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Diplomats from 193 member states have been gathered in New York to participate in the 70th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. They can certainly celebrate 70 years of U.N. work to promote dialogue, cooperation and problem solving among nations. But they should also acknowledge that the U.N. and its affiliated agencies are increasingly a source of international problems, rather than part of the solution.
For example, U.N. peacekeeping missions failed to protect civilians in Rwanda and South Sudan. U.N. staff participated in kickback schemes in Kosovo, Iraq and other countries. In 2015, we learned that some U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic traded food in return for sexual favors from children and that the former General Assembly president may have taken bribes from Chinese businessmen. In August 2016 the U.N. admitted that its Haitian peacekeeping mission had, without intent, brought cholera to Haiti.
The U.N.’s problems are systemic: They are not the result of a specific issue or mistake by one human being. Moreover, the U.N. continues to experience problems of human rights violations, impunity and corruption. Finally, the U.N. and its 15 affiliated agencies do not seem to learn from their mistakes. Systemic problems demand creative solutions that not only address the problem, but also the process that created the problem.
One reason that the U.N. may be unable to stop such systemic problems is that, although it has implemented ethics rules and whistleblower protections, officials are hostile towards whistleblowers who seek to illuminate systemic problems. The U.N. and its affiliated agencies need whistleblowers, who seek to promote accountability.
While all of these U.N. agencies provide significant amounts of information to the public and member states, they don’t always furnish sufficiently useful information about their finances, policies and procedures, decision-making processes and work (internal and external processes) to their constituents or to the governments that fund them. Moreover, when they do supply such information, international organizations often do not do so in a manner that ensures that those affected and interested stakeholders can effectively access and understand it. Hence, these international organizations do not build trust and legitimacy through a feedback loop where the public has enough information to hold organizations such as the U.N. to account.
However, by providing U.N. stakeholders with information regarding what an organization is doing in their name, whistleblowers allow for a broader back and forth about what organizations such as the U.N. should do towards the people they serve. Moreover, whistleblowers act like a canary in a coalmine signaling that something in the organization’s process, procedures, inputs or outputs has gone wrong.
But U.N. staff have discouraged and discredited whistleblowers. For example, officials such as Aicha el Basri (who reported on the failure to protect civilians in South Sudan) and James Wasserstrom (who divulged a kick-back scheme in Kosovo) suffered retaliation and were treated with distrust and disdain. Neither the U.N. nor its subsidiary agencies have established a process or clear responsibilities for responding to whistleblowers who present evidence of systemic problems.
The U.N.’s unwillingness to embrace whistleblowing as an accountability strategy is surprising for several reasons. First, the U.N. was designed to promote ethical behavior among nations. It aims to promote human rights, and reduce corruption and impunity where it operates. Secondly, the U.N. is a product of the policies and perspectives of member states, many of which have adopted both right to information laws and protections for whistleblowers.
History shows that the U.N. can benefit from acknowledging and addressing whistleblowers’ disclosures and providing protection from reprisal. When the oil-for-food scandal developed in the early 2000s, it tarnished the reputation of Secretary General Kofi Annan. The political fallout was long-lasting and ruinous: critics of the U.N. still cite the scandal as an example of incompetence and mismanagement. Yet the whistleblowers who warned of the scandal were ignored or dismissed.
U.N. officials will be better able to respond to systemic problems if individuals feel safe “blowing the whistle.” Moreover, whistleblowing can facilitate greater accountability and prevent moral hazards, as in the case of U.N. peacekeepers. Finally, whistleblowers may help ensure that the international organizations tasked with enhancing human welfare do not undermine human welfare.
Susan Ariel Aaronson