UN whistleblowers (still) exposed to retaliation

In December, 2005, reform was in the air at the stolid United Nations. Kofi Annan, then Secretary General, established whistleblower protections for everyone who worked there, together with a new Ethics Office to receive the disclosures of wrongdoing from employees and appeals for relief from reprisal.

That was the high point for U.N. employees who spotted corruption and wrongdoing at an organization that claims a moral mandate from the world, but allows no government anywhere to investigate or monitor its behavior except in the most general sense.


It’s been drastically downhill ever since. The U.N. wishes transparency and accountability on every other important institution in the world -- but here is what the U.N. does, as opposed to what it says:

As early as 2007, when an employee of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in North Korea revealed that the operation in Pyongyang was a sorry mess of illegal procedures and forbidden hard currency transfers to the regime, his superiors left him jobless.

When the new U.N. Ethics Officer recommended an investigation, UNDP’s then-Executive Director, Kemal Dervis, suddenly decreed that Annan’s whistleblower bulletin did not apply to his organization.

Current Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon essentially agreed. He allowed UNDP to exempt itself from the rulings of the Ethics Office and  tacitly encouraged other U.N. agencies to do the same.

The U.N. Ethics Office has devolved into a hodgepodge of fiefdoms, many of them lacking the autonomy needed to be effective and impartial. The policy became an assortment of gerrymandered proclamations.

Since then, the Ethics Office has become even more of an embarrassment.   At the Government Accountability Project (GAP) in Washington, where we work to protect U.N. whistleblowers, we found that from 2006 to 2011, the Office received 297 appeals from U.N. employees for protection from reprisal and referred eight cases for investigation.

Only one case of retaliation during that period was validated, and to date, that whistleblower has not received adequate protection.

Until recently, U.N. whistleblowers had another avenue for justice when the Ethics process failed: they could appeal to the U.N.’s  internal tribunals for relief.  In early September, however, that changed too, when the U.N. Appeals Tribunal delivered a tortured ruling in the case of an American whistleblower named  James Wasserstrom, who had exposed a huge scandal.

In 2007, Wasserstrom uncovered a $500 million kickback scheme in Kosovo between national government officials and U.N. officers. He reported it to the Ethics Office and participated in an investigation.  When his role in  the Kosovo investigation was discovered, he was arrested, his apartment was searched, his car seized, and he was banned from U.N. premises.  He appealed to the U.N. Ethics Office for relief and protection, and it referred his allegations for investigation.

That’s where justice ran aground. The investigators said they found no retaliation.  The danger and devastation visited upon Wasserstrom were the random actions of rogue actors, they reported.

The conclusion was ludicrous: the “rogue actors” highly coordinated their ostensibly random acts. Wasserstrom and his attorney found phone records that revealed multiple contacts between the “rogue actors “and the Kosovo police searching Wasserstrom’s apartment.  Nonetheless, the Ethics Office closed the case.

Wasserstrom went to the U.N. Dispute Tribunal, where he initially  won his case--but Ban Ki-moon’s office, no less, appealed.  Three weeks ago, the Appeals Tribunal (UNAT) invalidated a lower tribunal’s finding in Wasserstrom’s case and ruled that the U.N. justice system could not review Ethics Office operations without compromising the Office’s independence.

For good measure, the UNAT found that Wasserstrom’s case was also ineligible for Tribunal review because he had neglected to follow a procedure that did not exist at the time he filed.

The ruling was preposterous, but under U.N. rules the decision of the Appeals Tribunal is final and binding. In short, whistleblower protections at the U.N .are now officially inoperative.

One victim of the process likened the policy to wax fruit: “It looks good,” he said, “but you can’t eat it.”

Only the U.S. is ever likely to fix this broken process, and Congress is trying. To ensure real protection for whistleblowers, the Congress enacted legislation that obliges the Secretary of State to vouch for the effectiveness of each U.N. body’s whistleblower protection policy, or 15 percent of the U.S .contribution to that agency is supposed to be withheld.

Yet Secretary of State John Kerry has certified that everything is fine, despite the U.N.’s miserable record over nearly  a decade. Moreover, the position in the U.S. mission to the U.N. dedicated to management and reform, which could pressure the organization to do better, has gone unfilled for nearly a year.

If the U.S. is serious about protecting  from career-wrecking retaliation those who report waste, fraud and abuse at the United Nations, and also about protecting billions of U.S. tax dollars sent to the organization, Congress needs to look carefully at the evidence behind John Kerry’s  certifications.  And a real reformer should be nominated to fill the US/U.N. management reform post.

We need the light that honest whistleblowers can shed on the U.N. more than ever. And at the moment, the lights have gone out.