FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 18, 2023
Leading Whistleblower Protection Organizations Rally to Strengthen UN Whistleblower Zambon’s Rights and Accountability
WASHINGTON – In a historic collaborative move, leading organizations dedicated to the defense of whistleblowers worldwide have united to submit an amicus curiae brief to the International Labor Organisation Administrative Tribunal (the Tribunal) in the landmark case of World Health Organisation (WHO) whistleblower Dr. Francesco Zambon. This joint effort by GlobaLeaks, Government Accountability Project, Transparency International, Transparency International Italy, Whistleblower Aid and the Whistleblowing International Network, reflects a strong collective commitment to advancing whistleblower protection and advocating for transparency and accountability within international organizations, particularly the United Nations.
Long before the emergence of this critical whistleblower case in 2020, these organizations have tirelessly championed whistleblower rights and shed light on the flaws and loopholes embedded in the United Nations’ whistleblower framework. The Tribunal has added this amicus brief to the case file and that is already a crucial step toward clarifying international principles and best practices related to whistleblowing.
Francesco Zambon, a former WHO scientist, made headlines in early 2020 when he coordinated a group of researchers who prepared a report on Italy’s pandemic preparedness. Italy was the first European country to be devastated by the COVID-19 emergency, and the report was meant to help inform the pandemic responsiveness of other countries. Initially published online by the WHO in May 2020, the report was hastily withdrawn 24 hours later. The report’s findings exposed a serious lapse in the Italian Ministry of Health’s pandemic plan which had been left untouched since 2006 despite a review being periodically required; and this plan having been the responsibility, among others, of a high-ranking WHO official during his tenure at the Italian Ministry of Health from 2013 to 2017. The result was a plan that was completely inadequate to support Italy to face the challenges of the outbreak of the coronavirus that occurred in 2020.
As a result, Zambon was pressured by the high-ranking WHO official implicated by the report to alter its findings – a move that would have jeopardized the WHO’s reputation, public health, and global policy-making by enabling the spread of disinformation. Zambon refused to obey this unethical order, which prompted the WHO to remove the report entirely from the public domain – thus tragically preventing its public service as an essential guide for future pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Zambon’s unwavering commitment to scientific integrity and transparency prompted him to report what had happened internally. Zambon’s disclosures and retaliation complaint to the WHO were met with vagueness and significant delays, ultimately denying him recognition as a whistleblower and failing to provide him with any protection.
Transparency International’s paper Whistleblower Protection at the United Nations, further highlights the pervasive risk of retaliation United Nations workers face, a major deterrent to reporting misconduct. Fragmented and unclear whistleblowing policies, retaliation by staff, and a top-down culture within the United Nations threaten and undermine its whistleblowing system and exacerbates the challenges facing potential whistleblowers.
This collaborative effort represents a pivotal moment in our collective pursuit of justice, accountability, and transparency. Together we stand committed to safeguarding the values of honesty, integrity, and truth within international organizations, thereby securing a brighter and safer future for all.
For further information
Whistleblowing International Network: [email protected]
Government Accountability Project: Andrew Harman, [email protected]
Transparency International: Marko Kovacevic, [email protected]
Transparency International Italy: Daniela Casula, [email protected]
GlobaLeaks: Susanna Ferro, [email protected]
Amicus Brief Summary and Background Information
Zambon’s case illustrates the flaws within the WHO and the United Nations common system regarding whistleblowing procedures and policies. The amicus brief advocates for the protection for whistleblowers who refuse to commit unethical or illegal acts, the freedom to choose their reporting channel, protection against retaliatory criminal and civil liability lawsuits, and immunity waivers, as important cornerstones of an effective policy. It argues that the WHO failed to adhere to its internal rules and procedures regarding whistleblower protection. The brief importantly highlights that suffering retaliation is not a necessary condition for someone to be considered a whistleblower while also pointing out that whether someone uses the designated channels cannot be decisive criteria on whether they are a whistleblower – whistleblowers who have not yet decided to blow the whistle but are investigating reporting channels and how to use them safely also deserve protection. The amicus brief urges the WHO to apply international law principles to its handling of whistleblower employment disputes, argues that the WHO’s whistleblowing policy falls short of international standards for whistleblower protection, and points out the lack of fairness and independence in the organization’s procedures for addressing whistleblower complaints is a critical factor.
Despite the chilling effect of an internal justice system repeatedly shown to be ineffective, Zambon is valiantly bringing his claim against the WHO to the ILO Tribunal where he is seeking recognition as a whistleblower and compensation for the suffering he endured. His perseverance offers hope for future scientists and ethical workers within the United Nations that they will receive the time, attention, protection, and fair procedures they rightfully deserve.
This case is significant, as its outcome will reverberate throughout the WHO and similar United Nations’ agencies, funds, and programs and influence the broader whistleblowing culture within the United Nations. The stakes are high given the United Nations mandate to tackle crucial global challenges ranging from climate change to public health, peacekeeping, relations between States, sustainable development, and the protection of human rights. Whistleblowers are the failsafe to ensure that United Nations’ agencies can effectively deliver on their mission.
The amicus’ aim is to support the Tribunal in its deliberations and the promoting organisations hope for a result that will encourage United Nations’ bodies to significantly improve their whistleblowing rules and practices, and in the long run to allow top scientists and all other workers within UN agencies, funds and programs to feel safe coming forward with any wrongdoing without fear of reprisals and knowing they will be heard. Scientific integrity should thrive without fear or favor and the importance of whistleblower frameworks is underscored by the WHO’s obligation to safeguard human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information, and to ensure the protection of researchers’ independence and the public’s right to access to information.