The United Nations is notorious for not protecting whistleblowers, despite a 2005 whistleblower protection policy, and rarely, if ever, takes disciplinary action against corrupt individuals.
When James Wasserstrom, a top anti-corruption officer at the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, revealed a scheme that involved paying kickbacks worth $500 million to Kosovo officials and senior members of the UN mission, his passport was confiscated, his car and apartment searched, and his photograph placed at the entrances of the mission’s offices to deny him access to the premises.
Years after his arrest and dismissal, the UN’s Dispute Tribunal — the court of first instance of the two-tier internal justice system through which UN employees contest their administrative rights — found that Wasserstrom had suffered humiliating and degrading treatment at the hands of his employer.
Although the whistleblower won his case before the tribunal, the relief ordered did not eliminate the effects of retaliation — the tribunal awarded him $65,000 in compensation, which is less that 2 per cent of the estimated losses, damages, and costs he had incurred since he started his legal battle with the UN.
What is worse, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not only appealed the decision, but failed to take any disciplinary action against Wasserstrom’s retaliators.
Fortunately, Wasserstrom’s struggle for justice was not completely in vain. In January this year, President Barack Obama signed into law a Bill, the first of its kind, that forces the US State Department to withdraw 15 per cent of US funding from any UN agency that fails to adhere to best practices for whistleblowers.
This is good news because the UN is notorious for not protecting whistleblowers, despite a 2005 whistleblower protection policy, and rarely, if ever, takes disciplinary action against corrupt individuals.
The Washingtion-based Government Accountability Project, which lobbied for this Bill to be passed, found that the UN Ethics Office, which is responsible for receiving appeals for protection from UN whistleblowers, failed to protect more than 98 per cent of those who approached it for help between 2007 and 2010. Furthermore, under UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s whistleblower protection policy has been regularly undermined or ignored.
In 2009, Ban Ki-moon disbanded the UN Procurement Task Force that was set up by his predecessor, Kofi Annan, to investigate financial irregularities within the organisation.
The task force had revealed astounding levels of corruption and theft within the organisation. It found, for instance, that one million dollars were being siphoned from a safe in Kabul every day and that nearly half of $350,000 intended for a UN-funded radio station in Baghdad was used to pay off personal loans and credit cards.
In Somalia, UN agencies routinely look the other way when local implementing partners or cartels divert or steal food and other aid. Those who dare speak out against such irregularities are castigated, ignored, demoted, or fired.
One UN police officer stationed in Haiti who exposed sexual exploitation by her fellow police officers of women living in a camp for earthquake victims was transferred, given a negative performance evaluation, threatened, and terminated without notice. In 2000, Kathryn Bolkovac, a former UN peacekeeper, was fired for exposing a human trafficking ring in Bosnia.
When Georges Tadonki, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Zimbabwe, raised the alarm about a possible cholera epidemic in 2008, he was admonished, subjected to an investigation, and informed that his contract would not be renewed.
Apparently his organisation was under pressure by the Zimbabwean government to downplay the cholera risk. The UN Dispute Tribunal ruled in favour of Tadonki and even ordered a formal investigation into the matter. However, the UN Secretary-General appealed the decision.
Early this month, Wasserstrom and eight other UN whistleblowers, including myself, sent a joint letter to Ban Ki-moon demanding that he establish an external independent mechanism and external arbitration process for claims of retaliation against UN whistleblowers.
We further requested that the UN extend whistleblower protection to UN peacekeepers, police officers, contractors, victims, and any other person who provides information about misconduct that could undermine the UN’s mission. We have yet to receive a response from his office.
* Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and photojournalist. She writes a weekly column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper, and is the author of four non-fiction books: Triple Heritage(1998); Red Soil and Roasted Maize (2011); Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2014). She has also edited an anthology called Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits (2008) that critiques the aid industry in East Africa. Ms. Warah worked as an editor and writer for the United Nations for more than ten years.
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