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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Once Again, the UN Dispute Tribunal Rejects a Whistleblower’s Claims

Bea Edwards, June 29, 2017

Miranda Brown, a whistleblower at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) lost her case in the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) as established in a written decision issued June 26, 2017.

At WIPO, Brown blew the whistle on unlicensed shipments of US computers and firewalls to North Korea and, later, on WIPO’s facilitation of a North Korean patent application for the production of sodium cyanide – a chemical weapons precursor banned under UN Security Council sanctions. At the OHCHR she helped expose and address the sexual abuse of displaced boys by peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic (CAR).

This last reveal was a major scandal throughout 2015 and 2016 that resulted in the convening of an external independent panel at the United Nations in New York, which issued a report that excoriated  the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Secretary General’s Chief of Staff, the Under-Secretary for the Office of Internal Oversight Services and the UN Ethics Officer.

In 2016, Brown also testified as a witness before two US Congressional Committees about sexual abuse in peacekeeping and computer shipments to North Korea, as well as the sloppy and reckless way in which the UN dealt with them.

Nonetheless, on June 26, the UNDT issued a 39-page ruling dismissing Miranda Brown’s claims that her UN appointment should have been renewed in December 2014, and that it ended instead because she had offended UN senior management by reporting improper actions by WIPO Director General Francis Gurry and High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein.

The ruling is a long one, containing a chronicle of the administrative actions that ping-ponged Brown’s employment between two position assignments (but one set of functions that she performed well) over a period of two years.

The situation was tricky. There were three staff members in different circumstances: one became persona non grata (PNG) in the country where he was assigned. Another, stationed in South Africa, was about to retire. Brown, for her part, was bouncing between two salary accounts in Geneva, for administrative reasons explained below. For these three staff members there were three posts, two in Geneva and one in Suva, Fiji.  

Then it all became even more complicated. The PNG-ed staff member had to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the retiring staff member in South Africa wanted to depart, and Brown was talking to investigators about WIPO and about child abuse in the CAR.

Although this personnel system looks complex and difficult to manage, in fact, its intricacy allows managers to shuffle staff members around for convenience. In this case, the High Commissioner transferred his DRC and South African staff members to Geneva, filling the two posts there, and transferred Brown to Fiji, where she could not go without many problems. It’s perfectly legitimate and resolves two staff members’ situations, while drop-kicking the third one to the far reaches of the eastern hemisphere, where – hopefully – she would come to her senses and stop talking.

The UNDT ruling shows, essentially, how management at the UN plays musical chairs with appointments and positions. So long as a staff member does not make trouble, voice criticism or blow the whistle, he or she has a chair in the game when the music stops. If, however, a staff member has spoken truthfully about the way scandals are concealed, then he or she will find that, when it comes time to sit down, the expected chair has vanished.

Here’s a relatively brief description of how this can work (paragrahps 74 and 75 in the attached ruling):

The Human Resources Assistant, Human Resources, OHCHR, explained that whenever DFS did not act in a timely manner, HRMS, UNOG, would have no choice but to temporarily administratively place the Applicant against another post to ensure that she was in the payroll and received her full salary. This is being done regularly for other staff in a situation similar to that of the Applicant.

The above temporary administrative placements are what happened on 23 June 2014 and 1 August 2014 (cf. PA Nos. 4443410 and 4449819), when the Applicant was temporarily placed against P-5 post No. 509992, which was temporarily vacant, to ensure keeping her in the payroll. It was done with the intention to place the Applicant back against “her” post, namely post No. 501057, once the situation regularized.

In other words, absent a couple of creative personnel actions when, for some reason, someone else is suddenly occupying your UN post, you will not get a check on payday.

This kind of bureaucracy can work either for you or against you. When you are in favor, or at least, not in disfavor, your employment appears to be secure, although in reality various machinations are regularly occurring in the Department of Human Resources. When, however, it is no longer convenient to employ you, then suddenly the HR creativity stops and you’ve lost your job. When scrutinized by the Tribunal, however, this ”look-ma-no-hands” method of termination seems completely legitimate and free of animus. After a certain amount of bouncing around, there’s simply no place for you to land except out on the street.

This is what happened to Miranda Brown, who, without knowing it, blew the whistle that stopped the game. Unfortunately for her, the game that stopped was musical chairs, which the OHCHR was playing with her career, while sexual abuse by peacekeepers and WIPO’s engagement with North Korea seem to be headed for additional rounds.

Brown blew the whistle to Member States on the mistreatment she endured and three of them – Israel, Estonia and Somalia – decided to jointly raise their concerns with Zeid, but he refused to meet them.

The Estonian ambassador had chaired the WIPO Coordination Committee and had requested the WIPO investigation that called Brown to testify as a key witness. The late Somali ambassador expressed his concerns in writing and appealed to Zeid to leave Miranda Brown in her position . Israel was not only concerned about the possible retaliation against a whistleblower, but also about potential discrimination because Miranda Brown was the only openly Jewish staff member at OHCHR, with known ties to Israel.

The judgment includes Zeid’s verbatim testimony and criticism of Israeli officials who raised concerns and sought to ensure no further retaliation against Brown (see paragraphs 90 onwards). No verification of the accuracy of Zeid’s testimony was sought.

At GAP, we reiterate our request that Prince Zeid be suspended and placed under investigation for his mistreatment of whistleblowers Anders Kompass and Miranda Brown.

Under US law for the full disbursement of the annual contribution to the UN, its funds, programs and specialized agencies, a UN whistleblower must be granted access to external arbitration. Brown has been denied external arbitration by both the UN and WIPO. GAP calls on the Trump Administration and US Congress to demand Miranda Brown’s reinstatement at the UN or WIPO and to uphold US law requiring the protection of whistleblowers (Consolidated Appropriations Act, section 7048).

Finally, GAP has accumulated evidence that Brown has been blacklisted by the UN. She is now a witness in the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee Panel of Experts investigation into the North Korean sodium cyanide patent and the US Administration must demand that she be fully protected.