Global pressure mounting on next UN Secretary General to heed and protect UN whistleblowers

WIN members join groups from around the world to get answers from the next head of the world’s most powerful international body. Protecting whistleblowers saves lives.

[30 September 2016]  For the first time in the history of the United Nations, candidates for the post of Secretary General have been asked for their views on whistleblower protection.  This is the first opportunity for the candidates to say what they think and their answers will matter in determining whether the United Nations as an organisation is able to respond effectively to new challenges to its mandate and purpose.

Implementing effective whistleblowing arrangements is obviously about good governance but it must be acknowledged that the UN is not like any other institution or body in the world.  When UN staff report concerns they come across in the course of their work, the impact of what they are reporting often affects the most vulnerable people and communities in the world.  How the UN handles whistleblowing within its own systems is felt way beyond the organisation itself.

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Anders Kompass, a 30-year veteran in human rights work and a senior official at the UN was based at the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva when he received a report in 2014 which detailed the sexual victimization of young boys by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic.  As Mr. Kompass puts it in the simple and eloquent explanation (17 June, 2016) he was finally able to provide after he resigned from UN, “an eight-year-old boy describing in detail his sexual abuse by the peacekeepers meant to protect him is the kind of account I wish I’d never had to read.”

As any lawyer will testify, reporting a crime to law enforcement authorities is never a crime even if mistaken, nor can information about abuse of children be kept “confidential.”  Suspected abuse of children must be reported immediately.  Anders Kompass did exactly the right thing and following UN protocols he sent the report to the French authorities via the French Mission in Geneva so that law enforcement could investigate.  Instead of thanking him and taking responsibility for following up to ensure action was taken to protect the children, eight months after the French authorities received the information, the High Commissioner of Human Rights, under whom Anders Kompass worked, demanded his resignation.  For nine months, Mr. Kompass was investigated by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) for “leaking” a “confidential” report and during that time Mr Kompass was pilloried in the press by UN senior officials with no public right of reply.

While Mr. Kompass was eventually vindicated by an independent panel that was convened by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon only after mounting public pressure, the report remains under lock and key, and Anders Kompass, who suffered in silence, decided returned to Sweden.  Yet all that really mattered was protecting the children, stopping any further abuse, and punishing the perpetrators.  The UN has lost a valuable and experienced human rights official who wonders, along with many of his colleagues, where the principled leadership that should exist at the top of the organisation has gone and whether it can exist again.

GAP’s International Program Director, Bea Edwards, who has represented many UN whistleblowers describes how the UN’s internal adjudication system is broken and why this is so damaging to UN staff, to responsible whistleblowing and, most importantly, to the very mission of the UN to protect the most vulnerable people on the planet. The immediate loophole is obvious.  Without any serious external pressure from member States or an individual right to appeal outside the system, the forces that trigger a defensive response, namely to avoid institutional embarrassment and/or appease powerful players within the system, are trumping the public interest.  It is true throughout the world that where “judges” are not truly independent or not strong enough to assert their independence, the threat to their own well-being in challenging institutional masters exerts an often overwhelming influence.  And we all lose as a result.

While the staff at the UN Ethics Office and the other UN offices that handle whistleblowers and their disclosures may not be under any physical threat, difficult cases clearly cause great institutional discomfort.  It can seem easier to avoid the real issue at stake and indeed fail to arrive at any decision at all, rather than risk the wrath or criticism that is inevitable when serious problems are revealed and are actually addressed. Shamefully and all too often, the focus is on discrediting the messenger and attempting to protect the reputation of the organization rather than dealing with the message.

However, failure to address the substantive issues and attacking one’s own staff is  much more damaging in the long run and this is very much the case for the UN whose credibility is now being questioned as much by its loyal supporters as it by its usual detractors.

The culture of fear that Anders Kompass describes at the UN is unacceptable and the idea that sacrificing one’s job and personal well-being is the probable outcome of doing the right thing is plain wrong.  Just think about it.  UN staff face some of the world’s most brutal and brutalising situations and one can imagine that their fear threshold is higher than that of the average worker.  What Anders Kompass says,  and confirmed Aicha El Basri, James Wasserstrom, Miranda Brown and so many whistleblowers around the world is that what really stops individuals from reporting wrongdoing or risk of harm is the “fear” that nothing will be done.

The world needs the United Nations and the United Nations needs public support. The next Secretary General has the opportunity to change direction and begin to rebuild trust, starting with those who work for it.  The next Secretary General of the United Nations must make his or expectations clear; that when risk or wrongdoing is reported, the disclosure will be handled sensitively and professionally, that the investigations will be robust and that effective action will be taken to address the problem.  The way to do this is by delivering effective protection to whistleblowers and handling their disclosures well.  It is important that experienced people like Anders Kompass continue to work for the United Nations in the knowledge that they can do their jobs properly and that when they report wrongdoing, it is the substance of their disclosures that will matter the most.

It is time for the Secretary General of the United Nations to stand with the whistleblowers who speak up for UN.

See Call on Candidates for Secretary General of the United Nations Answer Questions on Whistleblowing in the Wake of Systemic Abuses, Governmental Accountability Project

**GAP is a co-founder of WIN

WIN members who joined GAP to call on the candidates to state their position on whistleblower protection include: Public Concern at Work (UK); Open Democracy Advice Center (South Africa); Whistleblowers Netzwerk (Germany); Pistaljka (Serbia); Transparency International (Ireland);  Stefan Batory Foundation  (Poland); Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (India)