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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

'The Whistleblower' Film Debuts, But Has Anything Changed for United Nations Whistleblowers?

Shelley Walden, August 04, 2011

The Whistleblower, which details the true story of the United Nations’ complicity in the sex-trafficking industry in Bosnia, debuts Friday in select theaters, with widespread distribution to follow. The movie, starring Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz as real-life truth-teller Kathryn Bolkovac,chronicles Bolkovac’s attempts to blow the whistle in the late 1990s and early 2000s while working with the UN International Police Force.

As GAP’s International Program Officer, one of my job duties is to monitor whistleblower rights and cases at the United Nations. I'm obviously eager to see the film, and GAP will put out a review of it in the coming weeks. If the movie sticks to the known facts about the actual events, it may raise much-needed awareness of whistleblower problems at the United Nations. As a Human Rights Watch official stated about Bolkovac's tale:

“Women and girls trafficked into Bosnia and Herzegovina's brothels endured debt bondage, rape, and beatings. International police and peacekeeping forces should have protected these victims. Instead, some committed trafficking crimes. Kathy Bolkovac bravely blew the whistle on them. She paid a high price in her career, but had the integrity to take a stand against grave human rights abuses.”

Focusing on Bolkovac's case, it seems the perfect time to ask: What has changed? If a UN whistleblower were to come forward today – a decade later – with similar allegations to those made by Bolkovac, would s/he also “pay a high price” for making disclosures?

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes.

To the credit of the United Nations, the organization has taken several actions in the past decade to better protect whistleblowers. Advances include:

  • The passage of an improved whistleblower policy: In 2005, in the wake of the Oil-for-Food scandal and disclosures by several former UN employees about sexual abuse by UN forces, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a whistleblower protection policy that was developed after months of consultation with GAP and other experts in whistleblower law. The policy established an independent Ethics Office, with staff responsible for receiving appeals for protection from whistleblowers.
  • The reform of the United Nations justice system: In 2006, a panel of independent international jurists found that the UN internal justice system failed to meet “many basic standards of due process established in international human rights instruments” and could not adequately resolve conflict within the Organization. This panel observed that although two-thirds of UN staff members served in field operations, the system of justice in the field was particularly weak. Because the UN enjoys sovereign immunity, staff and troops therefore had no access to any impartial judicial mechanism to contest violations of their own rights.

In July 2009, the United Nations launched a new, decentralized internal justice system based in part on the panel’s proposal. The new system consists of the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT), the first instance of the two-tier justice system, and the UN Appeals Tribunal (UNAT), which any current or former staff member can appeal a UNDT decision to. Although the system’s initial decisions appear to be favorable to whistleblowers, the system remains severely underfunded, to the point that UNAT judges routinely preface the release of their judgments with pleas to the Secretary-General for additional funding. Also, on several occasions, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has failed to respect the authority of the new Tribunals.

In its first year of operation, nearly 20 percent of the cases that were filed with UNDT originated in peacekeeping missions. UNDT will soon release a decision involving one of the heroes portrayed in The Whistleblower, Madeline Rees (who is played by Vanessa Redgrave). Rees maintains that she was fired for the actions depicted in the movie and for helping to blow the whistle on the UN’s “collusion in the rendition of six Algerian nationals to Guantanamo Bay.”

These two reforms were a step in the right direction, but were significantly weakened by subsequent actions taken by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Moreover, despite these reforms, significant obstacles remain for UN whistleblowers, including:

  • Fragmented whistleblower policies and processes: Because of a bulletin issued by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2007, at least seven UN funds, programmes and specialized agencies now have their own, piecemeal whistleblower policies, many of which are weaker than the UN Secretariat policy. This bulletin authorized the replacement of one overarching Ethics Office (charged with reviewing retaliation complaints and safeguarding the interests of whistleblowers) with a proliferation of ad hoc ethics offices that lack the autonomy needed to be effective and impartial. Some of these Offices have no dedicated funding and others are severely understaffed. The Secretary-General’s bulletin ultimately complicated and confused the whistleblower protection system in the UN, creating an entirely new level of bureaucratic dispute, delay, cost and inefficiency for those who report corruption in UN operations and suffer retaliation as a result.
  • The record of the UN Secretariat Ethics Office: According to annual Ethics Office reports to the Secretary-General, from August 1, 2007 to July 31, 2010, a prima facie case of retaliation was found by the UN Secretariat Ethics Office in only 1.4%* of the whistleblower cases that it received (2 out of145*). In other words, there appeared to be, on first examination, evidence that whistleblowing was a contributing factor in causing the alleged retaliation or threat of retaliation in only two cases. These two cases were referred for investigation, but the whistleblower was not necessarily vindicated. Thus, the Office has failed to protect at least 98.6%* of UN whistleblowers who approached it for help during that time period.
  • The record of the Office of Internal Oversight Services Investigations Division (OIOS/ID): This office is charged with investigating whistleblower retaliation cases after the Ethics Office has ruled that a prima facie case of retaliation exists. However, OIOS/ID has refused to investigate some whistleblower retaliation cases.

Incidentally, OIOS/ID also investigates allegations of sexual exploitation & abuse and fraud. Although GAP has been critical of OIOS/ID’s handling of these two issues in the past, there are silver linings to this cloud. First, a new director has finally been named to head OIOS/ID, after the position sat vacant for more than three years. Second, the latest report on Peacekeeping Operations from OIOS (A/65/271/part II) suggests that it has improved its record of investigating sexual exploitation and abuse cases.

According to the report, OIOS/ID investigated more than 30 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in Peacekeeping Operations in 2010 and substantiated many of these allegations. For example, at the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), OIOS/ID:

Investigated reports of sexual abuse of minors, substantiating that at least five peacekeepers had sexually abused young girls and, in at least three cases, had taken photographs of themselves posing with the victims, which included one set of photographs that were sexually explicit. The Department of Field Support provided the investigation results to the concerned troop-contributing country on 2 June 2010. Three of the subjected peacekeepers were reported to have been jailed (for two months and seven days), incurred demotions in rank and were prohibited from future deployment to peacekeeping missions; and one was cleared. The relevant troop-contributing country’s response in respect of the fifth peacekeeper is still pending.

OIOS also investigated the sexual exploitation of a local DRC woman by a United Nations Police Officer and a United Nations Security Officer. OIOS concluded “that the officers had engaged in sexual acts with the woman while driving a United Nations vehicle.” But it is unclear whether or not the responsible parties were ever disciplined, as OIOS’ account only says that:

“the Department of Field Support provided the investigation report concerning the Police Officer to the concerned police-contributing country on 27 April 2010, while the investigation report concerning the Security Officer was referred to the United Nations Office for Project Services for its consideration and appropriate action.”

The UN has an obligation to ensure that it fully investigates sexual exploitation and abuse reports and protects whistleblowers that raise these issues. While it appears from the reports above that some progress has been made on the former issue, much remains to be done on the latter.

Rumor has it that top UN officials are concerned that The Whistleblower could harm the UN’s reputation, and they have reason to be concerned -- not only because of the events depicted in the movie, but also because the Organization has failed to take sufficient corrective measures to ensure that such abuses will be detected and addressed in peacekeeping operations today. Until the UN can show that it has a credible record of protecting whistleblowers, employees who are aware of sexual exploitation, or other human rights abuses, in peacekeeping operations are likely to remain silent. As a result, opportunities to curb atrocities similar to those depicted in The Whistleblower will continue to be lost.

* Editor's Note: Due to an internal error, these numbers as originally published were slightly off. Originally, they read 1.5%, 2 out of 134 cases, and 98.5%. 

Shelley Walden is the International Officer at the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.