UNITED NATIONS – A new draft United Nations (search) whistleblower policy requires U.N. staff to report any rule violations and explicitly protects them from retaliation, according to a copy obtained Tuesday.
The draft, quietly circulated among staff on Monday, seeks to address a central complaint from U.N. employees: That people who come forward with reports of wrongdoing are routinely punished for doing so because current safeguards are either confusing or not enforced.
"It is the duty of international civil servants to report any breach of the organization's rules and regulations to the officials whose responsibility it is to take appropriate action," the policy said.
U.N. officials said the document was likely to change, but it came under strong criticism nonetheless from a whistleblower protection group, the Washington-based Government Accountability Project (search).
Melanie Beth Oliverio, director of the group's international programs, said one central flaw was that the four-page draft never clearly defines what it means to be a whistleblower. That could leave it to the discretion of managers to determine who gets whistleblower status, a problem in the past for the U.N.
"Right off the bat, what's missing is a definition," Oliverio said. "You've got to define what whistleblowing is and give parameters to protected speech and protected disclosures. And that's been the biggest flaw all along."
The document, which spells out the avenues whistleblowers could take to report wrongdoing, came after a survey last year found employees believed they were routinely retaliated against for reporting malfeasance.
In September, a U.N.-backed investigation of massive corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program noted that staff may have been reluctant to come forward because of inadequate whistleblower protections, and urged the United Nations to implement a sound and meaningful policy.
The draft policy was put together after months of consultation between several U.N. agencies and an expert from the anti-corruption group Transparency International, based in Berlin. U.N. staff had also commented on an earlier draft.
The U.N. staff union refused to comment on the latest draft because the document was still under review.
A senior U.N. official said it was still open to change, stressing that the U.N. wants a policy that the staff feels comfortable with. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the document has not been publicly unveiled. A press briefing was planned Wednesday.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) made the policy a top priority among his reform proposals in March and an early draft was circulated among staff in May. U.N. officials said they want a new policy have the staff's blessing, and such a process takes time.
The United Nations had a whistleblower policy in the past, but it was rarely enforced. The U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (search), which investigates whistleblower practices, overhauled the policy in April and dropped the word "whistleblower" because it had never been given enforcement powers.
"When you use the word whistleblower it conjures up for most people around here the idea that there's a panoply of protections against retaliation that are available," Barbara Dixon, chief of investigations at OIOS, said in a recent interview. "We don't have any of those powers."
The latest draft policy leaves one big question mark.
Whistleblower complaints would be handled by an Ethics Office, whose creation was mandated at a summit of world leaders in September. But it has yet to be established.
In the meantime, its duties will be handled by the U.N. Office of Resources Management.
Oliverio said that was worrisome because human resources departments are not independent, and are often the means by which managers can retaliate against staff.