On Monday, September 14th, GAP learned that the US Congress will withhold 15 percent of the US contribution to the UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) this year. WIPO is the global forum for intellectual property policy, services and cooperation. Although it is largely self-funding, WIPO still relies in some measure on the contributions from its 188 member states.

In order for the Congress to release the entire US contribution to a UN agency, the State Department must certify that each UN agency, fund and program is implementing best-practice whistleblower protections. This year, the State Department would not certify that WIPO meets these standards.

The State Department’s report on WIPO’s treatment of whistleblowers represents the first time since the UN was established that the United States has withheld a portion of its contribution due to inadequate anti-retaliation practices. In fact, the State Department’s decision reflects a longstanding and deep-rooted problem at WIPO that has many dimensions: 1) the Organization allows extended delays in beginning an investigation, and 2) the position of Ethics Officer has been vacant for an unacceptably long time. Beyond the State Department’s objections to WIPO’s practices, other shortcomings exist. First, the Director General is the ultimate authority in deciding the fate of whistleblowers in the organization. In this regard, he has a clear conflict of interest with respect to virtually any complaint that involves a staff member appointed by him, but in the two cases reported this year, the complaints made allegations about the DG himself. Moreover, the staff of WIPO lacks access to an independent judicial forum in deciding disputes.

In short, the policy in place is weak and the enforcement of the policy is weaker still.

Curiously, within days of reporting by the State Department that WIPO did not meet best practice with respect to its implementation of whistleblower protections, the DG at the Organization suddenly appointed a new Ethics Officer. She is Chitra Radhakishun, an Indian national. Given the length of time required to recruit a professional at this level in the United Nations, we can only suppose that the DG was apprised some time ago that the US government was about to take this step.

In any case, the new appointment strongly implies that when the US wishes to improve protections for whistleblowers at the UN, it can do so expediently.