UN Issues Strengthened but Insufficient Whistleblower Protection Policy

Washington, 24 January 2017.

This post was originally published on the Government Accountability Project website.

New Policy Fails to Meet Standards Required for Full US Contribution

On January 23, 2017, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres signed a strengthened whistleblower protection policy for staff members of the UN Secretariat. The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is encouraged by Mr. Guterres’ expressed commitment to protecting whistleblowers and recognizes the significance of the new measure, adopted before the Secretary General has completed his first month in office.

The policy issued yesterday:

  • Opens access for whistleblowers to adjudication by the formal internal justice system when they appeal for remedies for retaliation.
  • Broadens protection for whistleblowing to include those who disclose wrongdoing by anyone that, if established, would be harmful to the United Nations.

In strengthening the policy, the new UN administration has taken steps to bring the multilateral organization into compliance with US law governing the disbursement of the annual US contribution. Section 7048 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act for the current year, however, requires that the UN allow whistleblowers – who are appealing for relief from reprisal – access to external arbitration, which the new policy does not provide. Given this remaining deficit in the new policy, the US Congress, by law, must withhold a portion of the annual US contribution.

Moreover, a number of the provisions indicate recognition of the injustices visited upon UN whistleblowers who made recent disclosures and are still experiencing retaliation. Yet there is no mention of measures to be taken to provide them with relief from ongoing retaliation.

Background of the New Policy

Secretary General Kofi Annan adopted the first whistleblower protection policy at the United Nations in 2005, in the wake of the Oil-for-Food scandal, as it became clear that staff members who tried to expose or address the misconduct associated with the corrupted program had been silenced. That anti-retaliation policy did not prosper, as successive rulings by the UN Administrative Tribunals weakened it. Ultimately, in 2014, the UN Appeals Tribunal ruled that – in effect – the formal justice system had no authority to enforce protections for whistleblowers or to address retaliation against them, when the established internal channels failed them.

Through explicit provisions that require decisions at discrete steps in the investigative process, the new policy closes a gaping loophole, so that whistleblowers can take steps to insure that, if or when they are exposed to retaliation, they can appeal to the formal internal justice system for redress.

Over the course of the past two years, the UN has been embarrassed by repeated scandals, reported by whistleblowers whose careers were damaged by the reprisal visited on them under the previous Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. Among these episodes was the sexual exploitation of destitute boys in the Central African Republic. The boys were forced into trading sex for food with peacekeeping troops at a camp for those displaced by war. True to form, Ban Ki-Moon pronounced himself angered and ashamed by what had happened but did nothing to protect the staff member who reported the abuse to authorities.

On the contrary, he appointed the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whom evidence showed had helped to orchestrate the retaliation, to head the committee assigned to correct the situation.

Nor did the US Secretary of State take steps to protect the whistleblower who reported the abuses to the United States government and, specifically, to the US Congress.

The incidents in the CAR were so poorly handled that an independent review had to be convened to address the internal bungling by the established oversight offices and by the High Commissioner. And even after the review exonerated the whistleblower and excoriated those who organized a campaign of retaliation, the internal investigation of him continued.

GAP’s International Policy Analyst Bea Edwards stated:

“This new policy helps to close the gaps in protection that left UN whistleblowers exposed to reprisal, but it does not make changes sufficient to ensure that the US Secretary of State can request the Congress for full disbursement of the US contribution.”

“In addition, the real test of a policy is its enforcement. The previous Secretary General used every bureaucratic maneuver available to avoid protecting whistleblowers, regardless of the provisions in the former policy. The new Secretary General could demonstrate a departure from that posture by protecting whistleblowers still experiencing retaliation after they made validated disclosures.”

The new Secretary General apparently continues to explore the need for additional measures to protect employees of UN contractors and consultants, as well as to consider the reporting line for the Ethics Office. The examination of additional measures should also include relief for whistleblowers who are currently exposed to retaliation or who continue to suffer from its effects. Further, it should include an external inquiry into the application of the former policy, especially the role of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, which was instrumental in subjecting whistleblowers to retaliation, yet remains responsible for investigating whistleblower disclosures and appeals for relief from retaliation.