UN whistleblowing scandal: Finland first country to act against UN corruption risks – freezes all funding pending investigation into whistleblower protection

August 12, 2022
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Finland has reportedly taken the extraordinary step to freeze all funding to the United Nations (UN) following corruption scandals at the international organisation, specifically highlighting the need for a review of whistleblowing mechanisms to ensure the effective protection of those speaking up about misconduct.  

WIN and its partners have repeatedly called for urgent review and reform of the whistleblowing mechanisms at the UN, its programmes, and agencies, and advocated for the UN Secretary-General – António Guterres – to intervene in a long line of cases where whistleblowers have suffered retaliation for reporting wrongdoing, including corruption and human rights abuses.  

Read more: UNOPS scandal: Finland stops all funds for UN Cooperation  

The decision of the Finish Government, which has also pledged to commission its own investigation, comes after it was reportedly revealed by a United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) whistleblower that senior leaders had allegedly misled and mismanaged $60 million of funds relating to Finland’s S3i innovation project.  

The review aims to examine the state of the UN’s internal security system and find out if the UN is following its own protocols. Crucially, the investigation will also examine the transparency and whistleblowing apparatus within the UN and whether staff are able to report disclosures without fear of retaliation.  

Titta Maja, the Director General of Developmental Policy at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said:  

“Everyone needs answers; we must ensure that a security system is in place. If my minister asks me whether it is safe to spend taxpayers’ money on the UN today, my answer is that I honestly do not know. This bears repeating, at the moment we cannot guarantee our taxpaying citizens or the world’s poor that the UN is running properly. When the investigation is complete and we can demonstrate that things are going safely for taxpayers and our beneficiaries, we can start paying out money again.” 

WIN welcomes additional voices echoing the urgent need for a review of UN whistleblowing policies, and speak up culture. We remain deeply concerned by the  continuing trend of UN whistleblowers being singled out for retaliation and facing clear due process violations.  

Read more: Ostracised, sacked and even arrested: the fate of whistleblower at the UN 

A recent BBC documentary examined the plight of many individuals raising alarms of harmful practices at the UN has now been aired in the UK, the US, and Australia. As the general public becomes more aware and more informed about the need for stronger protection of staff at intergovernmental organisations – who often lack access to a formal independent review of decisions made in their cases – we can only hope more member states and funders join the government of Finland in pushing UN leaders to address a culture of fear and perceived impunity.  

Read more: New exposé highlights need for urgent UN whistleblower protection reform 

Concrete recommendations for reform have been made, but seemingly ignored to date. In 2020 WIN member – the Government Accountability Project – wrote to the UN Internal Justice Council setting out key recommendations for policy and procedural reforms of the UN's internal justice system. In 2014 – the UN’s own special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression published a thematic report specifically making recommendations for action at intergovernmental organisations to bring their whistleblowing frameworks in line with standards for effective legal protection, in line with those for States.  

In the last few years, WIN has undertaken advocacy to support several whistleblowers at UN agencies. In July this year, WIN, Transparency International, and Government Accountability Project condemned the termination of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) whistleblower John O’Brien, who reported corruption in UNDP climate change projects  

Read more: Foreign Policy: Greed and Graft at UN Climate Program  

Last year, WIN  garnered the support of over 40 additional experts and NGOs, for ongoing advocacy in UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHRCH) whistleblower Emma Reilly’s case. Like O’Brien, Reilly was also recently fired following concerns about the UN's decision to hand human rights activists' names to the Chinese Government.  

Read more: Civil society statement on the firing of UN whistleblower Emma Reilly 

In the same year, World Health Organisation whistleblower, Dr. Francesco Zambon suffered a depressingly similar journey following raising concerns about a conflict of interest at the World Health Organization that appeared to block an important report into Italy’s pre-COVID19 pandemic preparedness. The list goes on. 

Read more: Open letter to #WHA74: Support COVID19 whistleblower Dr. Zambon   

Finland’s stance on this issue is timely. Reports state that the investigation will be carried out this summer. Until then, all Finnish funding to the UNFPA, UN Women, UNICEF, UNDP, and UNEP has been put on hold, the total amount coming to approximately €70 million.  

Updated on 31 August 2022: Titta Maja's job title has been corrected from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Director General of Developmental Policy at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.