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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Trouble at UN OHCHR: Investigate the High Commissioner

Bea Edwards, February 09, 2017

Under Ban Ki-Moon, the past Secretary General, United Nations management did not react well to the deteriorating credibility of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Trouble in that corner has now been brewing for some years, but it must be immediately addressed if the Office is to maintain any legitimacy at all. Antonio Guterres, the new Secretary General, should place the High Commissioner under investigation for abuse of authority by an independent external body and reiterate the commitment of the United Nations to the prevention of human rights abuse. 

The High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein of Jordan, seems willing to politicize the defense of human rights, and when things go bad, as they tend to do, he digs in his heels and doubles down. He doesn’t mediate or reconcile, even when his decisions are clearly wrong.

The most recent episode to embarrass OHCHR began in 2014, when the troop members in the Sangaris Forces, deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR) by the government of France, sexually abused destitute boys at a camp for the displaced. The abuse continued for months, at the very least, and no one did anything to stop it. One human rights officer documented it but did not intervene, and then sent her report to OHCHR in Geneva.

Anders Kompass, a senior official there and a Swedish national, saw the report and informed the French government.  French law enforcement immediately sent investigators to the CAR. High Commissioner Zeid’s reaction? Enlist his cronies in the UN oversight offices in a campaign of retribution and put Kompass under investigation for leaking.

Notice how this works. According to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, reporting criminal physical assault on children to law enforcement is a leak. Zeid maintains this position to this day. Even after Kompass was exonerated, Zeid told the New York Times that he “did the right thing wrongly.”

Miranda Brown, who worked for Kompass, came to his defense. She is a citizen of the UK and Australia, and blew the whistle to Member States on the CAR child sexual abuse, as well as the abuse of authority by UN leadership in responding to the CAR allegations. Both disclosures were subsequently validated by the independent panel (the CAR Panel) that Ban Ki-Moon was obliged by UN Member States to convene. In the meanwhile, Zeid refused to renew Brown’s contract and then terminated her while she was on sick leave for a service-incurred illness. Nonetheless, Brown became a key witness for the CAR Panel and provided material evidence to the review. Since May, 2015, however, she has been appealing to Zeid for reinstatement, but he has refused her.

Now Emma Reilly, a mid-level human rights officer and a national of Ireland and the UK, has revealed that a senior official at OHCHR made a habit of providing the Chinese Government with the names of Chinese human rights activists who applied for accreditation to the sessions of the Human Rights Council before they traveled to Geneva. Reilly believes the practice places the activists in danger by alerting their government to their impending travel abroad, where they may disclose human rights violations.  In those cases where the dissidents have asylum in other countries, the danger is to their family members and associates still in China, some of whom have already been imprisoned in an effort to silence the activists. There is ample evidence that the danger is real.

All three of these OHCHR staff members blew the whistle on misconduct, malfeasance, and just plain stupidity. Why would anyone think that reporting to a potentially repressive government the names of citizens about to leave the country for the purpose of criticizing the government is a good idea? 

The High Commissioner for Human Rights would; Zeid would. And does. Reilly reported the chummy practice of telling the Chinese government who was about to become a problem, and he did nothing. He didn’t take steps either to protect the dissidents from repression or Reilly from retaliation.

Who would characterize reporting the sexual abuse of children to law enforcement as a leak of confidential information?  Zeid would. He did.

How is this man still in place, even as the whistleblowers at OHCHR are expelled from their jobs? Why doesn’t the UN whistleblower protection policy protect them?

The whistleblower protection policy in place at the time did not protect the whistleblowers because of various gaps in coverage. Kompass reported child abuse and criminal assault, but it was committed by forces under UN mandate, not UN command, so his action was not a protected disclosure at the UN.  This means that UN officials were free to retaliate against him, which Zeid and his cronies did. Brown reported abuse of authority but she was employed on a contract, which OHCHR argues, carries no guarantee of renewal.  And Emma Reilly reported a practice that the Ethics Office determined was not technically misconduct – probably because those who wrote the staff rules thought that no sane person would be stupid and venal enough to deliberately expose dissidents to abuse, and as a result, there is no specific rule against it.

So Zeid has been able to pick off the whistleblowers one by one. The result of this is that people who politicize the abuse of human rights are in charge at OHCHR. These are people who weigh the political costs of protecting dissidents from abuse around the world against the political advantages of abandoning them to their fates.

As of this writing it is common knowledge that human rights defenders have been disabled by the High Commissioner himself because they cannot be sure that he will advocate for them when they are in danger. Principled advocates have been forced out of OHCHR or are about to be.

To restore the credibility of the Office, Zeid himself must be investigated for abuse of authority. He must be accountable for permitting the deliberate endangerment, not only human rights advocates, but also of the legitimacy of the Office established to protect them.