Independent Reviews Confirm: UNOPS Must Reform Whistleblowing System

November 29, 2022
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As important and vital as the United Nations is for protecting vulnerable communities around the world, the UN system is not working to protect its own staff who speak up about wrongdoing. The pattern is further confirmed by the damning reports out of the UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services).

Today, the Whistleblowing International Network, Transparency International, and Government Accountability Project demand better protection for whistleblowers, which can only happen if there is a serious commitment to fundamentally changing the way whistleblowers reports are handled at the UNOPS and throughout the UN structures, including the internal justice system.

29 November 2022

Last month, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) released two alarming reports by independent reviewers detailing abuses within the agency. These reviews found systemic issues, including ineffective internal whistleblowing mechanisms.

The revelations began with a March blog by former UN senior staffer Mukesh Kapila, which was then corroborated by independent media. They revealed that UNOPS made questionable investments via its Sustainable Infrastructure Impact Investments (S3i) initiative, putting over US$60 million at risk, and potentially losing $20 million. These findings triggered an internal investigation, and the chief executive of the S3i initiative was immediately put on administrative leave. One month later, the executive director of UNOPS resigned. The UNOPS executive board then recognised the need for a further, external inquiry and employed KMPG to conduct two independent reviews: a review of the effectiveness of the UNOPS oversight mechanisms for S3i and a review of UNOPS internal control systems, risk management and overall governance structure.

At the end of October, KPMG released their preliminary findings – and they are damning. They found that “a combination of deliberate acts, technical, operational, oversight and governance failures, and a culture of fear created an environment that allowed for management override of controls”, adding that “the way of working by top management further indicates an abuse of power” and that “indications of frauds are clearly present in the investment process of S3i”.

The first review also confirmed that a whistleblower had filed a report about S3i and its chief executive at the beginning of 2019, before the most significant questionable investments were made, but to no avail. Responsible UNOPS units opened no investigation at the time, and only looked into the situation after problems started to accumulate. Because of this delay, their investigation was completed two and a half years after the initial whistleblowing report and long after the questionable investments were made.

The second review concluded that “whistle-blowing mechanisms have been non-functional, and whistle-blowers have faced a threat of retaliation” and that “a culture of fear is instilled in the organisation”.

The case of UNOPS is not an isolated one. There are many reports of UN whistleblowers suffering retaliation, and of the abuses of power or malpractice they disclosed not being properly addressed. Government Accountability Project, Transparency International and the Whistleblowing International Network have repeatedly urged the UN to improve whistleblowing protection at its agencies, funds and programmes, pointing out the lack of independence and effectiveness of the existing mechanisms and putting forward a number of recommendations. These include improvements to the whistleblower protection policies as well as structural reforms of the oversight offices responsible for investigating reports of wrongdoing and for the protection of whistleblowers and of the UN justice system.

Government Accountability Project, Transparency International and the Whistleblowing  International Network have offered, and continue to offer, our support to the UN to help address these systemic problems.

Samantha Feinstein, international program director at Government Accountability Project, said: “Unchecked fraud and abuse of power at the UN, and retaliation against the ethical workers who are willing to expose it, pose an existential threat to the UN’s continued existence.”

Marie Terracol, whistleblower protection lead at Transparency International, said: “Until the UN leadership and member states start treating the need for whistleblower protection reforms as a priority, funds will continue to be lost to fraud and corruption instead of supporting those in need.”

Anna Myers, executive director of The Whistleblowing International Network, said: “The UNOPS example illustrates how unchecked fraud at the UN and a default culture of silencing whistleblowers threatens the public interest. The biggest injustice is when the UN promises one million affordable homes in six countries and no houses are built. Those who suffer the most are the intended beneficiaries who are among the most vulnerable people with urgent housing needs.”