by: Alison Glick
The protection of whistleblowers and journalists’ sources took center stage at the United Nations on October 22nd, with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, delivering his report on the promotion and protection of these rights. Kaye, speaking before the UN’s Third Committee, which oversees social, humanitarian, and cultural affairs, emphasized the crucial role played by whistleblowers in protecting the public interest. “Freedom of information cannot exist only in specific documents…but must be real where it counts” — namely in legislatures, political institutions, independent judiciaries and among law enforcement officers.
Prior to his presentation, Kaye spoke at a press conference in which the first question asked focused on UN whistleblower Anders Kompass, a senior official in the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights who reported the alleged sexual abuse of children by French troops in the Central African Republic through diplomatic channels. While declining to comment on this or any specific case, Kaye noted that there is an issue with transparency at the UN when it comes to protecting whistleblowers and dealing with those who retaliate against them.
Article 19, the civil society organization that promotes freedom of expression and fights media censorship, organized a related side event before the Third Committee report. The panel featured WIN’s first director and current executive director of the Government Accountability Project, Anna Myers, UN whistleblower Aicha Elbasri, and representatives from other international organizations focused on free expression and protecting journalism sources. Myers brought together the various themes of the other panelists, noting the importance of whistleblowers to a free press and the inadequate legal protections that has led to the increasing criminalization of whistleblowing. In her comments, Elbasri noted the deeply dysfunctional UN system and processes that are meant to facilitate whistleblowing. Based on her experience as the former spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur who exposed the cover-up by mission officials of ongoing atrocities, she noted how the system of UN immunity leads to impunity for those responsible for wrongdoing. She called for external arbitration for whistleblower cases and the end to UN staff immunity for misdeeds. “The UN must lead by example,” she observed.
Elbasri and Myers were also featured in Vice News coverage of the report, commenting on the need for better internal whistleblowing systems to avoid the high price that whistleblowers often pay for making their disclosures. Complementing the Kaye report was a video produced by Human Rights Watch that highlighted the importance of the Special Rapporteur’s work by featuring whistleblowers Kathryn Bolkovac and Edward Snowden. Bolkovac, who blew the whistle on sex trafficking in Bosnia by police officers she was sent by the UN to train, talks about how she went to the press only after her internal disclosures produced no remedy. Snowden, the NSA surveillance whistleblower, noted that while whistleblowers need to become “comfortable with the idea of becoming a martyr,” depending on individuals to do so is not a long-term strategy for a society that wants public accountability.