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Law aiding whistle-blowers puts UN on notice

Last month, President Obama signed into law the 2014 Omnibus Appropriations bill. Buried in it is a provision that requires 15 percent of all U.S. contributions to be withheld from “each and every” United Nations agency that does not adhere to “best practices” in whistle-blower protection, some of which the law spells out. Secretary of State John Kerry is responsible to certify to Congress whether each U.N. agency is in compliance. 

CLICK HERE FOR THE WHISTLE-BLOWER PROVISIONS

This provision was necessitated by the U.N.’s appalling behavior toward whistle-blowers -- people who point out illegal or wasteful practices in their workplace.  The U.N. has an ethics office that is responsible internally for their protection.  The foremost U.S. whistle-blower protection organization, the Government Accountability Project, has analyzed the ethics office’s record on the subject from 2006, when the office was founded, through 2012.  During that time, the organization received 297 “protection-against-retaliation” inquiries.  This is a strikingly high number, and should raise red flags about the culture within the U.N. 

Yet the ethics office validated only eight claims of retaliation out of the 297, a 97 percent rejection rate. This defies the odds. In reality, the ethics office is the dead letter-box for whistle-blowers, an abject failure in implementation of the U.N.’s stated policy to protect those who come forward after identifying what they consider to be misconduct, fraud, waste or abuse.

I led the campaign for this change in law because I am one of the whistle-blowers that the U.N. Ethics Office, and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, abjectly failed. 

As head of an office that oversaw public utilities within the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, I blew the whistle on allegations that my senior co-workers were to receive a $500 million kickback from construction of a new power plant. 

Once they found out about my whistle-blowing, I was banned from U.N. premises, and my photograph was put on “Wanted” posters on the gates of every U.N. building there. Under orders, U.N. police unlawfully arrested me at the Kosovo border, and illegally searched my home and seized my property in an effort to find anything to discredit me. The U.N. put out false and defamatory information to the Kosovo and international media that I was corrupt. Finally, I was fired. 

The U.N. Ethics Office rejected my claim of retaliation. It took several years and tens of thousands of dollars to hold them, the inspector general and the UN secretary general accountable in the U.N. court system but I won – sort of. 

Last year, a U.N. judge found it “difficult to envisage a worse case of insensitive, highhanded and arbitrary treatment in breach of the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  He was clear: “The failures of the ethics office to recognize such gross violations calls seriously into question its suitability and effectiveness as a body charged with the duty [to ensure] all staff members observe and perform their functions consistent with the highest standards of integrity required by the Charter of the United Nations.”

Yet even in winning, I lost my U.N. career and pension from nearly 30 years of service. Though this decision is on appeal, it sent a terrible message to anyone in the U.N. system thinking of coming forward to report wrongdoing, just as it warmed the hearts of retaliators everywhere.  None of those who retaliated against me suffered any negative consequences. 

I applaud Congress for this new law. It puts the U.N. and all its agencies on notice that they risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in American funding if they continue to fail whistle-blowers. That should help induce the U.N.’s leadership to cease to tolerate, even encourage retaliation against them as it does now. 

And it should pay off for them in very practical ways. A 2007 survey of 5,400 companies worldwide by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that whistle-blowers detect more fraud than corporate security, audits, rotation of personnel, fraud risk management and law enforcement combined.

The U.S. pays the largest share of the U.N.’s budget, and it is in our interest not to waste taxpayer money. I continue to receive reports of fraud, waste or abuse from individuals within the U.N. system. This law contains a powerful instrument to help change that.  I ask Secretary Kerry to use it to excellent and long-lasting effect, to support whistle-blowers within each and every U.N. agency to root out wrongdoing, and to encourage other major U.N. donors to demand the same.

James Wasserstrom worked in a variety of U.N. assignments in New York and worldwide as an official of the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Capital Development Fund and the U.N.’s Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.  Since 2010 he has served as the U.S. government’s senior adviser on anticorruption at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.