The United Nations Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) has released its Review of Whistle-Blower Policies and Practices in United Nations System Organizations.For practical purposes, the review is divided into three principal parts. First, based on an evaluation of relevant criteria and consultation with subject matter experts, the reviewers agree on best practices for protecting staff members against retaliation when they disclose misconduct in their places of work. Second, the reviewers evaluate the policies of the UN Secretariat and its related Funds, Programs and Specialized Agencies for compliance with best practices, and third, they assess the implementation of the policies they previously analyzed.

The Government Accountability Project was interviewed as this review was prepared and its classification of best practices in whistleblower protections was included as the reviewers compiled their own best-practice criteria. For the Government Accountability Project, the codification of what officially constitutes best practice in anti-retaliation measures for whistleblowers is an enormous step forward. The lack of consensus on this point has been a controversy we’ve been unable to resolve for nearly five years. The consensus is important because, in the United States, Section 7048 of the annual Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) requires the State Department to certify for the Congressional Appropriations Committees that best-practice protections are both adopted and implemented in the United Nations system. Toward the end of each fiscal year, the State Department transmits its report that UN anti-retaliation measures comply with accepted best practices. There have been a few exceptions to the State Department’s endorsement of UN policies, but they are isolated and infrequent. When the Government Accountability Project challenged the certifications in the past, State Department representatives responded by arguing that their offices apply the best-practice criteria as accurately as possible, but that the term ‘best practices’ is vague and difficult to define. In the wake of this JIU report, however, the State Department no longer can claim that globally-accepted, clearly-defined best-practice criteria do not exist.

The Government Accountability Project, in general, has few arguments with the second section of the review. We agree that, in most cases, the policies adopted by UN agencies are robust. There are weaknesses, of course, but no policy is bullet-proof in the hands of a senior manager looking for a retaliation target. We are concerned, however, that the review places more emphasis on what the policies say and less on their implementation.

Since 2014, Section 7048 of the annual CAA specifically requires “implementation” of the adopted protection policies. Simply having a good policy in place was not sufficient to warrant full disbursement of the US annual contribution to the regular fund after that date, and the JIU report clearly shows that implementation remains a problem.

There are also problems with the report itself, but we’ll only address the first and most obvious methodological one here, which is relevant to the shortcomings in policy implementation as well as in the review. Subsequent articles will address specific issues in more detail. The inherent methodological flaw in the review is that reviewers rely on the accuracy of what is reported to them through the Global Staff Survey when they assess the effectiveness of policy implementation (para 10), but the report shows that staff are intimidated by the prospect of retaliation, and that this fear significantly affects the willingness of staff members to report either misconduct or retaliation. Isn’t it likely, then, that all problems and shortcomings reported here are significantly understated, as many staff members report that they fear retaliation for exposing institutional shortcomings to anyoneinside the organization?

The JIU review describes a closed loop of elaborate and arcane accountability structures, none of which are truly accountable because they are all functionally internal to the UN system. At the Government Accountability Project, we therefore see these findings as explicitly, repeatedly, and persuasively expressing the need for an external, independent channel of appeal for those who allege retaliation. Establishing such a channel is the simple (although not easy) solution to the problems documented in this 100-plus-page review.

The Ethics Office at the Secretariat, which receives and reviews retaliation complaints, oversees a complex, multi-stage review/investigation and then makes a recommendation to the Secretary General (SG) concerning the final resolution of the complaint. The SG may accept the recommendation or reject it, but he may be conflicted. Structurally, he represents management, and if the retaliator is a high-level official, it’s quite possible that he or she was directly recruited by the SG. The fact that – in our experience – not a single high-level official has ever been explicitly disciplined for retaliation, despite being named as a retaliator in a persuasive complaint, underlines the significance of this issue.

In the JIU review, UN staff members remain trapped in a bizarre and UN-specific definition of “external and independent.” The JIU review allows one UN agency to be regarded as external to – and independent of – others. Therefore, the UN Secretariat is classified as an organization that allows external oversight of its Ethics Office determinations because a complainant can request a review of his or her Ethics Office determination by selected members of the Ethics Panel of the UN. Yet, in the real world we know that members of the Ethics Committee are colleagues of the Director of the Secretariat’s Ethics Office. In fact, the committee members work together. In job searches, both internal and external, they rely on each other for referrals and recommendations. Outside the UN, they would never be considered independent entities, capable of reviewing each other’s cases in an unbiased manner.

The conflict is structural, not personal. There may well be individual members of the committee who make every effort to remain unbiased and strenuously attempt to prepare objective appraisals of their colleagues’ work, perhaps even reversing recommendations and rulings from time to time. But structurally, the Organization makes such objectivity difficult and the victim of the conflict of interest, should it become operational, is the whistleblower.

Establishing a truly external and independent international mechanism for handling retaliation complaints and disclosures of misconduct is the expedient solution to the problems identified by the JIU. It is neither complex nor costly. Why then, does every internal evaluator of the retaliation issue ignore this as a possibility?