New exposé highlights need for urgent UN whistleblower protection reform

27 June 2022

By WIN Staff

On 21 June 2022, a hard-hitting documentary looking at the experiences of whistleblowers inside the United Nations (UN) was aired in the UK.

The film, produced by the BBC, has been described as 'shocking' by TV critics; yet for organisations like WIN, stories of those trying to survive the obfuscation, retaliation and possible cover ups that can happen in organsaitons like the UN, are sadly all-too familiar. 

Read more: The Whistleblowers: Inside the UN - a horrific tale of misogyny, rape and 10,000 deaths 

For many years, WIN and its civil society members, in particular the Government Accountability Project based in Washington DC, have advocated for reform of the UN internal justice system - to strengthen whistleblower protection and anti-retaliation provisions for UN staff, which are clearly not working. 
The documentary features Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) whistleblower Ms. Emma Reilly as well as UN Development Programme (UNDP) whistleblower Mr. John O’Brien who helped to bring multi-million dollar mismanagement and corruption in a UNDP project in Russia to the attention of management and the project’s funders the Global Environment Facility (GEF), as well as other high profile whistleblowers who have continued to speak out about their cases, and concerns for a lack of accountability at the intergovernmental organisation.  

Read more: Foriegn policy investigation - greed and graft at U.N. climate program
Whistleblower protection experts have repeatedly raised the alarm about the treatment of Reilly and O’Brien - as well as other whistleblowers at UN agencies - such as Dr. Francesco Zambon who blew the whistle on a conflict of interest at the World Health Organization that appeared to block an important report into Italy’s pre-COVID19 pandemic preparedness.
Read more: Open letter to #WHA74: Support COVID19 whistleblower Dr. Zambon 
Over 40 NGOs and human rights activists joined WIN to condemn the UN’s handling of Ms. Reilly’s case and the lack of independent investigation into her concerns about a potentially extremely harmful OHCHR practice of handing names of Uighur and human rights dissidents to the Chinese government. As both the documentary and the civil society statement highlights, far from being a rare case, Reilly is one of a long line of internal whistleblowers who have suffered for trying to do their jobs and uphold the human rights mandate of the UN. 

Read more: Emma Reilly’s whistleblowing case - emblematic of a damaging stalemate at the UN

Reilly has actively and powerfully advocated to raise awareness of her concerns and the treatment she has endured. Yet despite strong voices joining her fight against ongoing retaliation, she was eventually dismissed on the 9 November 2021.
In March this year, the UN Dispute Tribunal Judge removed from Reilly's case before he could hand down his judgement, spoke out in the media. Condemning the UN's action to dismiss him as akin to a “coup d’etat” he added that it “was, in fact, an attack upon the independence of the judiciary because… no nation-state would be able to acceptably do that.”

Read more: Australian Judge accuses UN of ‘coup d’etat’ after dismissal from case involving Chinese dissidents

In an joint open letter from Transparency International, Government Accountability Project and WIN to the UNDP regarding O’Brien, and another climate change whistleblower, Mr. Dmitry Eshov, we reiterated the problematic provisions and key weaknesses of UN whistleblower protection mechanisms, including the lack of a full and properly applied reversal of the burden of proof in cases where staff complain of retaliation for speaking up. Such a provision is a basic minimum legal best practice without which, we argued, it is nearly impossible for UN staff to prove retaliation. We added:

“Effective reforms to the system should be based on lessons learned from implementation. The recommendations on the whistleblowers’ cases cannot be de-coupled from those relating to policy reforms. A proper independent review of these two whistleblower cases will ensure that justice is done and help inform improvements to the system going forward.”
The UN’s mission is to protect and defend human rights around the world. As the review of the documentary in the Guardian states: “...the nature of its work ought to make the UN a safer institution to work in or deal with than, say, a multinational corporation, but its supposed inherent goodness gives bad apples natural impunity.” 

UN whistleblowers are best placed to alert the organisation to violations of those rights; yet repeated and sustained calls for robust strengthening of whistleblower protections have not been heeded.
In May 2020, the Government Accountability Project provided detailed gap analysis of the UN whistleblower protection mechanisms and 48 proposals for structural reform - drawing on its experience of representing UN and other intergovernmental whistleblowers - to help inform the UN Internal Justice Council's recommendations to the General Assembly. Yet to date, there has been no public commitment of the UN leadership to undertake credible reform.

NGOs are not the only voices calling for reform. In 2015, David Kaye, then UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, recognised that UN whistleblowing mechanisms lack real independence and made specific recommendations to reform, particularly given the lack of access to ‘any other formal justice systems.’ Former Secretary General of Amnesty International - Ms. Irene Khan - took over from Kaye in June 2020. Khan is yet to comment on the issue of whistleblower protection at the UN. 

Read more: UN thematic report on protection of sources and whistleblowers 
Despite repeated calls for urgent reform, the UN continues to maintain its position that the system is working. The need for UN whistleblowers to ensure the public has the information it needs to work together globally to protect human rights, survive pandemics like COVID19, and address existential climate change, is more important than ever. We can only hope increased awareness from BBC documentary coverage finally leads to necessary and overdue change.
WIN remains committed to support a serious reform of the UN internal justice system to strengthen whistleblower protection and urges UN Secretary General António Guterres to act now.