In recent days, the Secretary General of the United Nations and the US president have both made statements about the need to protect whistleblowers at the UN.
Unfortunately, we’ve heard this before – many, many times. The United Nations produces megabytes of rhetoric per second, to little effect. There are statements, press releases, speeches, resolutions, bulletins, policies and announcements of “Zero-Tolerance” and “Human Rights Up Front.” Notable in this category of noise is something called “The Leadership Dialogues” that the former Ethics Officer designed just before she retired with full benefits, but just after she was exposed for improper collaboration with management on a cover-up of child rape and retaliation in Africa.
Now, however, Secretary General Guterres is admitting what whistleblowers have told him for years about child sex abuse. For the first time, he acknowledges that pedophilia and sex abuse are a problem among UN civilian staff; these crimes are not confined to peacekeeping troops. Civilian staff members, of course, are subject to UN discipline and their actions can be addressed by UN management.
When the scandals around child sex abuse emerged in 2015, the UN claimed it was doing everything possible to address the issue, but prosecution of alleged abusers was difficult because the peacekeepers accused were not under UN command. UN management kicked responsibility over to the national governments that supplied the offending troops. The fact that UN staff members were among the alleged abusers was typically omitted from consideration.
The US delegation was little help in addressing the problem. Isobel Coleman, the US Representative at the UN for Management and Reform, sat before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in April 2016, and earnestly explained the bureaucratic complications of disciplining peacekeeping troops under the command of a sovereign nation. (Please read her linked statement. It is a misleading monstrosity of doublespeak.)
By contrast, UN whistleblower Miranda Brown testified at the same committee hearing, arguing that the UN could discipline its own staff members if found guilty in internal processes, but does not. In the absence of UN discipline, there is little political pressure on troop-contributing countries to hold their own forces accountable. The Member States often take their cues from the UN Secretariat on governance issues. Ms. Brown, by the way, lost her job at the UN – which is what happens to whistleblowers there. She was forced out of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) after briefing the US Mission at UN/Geneva on the shipment of sophisticated US IT equipment to North Korea. The US government did not effectively defend her.
In the end, we tire of this. The last UN Secretary General deplored and lamented child sex abuse. He reported himself to be anguished and ashamed, but did nothing meaningful. He named a panel to review the problem, fired someone who was not really responsible for what happened, and appointed a Special Representative (from the reliable roster of former UN political appointees). The whistleblowers were forced out of the UN. One resigned in disgust. Ms. Brown was transferred from Geneva to Fiji to fill a post that she could not assume.
So what is to be done? It’s simple but not easy. The whistleblowers who disclose the abuses must be protected in order to ensure that they and others continue to come forward. The real dimensions of the problem must be recognized. The UN must waive diplomatic immunity for its staff members accused of sex crimes.
It’s straightforward, but the UN must follow through, and not just talk about it. The US Mission must do the same.