U.N. Chief Takes Steps to Ensure Funds, Programs Follow Ethics Standards

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon authorized new steps starting Jan. 1 to ensure that U.N. funds and agencies that operate independently adhere to the same U.N. ethics standards that apply to U.N. staff directly under his authority.

Robert Benson, head of the U.N. Ethics Office, outlined the secretary-general's new policy directive at a press conference on Monday, which states that the U.N. system must "cultivate and nurture a culture of ethics, integrity and accountability.''

The issue was put in the spotlight when Benson said this summer there was enough initial evidence to support an investigation into claims by a former U.N. employee that he lost his job in retaliation for concerns he raised about the U.N. Development Program's work in North Korea. But UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis rebuffed Benson, saying on Aug. 17 that the U.N. Ethics Office had no jurisdiction.

Asked whether the new policy would be applicable to cases before 2008, Benson said, "retroactivity will have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.''

Benson said the chief executives of the funds and agencies discussed the idea of a uniform U.N. policy at a meeting in late October.

Under Ban's directive, a new United Nations Ethics Committee chaired by Benson will establish a unified set of ethical standards and policies. The funds and agencies can designate an ethics officer to serve on the committee — and Benson said UNDP, the U.N. Children's Fund, the World Food Program and the U.N. Population Fund have named such officers.

The U.N. funds and agencies can also establish their own ethics offices and adopt their own whistleblower policies. These offices will operate independently, but under the directive the head of an agency or fund office can seek the advice or guidance of the head of the U.N. Ethics Office at any time.

Benson said he will provide "functional leadership'' to the ethics officers of the funds and agencies "in order to ensure consistent delivery of ethics-related services.''

If a U.N. fund or agency has not designated an ethics officer by Jan. 1, the U.N. Ethics Office will handle its ethics-related matters, and if it doesn't have a whistleblower protection policy, a staffer may request protection from Benson's office.

In the case of alleged whistleblowers, Benson said, if an agency or fund's ethics office has not provided advice or formally considered a request within 45 days, the staff member can refer the initial matter to him as chair of the Ethics Committee.

A staff member seeking whistleblower protection from an agency or fund also has a right to appeal a final decision to the chair of the Ethics Committee, Benson said.