UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations (search) has refused to renew the contract of a doctor who co-authored a book critical of the U.N., and his lawyers have accused the world body of breaking a promise to protect whistleblowers.
In a seven-page letter to Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search), lawyers for Dr. Andrew Thomson said his termination is a test case that will demonstrate whether the United Nations will allow its staff to speak out about abuses of power.
Canadian lawyer Andre Sirois (search), a former U.N. whistleblower who is representing Thomson, said he has told five or six U.N. staffers with information about the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq, which is being investigated, not to say or do anything because they could lose their jobs, like Thomson did.
"In one instance it was something big, very interesting, that would make front pages," he told a news conference on Wednesday. "I've told them we are not able to protect them. ... People at the U.N. have no free speech. ... The message for many staff members is beware ... do not say anything to the investigators."
After a dozen years of contract renewals and good performance evaluations, Thomson said he was informed on Nov. 23 that his contract wasn't going to be renewed after Dec. 31.
Thomson, a New Zealander, co-authored a best seller called "Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth" with two other U.N. staffers he met in Cambodia in 1993, when the United Nations was organizing elections. The other co-authors were human rights lawyer Kenneth Cain, who retired from the world body, and secretary Heidi Postelwait, who still works in the U.N. peacekeeping department.
The book, published this year by Miramax and soon to be a television miniseries, chronicles their stints in seven peacekeeping missions from Haiti and Somalia to Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia. It tells of wild parties with alcohol, drugs and sex, and recounts their loss of idealism about the United Nations.
Thomson, who spent two years digging up mass graves in Rwanda and in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica — after mass killings in a zone supposedly protected by U.N. peacekeepers — wrote that if U.N. troops arrive offering protection, people should flee or find weapons.
Thomson's lawyers said they found at least 22 instances in the book "of illegality, abuse of (U.N.) authority, gross mismanagement or substantial and specific threats to public health or safety, each of which would trigger free speech rights under the U.S. Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989."
Tom Devine, legal director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, a leading group in the campaign for U.S. whistleblower laws, urged Annan to live up to the commitment he made in June to whistleblower protection. That commitment followed a survey of U.N. staff that found by a 4-1 majority that U.N. employees were afraid to challenge corruption. Some 65 percent said they were witness to it.
"It would be very unfortunate if the first visible test of his sincerity is to terminate Dr. Thomson," Devine said. "The United Nations cannot build a credible whistleblower policy on Dr. Thomson's professional grave."
But U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said the authors violated a U.N. staff rule that bars outside publication without permission of the secretary-general. There is also the additional problem of their earning money from the enterprise, which is also barred without permission from Annan, he said.
As for the authors' contention that they are whistleblowers, Eckhard said major reports authorized by the United Nations on Rwanda, Srebrenica and U.N. peacekeeping were published before the book.
"So all these whistles have been blown a long time ago," Eckhard said.
While Thomson and Postelwait were reprimanded, the United Nations didn't feel their violations were "the basis for dismissal," he said. Postelwait's contract was extended after the controversy "and I would hold that up as evidence that we are not targeting these people," Eckhard said.
But Thomson contends his termination is linked to the book.
"The U.N. said that the book is not in the interest of the organization, and now they're throwing out one of the co-authors," he said. "It makes a terrible mockery of everything Mr. Annan has said for the last decade on Rwanda and Srebrenica. The message I think they're trying to send is that bearing witness to genocide in today's U.N. can cost you your job."
The U.N. Joint Appeals Board met Wednesday to consider Thomson's request to stop his termination until the dispute is resolved. The board informally proposed a two-month reprieve, which Thomson accepted but the U.N. Department of Human Resources rejected, the lawyers said.
Because the three-member board was dissolved on Wednesday, Devine said unless a new three-member panel can meet next week Thomson could be terminated before he gets a legal ruling.