Earlier this week, the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a briefing on “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action.”  Some of the most urgent problems discussed during the briefing (which attracted so many audience members that it filled both the hearing and spillover rooms) were the UN’s treatment of whistleblowers and system for investigating corruption, two issues of longstanding concern to GAP.  These topics were mentioned several times in the opening remarks of Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (as delivered by the chairwoman pro tempore), who commented on how the UN Development Program (UNDP) fired a whistleblower who exposed wrongdoing in UNDP’s North Korean office and then “undermined whistleblower protections by limiting access to its audits and refusing to submit to the U.N. Ethic’s Office’s jurisdiction…”

One of the questions that the Committee considered during the briefing was how best to use the power of U.S. purse strings to improve the accountability of the UN. Witness Robert Appleton, former chairman of the United Nations Procurement Task Force, provided a particularly insightful response to this question.  According to Appleton:

  • UN investigators need to be protected from retaliation.
  • Investigative bodies at all Intergovernmental Organizations, including the UN, need to be independent from management and have independent budgets and appointment powers.
  • The UN needs strong judicial mechanisms that function properly. (Mr. Appleton is currently testing these mechanisms through his own case against the UN).
  • The UN must have a strong and effective Ethics Office.

GAP believes that these are all excellent suggestions. We also suggest that the U.S. Congress require the following as a condition of its funding to the UN:

  • That all UN funds, programs and agencies that receive funds from the U.S. either enforce the UN Secretariat whistleblower protection policy or create policies that are at least equivalent to those standards. This is not currently the case. GAP has compared the whistleblower policies at UNDP, the World Food Programme, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and found them to be inconsistent, weakened by arbitrary loopholes and, on the whole, less comprehensive than the original UN policy established in 2005. In an ideal world, there would be one robust whistleblower protection policy and one fully-staffed, independent Ethics Office for the UN system. This would save resources and maximize impartiality.
  • That the UN Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services appoint a qualified Director to the OIOS Investigations Division (OIOS/ID), the unit responsible for the investigation of misconduct and whistleblower cases.  OIOS/ID has been without a permanent director for more than three years and the current acting director is under investigation for allegedly retaliating against two whistleblowers.
  • That the UN Secretary-General respect the authority of the new UN justice system. This means that the Secretary-General must 1) comply with all orders issued by the UN Dispute Tribunal and UN Appeals Tribunal, especially those relating to the evidence and witnesses to be produced at the trial; and 2) enforce the decisions of these Tribunals.
  • That the UN system codifies a consistent, independent and professional system for investigating misconduct by the heads of investigative units and executive heads.  According to a 2006 report entitled “Oversight Lacunae in the United Nations System,” by the UN Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), an independent oversight body of the UN mandated to conduct evaluations and investigations system-wide: “an independent external body should oversee investigations of alleged wrongdoing by the executive heads and internal oversight heads of the United Nations system when these arise. As JIU is the only external oversight body of the United Nations system mandated to undertake investigations, it can assume this responsibility, and do so within existing resources…” (JIU/REP/2006/2, para. 30)

But merely attaching conditions to U.S. dues to the United Nations is not enough. The U.S. government must also lead by example by committing itself to fully funding all UN accountability efforts. This is especially true of the new UN justice system, which has the potential to significantly promote the rule of law and accountability throughout the organization, but has been significantly underfunded. In October 2010, several UN Appeals Tribunal (UNAT) judges highlighted the negative impact of the lack of resources on the Tribunal’s work; they showed that scarce funds weaken accountability at the UN. According to the Honorable UNAT Judge Mark Painter (minute 8:30):

[the Administration] has not provided the resources necessary for this court to function… We are struggling and it will only get worse… We have four full time staff including one legal officer. In contrast the International Labour Organization Administrative Tribunal has at least three times the staff… If staffing does not substantially improve, almost immediately, we will not be able to continue the progress of this court in the future, not to mention the very substantial impact on judicial independence…

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