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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Continuing Cover-up at the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization

Bea Edwards, August 26, 2016

Last week, the Chairs of the General Assembly and the Coordinating Committee of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) delivered their assessment of a United Nations investigation to the WIPO Member States. It is awful.

The investigation in question focused on Francis Gurry, WIPO’s Director General and senior-most official at this technical agency of the UN.  Mr. Gurry faced allegations of arranging the theft of DNA from staff members he believed had criticized him (Swiss authorities then apparently attempted to match the DNA to that found on anonymous letters critical of Mr. Gurry) and allegations of steering a contract to an acquaintance.

The investigation was conducted by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), headquartered at the Secretariat in New York. OIOS investigators concluded that, without the cooperation of the Swiss authorities who arranged the DNA testing, no evidence could be cited linking Mr. Gurry to the caper. They apparently did not insist on knowing how genetic material secretly taken from international civil servants reached Swiss authorities in the first place, saying only that “unknown persons” delivered it. In other words, the investigation was inconclusive because available witnesses either were not asked the obvious questions or could not be obliged to give testimony.

In the procurement case, the Chairs’ review admits that Mr. Gurry agreed with changing the terms of the evaluation process for bidding on a specific contract and pressured at least one member of the evaluation team.

Yet, the Chairs propose to close the investigation of the Director General with no further action.

In other words, so long as accomplices refuse to cooperate, and information about the violation of procurement regulations can be suppressed, this episode is over. Further, three of four staff members who reported the violations have been forced to leave WIPO, though the alleged culprit remains (Moncef Kateb was fired, Ms. X was summarily transferred and took early retirement, and Miranda Brown resigned under duress). James Pooley, the fourth whistleblower, left when his term as Deputy Director expired. It goes without saying that current WIPO staff members, seeing this debacle for whistleblowers and continuing to be subject to the whims of a purportedly corrupt and unstable Director General, will keep their mouths shut as malfeasance at the upper reaches of WIPO continues. 

After failing to mention the unrestrained retaliation that preceded the investigation, the Chairs’ review also omits any reference to the travesty of due process that they themselves orchestrated as part of white-washing the scandal. The Chair of the General Assembly arranged for the investigation report to be given to Mr. Gurry without redacting the names of the few witnesses who gave evidence against him. Some of them continue to work at WIPO and reprisal against them has already begun. 

Further, the report was only made available to delegations in two-hour periods in a reading room. Delegates were obliged to surrender their cellphones and could not leave the reading room with copies of the report. In other words, when considering discipline for the Director General of an increasingly important technical agency of the United Nations, Member States of that agency – which constitute its board of directors – were not permitted to consult their governments about how to proceed.

The entire process is bizarre and corrupted. Mr. Gurry successfully shut down two internal investigations, so that finally a semi-external investigation was undertaken. Because he was never suspended during the process and was provided with an unredacted investigation report, he was able to retaliate against witnesses who contradicted his account and consult the Chairs themselves about how the investigation report should be handled.

Last year, the US Congress weighed in on this bogus and clumsy cover-up by withholding 15 percent of the annual contribution to WIPO. This year, the State Department reported to the Congress that the contribution should be partially withheld again.

The fact that the cover-up continues, however, suggests that the withholding (which represents a miniscule amount of WIPO’s annual revenues) is not enough. The US delegation to UN Geneva must take the lead in insisting to the Chairs of the WIPO General Assembly and the Coordinating Committee that the OIOS report – minus the names of witnesses – be provided to the governments of the Member States that fund the Organization.