Whistleblower Says Review Too Weak
(New York, NY) – Last week, the United Nations issued a statement regarding a review of whistleblower Aicha Elbasri’s claims concerning the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).
In July, the U.N. Secretary-General set up a Review Team to examine GAP client Elbasri’s claims that UNAMID concealed crimes against civilians and peacekeepers. This announcement followed a three-part report published by Foreign Policy magazine in April 2014 based on hundreds of internal U.N. documents disclosed by Elbasri, and a call by the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecutor to have the U.N. investigate her claims. The Review Team was led by American Philip Cooper, a U.N. retiree who previously worked in peacekeeping and benefited from Elbasri’s full cooperation.
The Team scrutinized the 16 incidents documented by Elbasri, the former spokesperson for UNAMID who resigned her post in April 2013 after claiming that she had been prevented from accurately informing the public about what was happening in Darfur.
The Team found that, in five incidents, UNAMID withheld evidence indicating the responsibility of Sudanese government forces and/or their proxies in crimes against civilians and peacekeepers. The report cited UNAMID’s failure to share with U.N. headquarters in New York “a copy of the verification report on the attacks, rapes and looting at four villages in Tawilla by pro-Government forces.” According to the Team, UNAMID also withheld from headquarters “reasonable evidence” showing that members of the government Border Guards committed serious crimes against civilians in Hashaba, which, according to a report of the Secretary-General, had resulted in the killing of up to 70 unarmed men and women. “UNAMID chose not to report to UNHQ the threat by PDF [Popular Defence Forces] members to identify and kill Zaghawas travelling in a UNAMID convoy carrying two Zaghawa villagers,” said the Team’s report about the third incident.
The Team also found that critical information held back from U.N. headquarters included “considerable evidence and reason to believe that the fatal attack on [the U.N.] team site was carried out by pro-Government forces.” The Review Team asserted that “frank reporting” by UNAMID was discouraged out of fear of the Sudanese Government.
“In some incidents the initial reports identified the attackers as suspected Government or Pro-Government forces, this was changed at some point in the official reporting chain with the perpetrators becoming ‘unidentified assailants’ or ‘armed men in military uniform […]’ This gave the perpetrators anonymity and the Government could not be held accountable for the criminal acts of its forces and/or proxies,” the report noted.
The Review Team also acknowledged that the Mission maintained silence toward media queries and self-censored its public reporting on Sudanese crimes, leading to “under-reporting of incidents when Government and pro-Government forces were suspected to be involved.”
Despite all the findings that suggested an intended cover-up, the Team concluded that it “found no evidence to support the proposition that UNAMID or DPKO would have intentionally reported in such a way as to cover up crimes against civilians and peacekeepers.”
“I am not disappointed with the outcome of this review since I didn’t expect any credible findings from an internal evaluation that lacks transparency and independence,” said Elbasri. “This review is not the ‘thorough, independent and public inquiry’ the ICC Prosecutor called for last June. It is just a cover-up of the cover-up, a whitewash that adds insult to injury.”
The review also failed to comply with best practices in whistleblower protection. A key best practice is to enfranchise the whistleblower to review and comment on the draft report resolving the alleged misconduct, to assess whether there has been a good faith resolution. Whistleblowers are often the most knowledgeable, concerned witnesses in the process, and their evaluation comments often lead to significant improvements and changed conclusions. However, Elbasri was not allowed to see or comment on the draft report.
Moreover, the U.N. failed to release the full report publicly, in contravention of best practices. According to the 2014 U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Act, 15 percent of the U.S. contribution to the United Nations or any U.N. agency shall not be obligated until the State Department reports that the organization is implementing best practices for whistleblower protection.
“This review is further proof of the United Nations’ failure to uphold best practices in whistleblower protection,” said GAP Executive Director Bea Edwards. “GAP notified the Review Team of its obligation to comply with best practices, but the U.N. still failed to do so, in violation of the 2014 U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Act.”
At the outset of the review, Elbasri and GAP raised concerns about the fact that the Secretary-General had established a “Reporting Management Review Team,” and not an investigation team as requested by the ICC. They were also concerned about the internal character of the team, its undisclosed composition and the insufficient time allocated to this exercise. This internal team clearly lacked critical elements of any credible inquiry.
“The main achievement of this review is that it revealed serious U.N. misconduct that needs to be fully and properly investigated, not by an internal team but an external and competent one,” said Elbasri. “The U.N. needs to take responsibility for its misconduct. This is the very least it can do for civilians in Darfur who, one decade on from the arrival of the Blue Helmets, are still suffering the world’s biggest forgotten war.”
Contact: Shelley Walden, International Program Consultant
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Government Accountability Project
The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, GAP’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, GAP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.