Whistleblower Retaliation Protections Weakened, Up to 15 Agencies May Enact Lower Standards

(Washington, D.C.) – The codification of ethics standards and policies for various UN agencies detailed in the December 1st bulletin issued by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon complicates and confuses the issue, creating an entirely new level of bureaucratic dispute, delay, cost and inefficiency for those who report corruption in UN operations and suffer retaliation as a result, in the opinion of the Government Accountability Project (GAP).

The policy in question is the United Nations System-Wide Application of Ethics: Separately Administered Organs and Programmes. The United Nations announced the new measure by stating: “Employees working in the Funds and Programmes of the United Nations are now covered by the same system of ethical protections and programmes as their colleagues in the UN Secretariat.” In fact, Ban Ki-moon’s new bulletin accomplishes exactly the opposite by effectively exempting the Funds and Programmes from the jurisdiction of the UN Ethics Office.

“This bulletin replaces a single Ethics Office, structurally independent of management in the Funds and Programs and responsible for applying a uniform set of ethical standards, with proliferating ad hoc internal ethics offices, operating at the pleasure of the heads of these agencies,” said Bea Edwards, GAP International Program Director.

In December 2005, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a bulletin establishing an independent UN Ethics Office, with a staff responsible for receiving appeals from whistleblowers in need of relief from retaliation. As whistleblowers from UN Funds and Programs came forward, assuming they were protected by the 2005 bulletin, Ban Ki-moon allowed for ‘separately administered agencies’ to exempt themselves from the UN Ethics Office’s jurisdiction. Effectively the new Secretary General allowed agencies to opt-out of the agreed-upon ethical guidelines. Whistleblowers from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) who had reported serious corruption and fraud in their agency were badly hurt, as this inaction left them in legal limbo for nearly a year. Although the UNDP Administrator reports directly to the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has behaved as if he had no authority over UNDP.

With this latest development, the Secretary General sets out a second policy explicitly restricting the established Ethics Office to cases originating in the Secretariat and the peacekeeping forces, and relegating cases from UN Funds and Programs to recently, or not-yet, established ad hoc ethics offices in each agency. These new offices will hear retaliation cases according to yet-to-be-elaborated ethical standards, which will then be ‘harmonized’ by a UN Ethics Committee.

“This bulletin states that a committee will now negotiate definitions of ethics to be applied system-wide,” said Edwards. “Such a dubious process could take years and does not bring justice to whistleblowers. Nor does it protect them from retaliation or address the issue of corruption.”

The new bulletin is flawed by glaring omissions. First, it sets out no parameters for establishing the new ethics offices. To ensure objectivity, a credible ethics officer must have legal training in the field, be recruited by an objective search committee from outside the institution, and have a secure position not subject to dismissal or harassment. The offices must be adequately staffed with similarly secure and trained officers. Above all, ethics personnel must be insulated from internal pressure and retaliation themselves.

The already operational UN Ethics Office was set up in this manner, and could therefore evaluate whistleblower cases from the Funds and Programs with genuine impartiality. The 2005 policy protecting personnel from retaliation when reporting fraud and corruption also provides protection for witnesses, assurances of confidentiality, measures of interim relief, and modern burdens of proof. The new offices, to be set up in the next three to six weeks, will operate under no such obligations.

The new bulletin does allow whistleblowers from Funds and Programs who claim unfair treatment from the new internal ethics offices to subsequently appeal to the UN Ethics Office. But any measure that adds cost and delay to the investigation and hearing process seriously damages the position of the whistleblower, who, in many cases, is dismissed, demoted, marginalized and harassed without relief.

The number of UN “separately administered agencies” that will establish separate ethics offices is unclear at this point, but it could be as many as fifteen. Already the UNDP and World Food Program (WFP) have appointed ethics officers (without impartial search committees), and UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have also moved in this direction. With at least two legal professionals and support staff and infrastructure, the minimal cost per new office would be US$300,000 per year. The UN system is poised to assume extra costs of about $4.5 million per year for the purpose of avoiding the application of meaningful ethical standards.

The understanding of Christopher Burnham, the Under Secretary for Management who wrote the 2005 bulletin with technical assistance from GAP, was that the bulletin applied across the UN system. Likewise, a panel of independent jurists evaluating the UN justice system in 2006 strongly recommended that the Ombudsman’s offices be merged into a single system-wide jurisdiction. But when the UN Ethics Office designated a UNDP whistleblower as a victim of retaliation, UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis declared that the Funds and Programs were not subject to the UN Ethics Office, effectively evading any future investigation.

“By allowing Dervis to retaliate with impunity, Ban Ki-moon is now promoting a Potemkin Village of costly ethics offices throughout the system without independence, credibility or standards,” said Edwards.

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 non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization with offices in Washington, D.C. and Seattle, WA.


Contact: Bea Edwards, International Director
Phone: 202.408.0034 ext 155
Email: [email protected]

Contact: Shelley Walden, International Program Associate
Phone: 202.408.0034 ext 156
Email: [email protected]

Contact: Dylan Blaylock, Communications Director
Phone: 202.408.0034 ext 137, 202.236.3733 (cell)
Email: [email protected]