On Feb. 26, the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) issued a judgment in which the judges referredMugabecloseupZimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabeseveral retaliators to the Secretary-General for accountability. This case is a major victory for UN whistleblowers as it appears to be the first in which UNDT – the court of first instance in the internal justice system through which UN employees contest violations of their rights – recommended that the Secretary-General discipline parties who engaged in retaliation.

The case was brought by Georges Tadonki, who worked for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as head of office in Zimbabwe. In April 2008, Tadonki wrote an early warning assessment in which he raised numerous concerns regarding the humanitarian preparedness of Zimbabwe in the face of an “an acute deterioration of the economy and livelihoods.” (para. 150) According to a Foreign Policy in Focus story, Tadonki’s “warning was brutally frank. It declared that Zimbabwe’s U.N. country team was ‘not prepared to face the consequences of an emergency silently in the making’ and cited ‘hesitations of the U.N. in responding to acts of political violence,’ warning that the coming months would see ‘dire consequences.’” Tadonki distributed the assessment to numerous people within OCHA, in accordance with internal procedure.

Tadonki claims that he also warned UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator Agostinho Zacarias of the severe risk of cholera in the country. Zacarias reportedly ignored Tadonki’s warning that at least 30,000 people could catch the disease. Instead Zacarias opted for a much lower estimate, as desired by dictator Robert Mugabe’s government, which did not want to acknowledge the epidemic. As a result, a November 2008 UN appeal for aid predicted that the cholera epidemic in the country would result in only 2,000 cases. In actuality, by July 2009 nearly 100,000 Zimbabweans contracted the disease and approximately 4,000 died. According to Foreign Policy in Focus, “cholera was everywhere. Corpses filled the streets and hospital beds … It was a tragedy in every way – not least because the worst might have been prevented.”*

Although the word “whistleblower” does not appear in the 104-page decision issued by UNDT, in GAP’s view Tadonki was subjected to classic forms of whistleblower retaliation. After he wrote his assessment, Tadonki was admonished, subjected to an investigation and informed that his contract would not be renewed, despite the fact that he was a hard worker who was described by one witness as the “first to come, last to leave” the office (para. 193) He was also abruptly removed from Zimbabwe even though a major humanitarian crisis was occurring in the country and a country director was urgently needed there.

Judge Vinod Boolell (presiding), Nkemdilim Izuako and Goolam Meeran found that Tadonki’s assessment was the precipitating event that led to the negative actions taken against him, including the decision not to renew his contract. The Tribunal also found that Tadonki was “vilified publicly” for sending his assessment to New York and that his removal from the Zimbabwe office was “not so much in the interest of the Organization, or in the pursuit of using the best resources of the Organization” but rather in the interest of the retaliators. The judges found “bad faith from top management of OCHA” (para. 307) and concluded that Tadonki’s non-renewal was unlawful. According to the judges:

…[I]in spite of the fact that no one could successfully counter [the Applicant’s] prediction, he appeared to have stepped on some big toes by stating the obvious. Thus the Applicant, a new-comer, had attempted to upset the applecart in a situation where, clearly, humanitarian considerations only played second fiddle to political issues … the Applicant was not, at all material times, treated fairly and in accordance with due process, equity and the core values of the Charter of the Organization. (para. 309 -310)

Tadonki was awarded costs, moral damages for “extreme emotional distress and physical harm,” and more than three years’ salary. The judges ordered senior OCHA management to issue an apology and conduct a formal investigation into the harassment against Tadonki. Perhaps most importantly, the judges referred the cases of several individuals to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for accountability purposes, in accordance with the powers given to it by article 10.8 of its Statute, which allows UNDT to “refer appropriate cases to the Secretary-General of the United Nations or the executive heads of separately administered United Nations funds and programmes for possible action to enforce accountability.” (para. 344)

In September 2012, GAP released a report that analyzed the impact of the UN internal justice system on accountability practices in UN peacekeeping missions. One of the report’s finding was that UNDT judges rarely refer cases to the Secretary-General for possible action to enforce accountability. The study included a recommendation that “when the resolution of a case at the UNDT or the UNAT [UN Appeals Tribunal] clearly shows managerial misconduct, judges should refer the case in question to the Secretary-General under Article 10.8 of UNDT’s Statute and Article 9.5 of UNAT’s Statute, rather than merely noting concerns about certain managers’ behavior.” GAP is glad to see that UNDT judges are responding to our recommendation and more actively using this referral power.

GAP’s report also recommended that the Secretary-General take action in the cases referred to him by UNDT and UNAT. GAP believes that staff members’ opinions on the effectiveness of the justice system would increase substantially if they knew that the Secretary-General was acting on accountability referrals made to him by Tribunal judges. We therefore hope that the Secretary-General will act on all of the accountability referrals made in the Tadonki case.

* This is not the only incident in which the UN has failed to take adequate measures to respond to cholera. See, for example, this story about the UN’s role in the cholera epidemic in Haiti.
Shelley Walden is International Officer for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.