and distrust, from which it has yet to fully recover. In its wake, Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a whistleblower protection policy (SGB/2005/21) and established a new Ethics Office, designed to be independent and objective.1
The Ethics Office in the Secretariat, however, which is responsible for protecting whistleblowers from retaliation, has a dreadful record. According to its annual report for 2015, the Office received 40 inquiries about the policy and its protections. Twenty-five of them were rejected, and the Office launched preliminary inquiries into 15 others. The inquiries disposed of two cases without completing a preliminary review, six were rejected by the Office and the remaining seven are still in the preliminary-review stage.2 In short, during the most recent reporting period, the Office received 40 applications. Not one of these has yet been found to be a valid case of retaliation requiring protection.
Since 2006, when the policy was first established, compilations of the Ethics Office annual reports indicate that less than 3 per cent of those seeking protection from retaliation actually receive it. Moreover, seeking protection is a protracted process lasting many years and ultimately the entire exercise may produce nothing.
Those who request protection from the Secretariat’s Ethics Office and do not receive it (the vast majority of requestors), cannot seek review of the rejection by the internal justice system. A 2014 ruling by the UN Appeals Tribunal determined that the justice system lacks jurisdiction over the Ethics Office.3
The case that produced this ruling is illustrative of the lack of protection afforded UN whistleblowers: Wasserstrom vs. The Secretary General.
James Wasserstrom was a senior official at the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) who disclosed a probable kickback scheme involving local politicians and senior UNMIK officials. After disclosing this information lawfully, Wasserstrom’s assignment was not extended, his passport was confiscated, his car and his apartment were searched, and he was subjected to administrative and criminal investigations. The United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) found that the Ethics Office failed to review his complaint properly; misapplied the burden of proof; failed to address the UN’s “humiliating and degrading treatment of a member of its own staff;” and reached a “fundamentally “awed” conclusion when it found that Wasserstrom’s treatment was not retaliatory.
The Tribunal concluded the following: The Tribunal finds it difficult to envisage a worse case of insensitive, highhanded and arbitrary treatment in breach of the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The failures of the Ethics Office to recognize such gross violations calls seriously into question its suitability and effectiveness as a body charged with the duty … to assist the Secretary General in ensuring that all staff members observe and perform their functions consistent with the highest standards of integrity required by the Charter of the United Nations…4
Despite this negative appraisal, the Secretary General appealed the UNDT ruling, and in 2014, the UNAT ruled that the internal justice system lacked the jurisdiction over determinations made by the Ethics Office. After eight years of retaliation, exclusion and litigation, Wasserstrom received no relief and had no further recourse.5
As pressure built for some form of protection for whistleblowers, the Secretariat commissioned an expert review of the existing policy in 2012. By last year, however, no revision had been finalized, even as the 2014 Wasserstrom ruling disarmed UN whistleblowers further. In the United States, the Congress has reacted to the continuing retaliation against whistleblowers by legislating a 15 per cent deduction from the annual US contribution to any UN agency that is not implementing best-practice whistleblower protections. Effective implementation for each agency, each year, must be certified by the US State Department if the Congress is to disburse the full contribution. Last year, the State Department would not certify that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) implemented effective whistleblower protections, and Congress withheld funding.6
The UN common system needs an expanded policy that is fairly and objectively implemented by an independent oversight office. Without an effective policy to protect whistleblowers, the emerging allegations of widespread sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping missions were entirely predictable. A revised and effective policy is needed now, as UN leaders continue to inflict incalculable damage on the Organization and on very the staff members who try to warn them.
6 US disbursement was largely symbolic, but it was an indication of the seriousness of the decision to withhold funding.