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Fear discourages most U.N. whistleblowing

An independent review found nearly half of the U.N.'s staff saw misconduct or wrongdoing in the past five years, but most were too afraid to report it.

GENEVA (AN) — An independent review of whistleblowing at the United Nations found that nearly half its global staff witnessed misconduct or wrongdoing at work in the past five years, but most of those who did were too afraid to report it.

The reasons for keeping silent are well known to anyone who has studied why many crimes are not reported to the police: fear of retaliation or losing a job, little confidence anything will be done about it and no assurance of confidentiality.

Whistleblowing and protections against retaliation are essential to accountability and integrity at international organizations. When staff are deterred from reporting misconduct and wrongdoing, an organization increases the risk of corruption and damage to its reputation and operations.

The United Nations, however, validated just three of the 300 cases of whistleblowers who reported retaliation from 2006 to 2011. A new review of U.N. whistleblowing policies and practices by the U.N.'s Joint Inspection Unit, or JIU, showed little improvement since then.

Between 2012 and 2016, the United Nations validated 20 of the 278 cases of whistleblowers who reported retaliation. Only 62 prima facie cases were investigated. In all, 10,413 misconduct and wrongdoing cases were formally reported to 23 U.N. organizations that shared data.

The figures were "concerning" because they represented only a sampling of the entire U.N. system, according to the JIU's review. The real numbers of such incidents each year at all the organizations were likely higher since they included "some, but not all, forms of misconduct," the report said.

As part of its review, the JIU's global staff survey found that 12.8% of staff who claimed to have reported misconduct or wrongdoing or had oversight functions in the past five years experienced retaliation. Among those claiming to suffer retaliation, only 40% reported it.

Figures on U.N. retaliation (AN/Joint Inspection Unit)

Only 56.5% of the survey's respondents said they knew the proper channels or contacts to report allegations of misconduct and wrongdoing, including harassment and retaliation. Nearly a quarter of the cases were, in essence, respectful dissent cases, or at least they began that way.

The findings came from the JIU's little-noticed 110-page report on whistleblowing this year. The relatively unknown JIU, based at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, is the U.N.'s only independent, external oversight body that performs system-wide evaluations, inspections and investigations.

The review, requested by UNESCO in Paris, was carried out from May 2017 to May 2018. It found many U.N. agencies fell short of the best practices for preventing retaliation by reporting, checking out complaints and offering staff protections and support. Overall, compliance was 58.3%.

High levels of underreporting, pervasive fear and widespread lack of confidence were "of great concern, and point to weaknesses and outright failures" throughout the U.N. system, and it is up to the agency directors with their various legislative bodies to address the issues, the report said.

The survey results showed 45% of the respondents said they witnessed or were aware of misconduct and wrongdoing over the past five years. Among those staff who said they personally knew of some misconduct or wrongdoing, more than one-in-two — 53% — did not report it.

In comparison, 32% of private sector employees and 34% of public sector employees have witnessed misconduct on their jobs, and a median of 59% in both sectors reported it, according to an international survey of non-U.N. whistleblowing cited in JIU's report.

"These figures place the United Nations system entities well below the public and private sectors in reporting misconduct/wrongdoing, with small and medium-sized United Nations system organizations being even more challenged," the report said.

Figures on U.N. misconduct reporting (AN/Joint Inspection Unit)

Perils of whistleblowing

Some recent high-profile U.N. cases highlighted the challenges whistleblowers have faced — and how the world body has struggled to hold itself accountable.

"These high-profile cases in United Nations organizations point to policies and practices that appear to have failed to meet the high standards of accountability that these entities espouse," the report's co-authors, JIU inspectors Eileen A. Cronin and Aicha Afifi, said in its introduction.

The issue has been gaining in prominence. British politician Priti Patel, a former U.K. secretary of state for international development, appealed to nations to ensure there were "robust and credible whistleblowing mechanisms" during the annual U.N. General Assembly last year.

"Any agency that receives funds from us must have the strongest possible measures in place to protect vulnerable populations, especially children, and to deter, detect and catch pedophiles and sex offenders," she said in a statement. "This is a defining moral issue for the U.N. and for member states and there can be no more excuses."

