Author of Controversial Book Rewarded After Initially Being Fired;
Whistleblower Protection Reform Looming
U.N. whistleblower and Government Accountability Project (GAP) client Dr. Andrew Thomson returned to work Monday, March 21, with a promotion and new contract, four months after effectively being terminated for co-authoring a book highly critical of the United Nations and its peacekeeping operations. This follows U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's leadership in ordering, under pressure from members of Congress and GAP, a two-month reprieve of Thomson's dismissal last December 31.
In addition to co-counseling Thomson at internal U.N. Joint Appeals Board (JAB) hearings and drafting letters to senior U.N. officials, GAP led an intensive legal campaign of public scrutiny last December, climaxed by personal intervention with Annan by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R.-In.).
Specific terms and conditions of the lawsuit's settlement cannot be disclosed, but Thomson put the outcome in perspective. "My smile couldn't be broader," he commented. "I'm pleased to return to work as a doctor to the staff and grateful to all those who have supported me. When corruption or incompetence occurs at the U.N., it affects vulnerable civilians whose lives are in the balance all over the world, and I encourage other colleagues to speak out about it. U.N. staff who risk their lives every day on the front lines have a right to dissent, and I hope my case helps break down the code of silence that prevails throughout the organization."
GAP legal director Tom Devine, who co-counseled the case with veteran U.N. whistleblower lawyer Andre Sirois, commented on the significance, stating, "The result completes a symbolic breakthrough for freedom of expression by U.N. employees. Last December's initial legal ruling created a landmark whistleblower loophole to the U.N's Official Secrets style gag-rule against all outside communications without advance permission. Hopefully the U.N.'s upcoming whistleblower policy will institutionalize this outcome's promise." Sirois headed the team's litigation before the JAB as well as the successful settlement negotiation, and is a former U.N. whistleblower who won his own case.
Thomson will assume added responsibilities in his new position of Senior Medical Officer. The book he coauthored, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth, describes senior U.N. officials' inaction in the face of genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, dysfunctional U.N. security on peacekeeping missions, sexual misconduct by U.N. troops and financial corruption by administrators. These revelations foreshadowed the current U.N. Iraq ‘Oil-for-Food' and Congo ‘Sex-for-Food' scandals. Thomson has been with the U.N. Medical Services Division since 1993, continually receiving excellent performance evaluations and contract renewals over that time. He was even recommended for promotion shortly before he was informed in November of his contract's non-renewal, five months after the book's June publication.
This action comes at a pivotal time for the United Nations. Reform proposals announced this week by Annan urge the General Assembly to adopt measures to "improve the transparency and accountability of the Secretariat" Unspecified, however, is any explicit commitment to encourage and protect internal reporting of wrongdoing. Last week, another U.N. whistleblower, program monitor Rehan Mullick, testified before Congress that he had been retaliated against for raising questions and investigating details surrounding the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. Congressional members of the House International Relations Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations applauded Mullick for doing "the right thing," stating that the international body "fired him for his honesty."
GAP, a leading whistleblower protection organization, has continually offered to consult with United Nations officials, at no cost to them, to discuss comprehensive whistleblower protection policy. Although the international body accepted GAP's offer in December, no communication has been sent to GAP since that time.
An enhanced whistleblower protection policy is crucial for the United Nations to serve its mission. A U.N. survey documents numerous staff members' fears of reprisal, many of whom have contacted GAP. Melanie Beth Oliverio, GAP International Program Director, states "While this is a great gesture, we hope it is not simply a stopgap responding to pressure. Until protection for whistleblowers is embedded in independently monitored policies, fear of bearing witness to corruption and abuse will continue to erode the U.N.'s effort to reform itself." In addition to anti-gag protection, minimum effective whistleblower policy changes should include: coverage for any employee with dissenting views regarding U.N. humanitarian missions; modern legal burdens of proof of reprisal; independent hearing rights to replace current in-house grievance panels; and relief that allows for the recouping of position status, lost income and legal fees.
One of Thomson's coauthors, Heidi Postlewait, is still under contract with the United Nations, in the middle of a two-year contract. The other coauthor, Kenneth Cain, left the organization before the book was published.