Zambon case: Call him a whistleblower

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From today, the 15th November and for the next two days, the Global Evidence-to-Policy (E2P) Summit takes place. The event, organized by the World Health Organization’s ‘Evidence-informed Policy Network,’ is being held to share lessons learnt from the response and policies established during the COVID-19 emergency.

Yet whistleblower Dr Francesco Zambon’s ongoing case makes the Summit's mission almost paradoxical. Zambon is the now-former WHO researcher whose Report on the Italian government’s response to the pandemic was withdrawn just a few hours after its publication, 18 months ago. The Report was aimed specifically at providing a case study on the experience of the first European country affected by the virus, to provide recommendations to be actioned by other States.

After following internal WHO procedure, Zambon reported possible conflicts of interest in the decision to withdraw the Report from publication as well as the pressures he had experienced to modify its findings; the interest in withdrawing the paper appeared to be more of a personal or political nature, rather than anything to do with the scientific nature of the research.

Read more: Blowing a whistle at the World Health Organization: Lessons for Italy and beyond

Several critical issues remain in Zambon’s case

The Zambon case highlights two serious and ongoing problematic issues: the WHO’s handling of its internal whistleblower reports, and the independence of its internal justice system.

Regarding the handling of internal reports, it should be remembered that Zambon repeatedly raised his concerns directly with the WHO ethics office, urging them to evaluate the pressure he received and the reasons behind the Report’s withdrawal. According to Zambon, his reports were not taken into consideration for many months, by which time his working conditions had already been compromised and the conduct reported had irreversible consequences.

The resulting harm to the WHO and, above all to the public, due to the inaction in this case could be immeasurable - the organisation’s conduct towards whistleblower Zambon is also a serious matter.

In fact, according to what has been declared, Zambon was first ignored and then later suffered discrimination and retaliation which led to his resignation. Employment law protection for employees of the United Nations and its agencies is peculiar: these international, intergovernmental organizations do not fall within any one national legal jurisdiction and instead have their own processes for evaluating disputes through internal procedures. In the WHO’s case, a first review must be carried out by WHO’s Human Resources Department. Any subsequent appeal must pass through its Global Board of Appeal. It is only the at eventual third appeal stage, if one takes place, that it reaches an independent forum of the International Labor Court.

The process is susceptible to the strong influence of internal organisational dynamics and certainly cannot guarantee an adequate level of independence. In the majority of cases, appeals to these bodies are ultimately unsuccessful, even more so in cases like that of Zambon in which senior leaders of the WHO are implicated.

Read more: Government Accountability Project’s letter to the United Nations Internal Justice Council with 48 points for consideration on how to improve the United Nations and its agencies whistleblowing policy and internal justice system.

In 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the freedom of opinion and expression specifically recommended the UN and its agencies adopt effective policies to enable greater public access to information and to protect whistleblowers, recognizing that particular attention must be paid to the effectiveness and independence of existing reporting mechanisms, given the whistleblowers’ lack of access to any other formal justice systems.

Read more: UN Special Rapporteur 2015 Report on the protection of sources and whistleblowers

Zambon has requested the WHO to review his case and is currently in the appeal phase.

Last year, the Whistleblowing International Network, along with its partner Transparency International, and its members Transparency International Italy and the Government Accountability Project, sent an open letter calling for an independent review of the disclosures made by Zambon and a commitment to reform the WHO’s whistleblowing mechanisms and justice system.

Read more: Open Letter to #WHA74: Support Covid whistleblowers Dr. Zambon

The letter was signed by some of the most important civil society organizations active in the protection of whistleblowers, but received no response. We are therefore asking once again that Dr Francesco Zambon is officially recognized as a whistleblower and that his case be afforded the required timeliness and promptness that is necessary in a fair and just system. We again highlight the urgent need for the WHO’s internal policies and justice system to be reviewed, so such cases are avoided in future and to ensure freedom of expression rights to protect public health are no longer restricted.