In 2002, a British labor tribunal ruled that a former member of the U.N. police force in Bosnia was unfairly fired. She had reported to her superiors that some of her colleagues, working with Balkan traffickers, used women and children as sex slaves. The whistleblower, Kathryn Bolkovac, an American living in the Netherlands, said that she was fired in 2000 for sending e-mails to her employer, DynCorp., and for saying other U.N. police officers were linked to the prostitution rings.

After the U.N. hired the U.S.-based company, which had a regional office in the U.K., to work as a recruitment contractor, Bolkovac was posted to Sarajevo in 1999 to investigate sex trafficking. She filed reports that U.N. officials and international aid workers were involved in the crimes and were soliciting girls as young as 15 at bars where they had to dance naked on tables and perform sexual acts with clients. Her experience was turned into a 2010 crime drama called "The Whistleblower."

Walls of impunity 'further fortified'

The U.N. Secretariat’s first protection against retaliation policy, issued in 2005, came in response to a massive scandal involving its oil-for-food program with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, as well as allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in some peacekeeping operations.

More than 2,200 companies from some 40 countries colluded with Hussein's regime to bilk US$1.8 billion from a U.N.-administered oil-for-food program for Iraqi humanitarian relief.

That policy was revised after a 2012 ruling from the U.N. Dispute Tribunal emphasized that U.N. whistleblowers need better protections against retaliation.  The ruling came in the case of James Wasserstrom, an American who spent 28 years working for the United Nations.

High-level U.N. officials retaliated against Wasserstrom, who was the lead anti-corruption officer in the U.N. peacekeeping mission at Kosovo in 2007. He reported a US$500 million kickback scheme to construct a power plant and coal mine in Kosovo and was falsely charged with misconduct. His home and car were searched. Wanted posters went up outside his office. Kosovo and U.N. officials eventually cleared him of wrongdoing, but he still lost his job.

U.N. officials later called his treatment excessive, but ruled it was not retaliation. The U.N. Dispute Tribunal disagreed and awarded him damages. It ruled he suffered “wholly unacceptable treatment” and “appalling” illegal acts that violated human rights. But in 2014, the U.N. Appeals Tribunal reversed that judgment and award on grounds it can only rule on certain “administrative decisions.”

"With this judgment, the walls of impunity surrounding U.N. officials engaged in corruption have been further fortified," Wasserstrom said in a statement. No one, including the U.N. secretary-general and U.N. Ethics Office, "have demonstrated a credible interest beyond words in protecting the brave individuals who come forward after witnessing wrongdoing," he said.

In 2014, the U.S. Congress responded to longstanding concerns about U.N. whistleblowing by passing legislation that forces the U.S. State Department to withdraw 15% of U.S. funding from any U.N. agency that fails to establish protections for employees who expose corruption. Wasserstrom urged the U.S. State Department and U.S. Congress to consider the Appeals Tribunal ruling as "all the evidence they need" to withhold money from the United Nations.

In another case, a U.N. judge ruled in December 2013 that two investigators for the Investigation Division of the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, an internal watchdog created at the insistence of the United States, suffered retaliation for exposing evidence-tampering by their boss.

The judge said the Investigation Division’s deputy director Michael Dudley “admitted to altering and withholding evidence” and retaliated against two investigators, Florin Postica and Ai Loan Nguyen-Kropp, after they accused Dudley of evidence-tampering and withholding evidence.

The case began with a complaint Dudley took from a U.N. staff member in January 2009 about U.N. physicians using or improperly prescribing controlled narcotics. The investigators found that tampered evidence from the case had been leaked to a U.N.-based blogger, who posted it online.

The investigators concluded the complainant had “malicious intent” and recommended dropping the case. Instead they were formally investigated and their reputations attacked, the ruling said.

The investigators won damages and legal costs, but the ruling did not require punishing Dudley. The U.N. Appeals Tribunal overturned the ruling for technical reasons. Dudley remained on the U.N. payroll in a senior managerial position overseeing U.N. investigations. His wife, Mercedes Gervilla, held a senior U.N. job as head of the Department of Field Support's Conduct and Discipline Unit.

