Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that there will be a review of whistleblower protections at the United Nations. At a press conference, the Secretary-General stated that “we are receiving certain complaints about implementing all of these whistleblower-protection policies. Therefore, we have asked outside consultants to look into this process, whether there is any area for improvement. This report will come to me and we will do our best…”

This announcement comes in the wake of a media briefing earlier this month with GAP client James Wasserstrom. During the conference (which can be watched here), GAP critiqued the United Nations’ whistleblower protection record and asked the organization to take concrete steps to protect whistleblowers, including conducting an independent external review of all the protection against retaliation cases that the Ethics Office (which is charged with reviewing such complaints) has failed to substantiate. Media outlets across the globe subsequently reported on the Wasserstrom case, including The New York TimesAssociated PressAl Jazeera and Reutersamong others. The Secretary General’s announcement also comes after a statement from the UN Fifth Committee – the administrative and budgetary committee of the General Assembly – earlier this month in which it noted “the intention of the Secretary-General to conduct a comprehensive review of the existing policy for protection against retaliation in the Organization” and requested “the Secretary-General to expedite the development of modalities in this regard and to report thereon to the General Assembly at its sixty-ninth session.” (para. 75, see also para. 77)

GAP is encouraged by the Secretary General’s announcement, but notes that significant obstacles to its effective implementation remain. In selecting the appropriate consultants, the United Nations must choose qualified people with expertise in whistleblower protection. Otherwise, this review will lack credibility. We also hope that when the Secretary General said “we will do our best,” he meant that the organization will take concrete steps to address this problem, rather than continuing to sweep it under the rug. In other words, if the review determines that any retaliation claims were improperly declined by the Ethics Office, they should be re-adjudicated.

We must also point out that although a review is an important first step, it is not enough to fix the whistleblower protection issues at the United Nations. The Secretary General should take additional steps to demonstrate his commitment to implementing best practice whistleblower protections, among them:

  • Revise the UN’s whistleblower protection policy to meet best practices. For example, the policy should provide protection against retaliation to all relevant applicants who challenge betrayals of the organization’s mission. Currently, some of the people who are most likely to be aware of misconduct in UN peacekeeping operations, including UN police officers, peacekeepers, and victims, have no protections if they report misconduct.
  • Discipline the retaliators in validated whistleblower cases, such as Wasserstrom’s.
  • Adhere to orders and judgments issued by the Tribunals in whistleblowing cases (i.e. orders to release reports investigating a whistleblower’s retaliation claims).
  • Issue a public apology to all whistleblowers whose retaliation claims have been substantiated by the UN Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) or UN Appeals (UNAT) Tribunal.
  • Require compulsory training of all UN staff and managers annually on whistleblower protection and retaliation.
  • Encourage OIOS to publicly release its investigative reports, including the investigative report on internal corruption in the UN Mission in Kosovo that Wasserstrom risked his career to contribute to. The disclosure of such reports is in keeping with best practices in whistleblower protection and with disclosure policies at other organizations, such as the World Bank, which releases its final investigative reports publicly.
  • Encourage all UN funds, programmes and agencies that have their own whistleblower policies and Ethics Offices to, at a minimum, meet the standards set in UN ST/SGB/2005/21 (the UN Secretariat whistleblower policy). The Secretary General should also encourage all UN funds, programmes and agencies to comply with the Joint Inspection Unit’s recommendations regarding Ethics in the United Nations System (UN/JIU/REP/2010/3), especially those regarding the independence of the Ethics Office and heads of the Ethics Office.
  • Encourage the General Assembly to revise the UNDT and UNAT statutes to remove caps on compensation awards and to allow judges to award the relief necessary to make successful complainants whole. The judges should also be allowed to award costs to successful litigants and punitive damages. Without these changes, even whistleblowers who win before the Tribunals will continue to lose, as many of them will be in worse financial and professional condition than if they had simply remained silent.

These steps are critical to ensuring that UN resources are spent as intended. A study of 5,400 companies worldwide found that whistleblowers detect more fraud than corporate security, audits, rotation of personnel, fraud risk management and law enforcement combined. Whistleblowers have the potential not only to protect UN resources but also the health and safety of vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, the Ethics Office has ultimately rejected 99% of UN whistleblowers’ retaliation claims. This sends a message to UN staff members: if you see misconduct, don’t speak up.

In 2011, at a screening of the movie The Whistleblower, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that the United Nations needs “to promote a culture in which people feel free and obliged to raise their voices in the face of wrongdoing and abuse.” We at GAP couldn’t agree more. We urge the Secretary-General to take these steps to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to implementing best practice whistleblower protections.

Shelley Walden is International Officer for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.