Well-meaning policies fall far short

Some of the perils of the U.N. system were further illustrated by the U.N.'s longest-running case of retaliation against a whistleblower, which began in 2003 and was settled this past June with an acknowledgement of the professional and personal pain it caused for a former U.N. investigator.

A statement from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and the Swiss-based former investigator, Caroline Hunt-Matthes, said they finally reached “a mutually satisfactory settlement” — the details were undisclosed — in the 15-year retaliation case.

“UNHCR accepts that there were matters which in hindsight could have been better managed in relation to the separation,” said the joint statement. “It is a matter of regret that these issues and the lengthy delays have impacted upon Ms. Hunt-Matthes’ employment and personal life.”

Hunt-Matthes won a judgment from the U.N. Dispute Tribunal in 2013 saying she was unfairly punished for documenting a woman’s rape case in Sri Lanka a decade earlier. She told The Associated Press in 2013 the case was “a consummate story of abuse of power” by U.N. oversight.

She was consistently well-regarded in her work, but she still lost her job at UNHCR and suffered other damages due to retaliation after she collected evidence in 2003 that a U.N. administrator in UNHCR’s Sri Lanka office had raped a refugee there.

The administrator was reprimanded and left UNCHR after the rape was reported. A U.N. legal team substantiated that a teenager who cleaned the agency’s offices in Sri Lanka was fired after reporting the rape. After the 2013 tribunal ruling, UNHCR appealed.

Both UNHCR and Hunt-Matthes said they wanted to finally put the case to rest.

“For U.N. whistleblower protection to be effective the U.N. Ethics Office must be truly independent,” Hunt-Matthes said in a separate statement by the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection and advocacy organization that represents staff at international organizations. “Culture change within all U.N. organizations will only move forward when accountability of its senior staff is enforced which it was not in this case.”

GAP called it the “longest-running U.N. whistleblower case” in history.

In 2015, Miranda Brown, a staffer in the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said she was told her contract would not be renewed days after being called to testify in a major investigation of another U.N. agency where she had worked and alleged wrongdoing. When Brown complained, she was told she was being transferred from Geneva to Fiji against her wishes.

Brown had reported suspected wrongdoing at the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, where she was a strategic adviser, before being transferred to the human rights office. She had complained of unlicensed shipments of U.S. computers and firewalls to North Korea and WIPO helping North Korea patent the production of sodium cyanide, which is used in chemical weapons.

Then at OHCHR, she helped expose peacekeepers' sexual abuse of displaced boys in the Central African Republic. In 2016, she testified as a witness before two U.S. congressional committees about her experiences at the two U.N. agencies.

But in 2017, the U.N. Dispute Tribunal dismissed her retaliation claims against WIPO's director general, Francis Gurry, and the U.N.'s then-top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein.

In 2016, another whistleblower resigned from the U.N.'s human rights office at Geneva, two years after leaking information to French officials about a U.N. investigation of accusations that French soldiers sexually abused children in Central African Republic.

Their deployment was independent of the United Nations. But Anders Kompass, as the operations director of the human rights office, was suspended for the leak. The U.N. Dispute Tribunal ordered an end to his suspension and cleared him, saying it harmed his reputation.

The JIU's new review confirmed that in many cases — and despite some well-meaning policies adopted by many agencies — the U.N. system still fell far short on reporting, retaliation and fear.

Checks and balances and reputational damage

The U.N. Ethics Office said it has protected staff, interns, U.N. volunteers and consultants against retaliation for reporting misconduct and for cooperating with authorized audits and investigations in accord with a November 2017 "Secretary General's Bulletin" spelling out the U.N.'s procedures.

But whistleblower advocates said the U.N. Ethics Office has been extremely hostile to whistleblowers, rarely finding in their favor, and the 2017 revision further weakened protections for staff who lodged complaints involving violations of U.N. regulations and conduct standards.

For years, there has been a lack of consensus on how best to prevent retaliation and the JIU report advanced solutions for that problem, according to Beatrice Edwards, a senior international policy analyst at GAP, which provided information and advice on "best practices" for the JIU review.

"The codification of what officially constitutes best practice in anti-retaliation measures for whistleblowers is an enormous step forward," she said in assessing the JIU report. "The lack of consensus on this point has been a controversy we’ve been unable to resolve for nearly five years."

The consensus was important, she said, because it involved how the U.S. State Department certified to U.S. Congress that best practice protections were adopted and implemented in the U.N. system. U.S. officials argued they applied best practice criteria, but the term was vague and hard to define.

"In the wake of this JIU report, however, the State Department no longer can claim that globally-accepted, clearly-defined best-practice criteria do not exist," said Edwards.

"We agree that, in most cases, the policies adopted by U.N. agencies are robust," she said. "There are weaknesses, of course, but no policy is bullet-proof in the hands of a senior manager looking for a retaliation target. We are concerned, however, that the review places more emphasis on what the policies say and less on their implementation."

In most U.N.-affiliated organizations, the heads of ethics or oversight offices, ombudsmen and mediators were not fully independent. Many U.N. agencies lacked an external, independent mechanism f0r appeals when a prima facie retaliation case was not determined, the report said.

Just two organizations — UNHCR and UNRWA, the U.N.'s aid organization in the Gaza Strip — fully met the best practices for facilitating staff to report confidentially and anonymously. Only UNHCR, UNRWA and WIPO had provisions for independently reporting alleged misconduct by high-level officials.

The need for more checks and balances also was reflected in the International Labor Organization's Administrative Tribunal rulings, which favored complainants in 66% of the retaliation-related cases it heard — all involving organizations that lacked an independent appeals mechanism.

Most had a policy requiring the “reverse of the burden of proof” to establish a case of retaliation. This shifted the burden onto the organization to prove that there were normal circumstances. But among some organizations there was "an outright disregard" for that policy, the report said.

For its review, the JIU analyzed information and documentation collected from 28 U.N.-affiliated organizations and interviewed more than 400 people, including 17 individuals who reported misconduct or wrongdoing and retaliation. Some outside experts in whistleblower protections were interviewed.

It also drew on focus groups with the Ethics Network of Multilateral Organizations in Rome and representatives of U.N. missions that belonged to the Geneva Group, a U.N.-affiliated international organization of 17 member-nations. Interviews were done remotely via video, teleconference or in person for staff at 24 U.N. agencies in Amman, Copenhagen, Geneva, London, New York, Paris, Rome and Vienna.

For the sake of comparison with the global staff survey, interviews were conducted with staff from other international organizations including The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, International Committee of the Red Cross, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Figures on U.N. whistleblowing (AN/Joint Inspection Unit)

Good examples needed

Staff from larger organizations tended to report retaliation more than often than those at small and medium-sized organizations.

Those with more secure jobs tended to report things more often. Staff with continuing or permanent positions reported 51.3% of the misconduct they said they witnessed, compared with staff who had fixed-term contracts, 47.4%, and those with temporary posts, 39.3%.

There were only rare instances in which people said they tipped off the news media, member nations or law enforcement, and less than 5% said they ever lodged a report anonymously. But the JIU inspectors advised that outside opinions matter.

"Given the recurrent tendency among the media and civil society organizations to paint all United Nations system organizations with a broad brush whenever a high-profile misconduct case emerges in one organization," they said, "the reputational damage to the entire United Nations system through the imposition of collective guilt is evident."

Improvement will need to come from the example set by leaders, the JIU's review concluded.

"Leaders in United Nations system organizations are expected to set the example and the tone for staff to follow, act on and react to. They are in a unique position to influence all staff in creating and supporting a culture of accountability and integrity by setting the 'tone at the top,' the inspectors said.

Though some U.N. agencies have deterrent policies, the review relied on the global staff survey's self-reported information to assess the effectiveness of the policies — and the report showed that "staff are intimidated by the prospect of retaliation, and that this fear significantly affects the willingness of staff members to report either misconduct or retaliation," GAP's Edwards said.

"Isn’t it likely, then, that all problems and shortcomings reported here are significantly understated, as many staff members report that they fear retaliation for exposing institutional shortcomings to anyone inside the organization?" she asked. "The fact that — in our experience — not a single high-level official has ever been explicitly disciplined for retaliation, despite being named as a retaliator in a persuasive complaint, underlines the significance of this issue."