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United Nations Joint Inspection Unit (Oversight Body) Releases Report Evaluating Ethics in the UN System

Shelley Walden, June 09, 2010

The United Nations (UN) Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) – an independent oversight body of the UN mandated to conduct evaluations and investigations system-wide – has just released an insightful report on “Ethics in the United Nations System.” JIU found that:

 

There was a strongly held perception throughout the United Nations System of a pervasive culture of secrecy in the decision-making processes of the organizations and little or no accountability. Against this background, there was little staff buy-in to the ethics function, which was viewed merely as a management device that did nothing to address the underlying problems. Without staff confidence and staff involvement, however, the ethics function will struggle to make an impact. It is of paramount importance, therefore, that the ethics function operates independently of management. (p. 11, emphasis added)

GAP predicted this problem in 2007, when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a bulletin that fractured the jurisdiction of a single system-wide ethics office – which was responsible for applying a uniform set of standards – with proliferating ad hoc internal ethics offices and whistleblower protection polices. The JIU report explains some of the problems with the ethics system created by this bulletin and suggests solutions. But although the JIU makes some constructive recommendations, it fails to issue the one that would do the most to remedy the problem: create one ethics office and whistleblower protection policy for the whole UN system.

The JIU does make recommendations that would move the UN system in this direction. For example, the report recommends that organizations that are too small to establish separate ethics offices create a joint or shared ethics office. Also, the JIU recommends that standards for whistleblower policies be harmonized across the UN system. GAP agrees, but would add that these policies should be rewritten to, at a minimum, meet the standards set out in the original UN Secretariat policy. As they now stand, many of these policies fall far short of the Secretariat’s SGB/2005/21.

Other key recommendations from the report include that:

  • “To ensure that only the best professional are appointed to head the ethics function in United Nations system organizations, there should be competitive recruitment open to both internal and external candidates on an equal basis.” (p. iv) Also, the executive heads should ensure that “the vacancy announcement for the appointment of the head of the ethics office in their respective organizations is prepared in full consultation with the staff representatives” and that “a staff representative serves on the appointment board for the selection of the head of the ethics office.” (p. 10)

Moreover, the JIU discouraged

“the practice of appointing staff members who are close to retirement to head the ethics function, as has been the case in several organizations. While these individuals may bring valuable organization-specific knowledge to the post, they are unlikely to have the required experience in ethics. A direct internal appointment by the executive head outside of normal recruitment processes is also problematic. These have been major concerns among the staff in the organizations…” (para. 40)

Although these recommendations appear to be a step in the right direction, they do not ensure that staff representatives’ “deep mistrust concerning the recruitment and selection of the heads of ethics office” (para. 43) will be addressed. To ensure impartiality and staff buy-in, the executive head should be required to obtain the “consent” of the staff union before making this appointment, rather than just “consult” with unnamed “staff representatives.”

  • “In cases where a prima facie case of retaliation or threat of retaliation has been found by the organization’s ethics office and the internal oversight office declines to undertake the investigation, the executive head, or the head of the ethics office, should refer the matter to the Joint Inspection Unit for investigation.” (p. v)

This recommendation could result in more whistleblower retaliation complaints being investigated. It could also result in more independent investigations, as the JIU does not report to the head of the respective agency, fund or programme, the way an internal investigative unit would.

  • “Legislative bodies should direct their respective executive heads to ensure that the head of the ethics office submits an annual report, or a summary thereof, unchanged by the executive head, directly to the legislative body, together with any comments of the executive head thereon.” JIU also recommended that the head of the ethics office have “informal access to the legislative bodies which is enshrined in writing.” (p. vi)

These are excellent suggestions that will lead to increased oversight and independence of the ethics offices.

  • “Legislative bodies should direct their respective executive heads to put forward proposals for an internal mechanism to be established that would set out the modalities for the ethics office and/or the internal oversight service to investigate or undertake reviews of allegations brought against the executive head of the organization, including reporting the outcome of the investigation or review directly to the respective legislative body.” (p. 21)

This recommendation was made because:

“Recent high-profile cases that have been widely publicized have shown that executive heads can and do act with impunity in the absence of effective internal mechanisms to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against them. While the JIU has the mandate to receive and investigate allegations against executive heads, it is more likely that the alleged wrongdoing will be reported to an internal entity in the first instance, such as the ethics office or internal oversight service. As these entities report directly to the executive heads, and have only limited or no access to the legislative bodies, their independence to carry out an investigation or a review of the alleged wrongdoing, be it non-compliance with financial disclosure, fraud, etc., is seriously circumscribed.” (para. 85, emphasis added)

A good example of an Intergovernmental Organization (IGO) executive head acting with impunity is former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz. Similarly, in 2008 misconduct allegations were brought against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director. (p. 15-16) There are also numerous other cases in which high ranking officials have acted with impunity, such as Peter Smith, the highest-ranking US official at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Although the JIU is right to suggest that there be mechanisms in place to investigate allegations brought against the executive head of the organization, it would have been better for the JIU to suggest that 1) it maintain its authority to investigate such allegations or, 2) that one independent body be established to investigate any complaints made against the head of any UN organization. The JIU suggestion that executive heads put forward proposals for how they would have their own misconduct evaluated is especially problematic This is like having a suspected criminal select his own police officer and jury.

But enough with the recommendations; let’s get to naming and shaming. According to the JIU, the following organizations are failing to deliver an adequate ethics function:

  • The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which have all failed to establish an ethics function.
  • The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which supposedly shares an ethics office function with the Universal Postal Union (UPU), but failed to fund it in 2010-2011.
  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which both have funding levels that are “minimal in relation to the size of these organizations.”
  • The specialized agencies and IAEA, where “whistleblower protection policies are largely absent, or only just being developed.”

According to the JIU, the ILO – the global body responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labor standards – has a particularly inadequate ethics function, as the ILO legal advisor is responsible for this function. Similarly, at the IAEA, human resources management serves in the ethics role, which is a serious conflict of interest, as retaliation often takes the form of an adverse administrative action approved by the human resources department. According to the JIU, these deficient arrangements are surpassed only by the World Health Organization (WHO), which failed “to create any kind of ethics post at all, in spite of the considerable size of the organization.” (para. 37)

So at ILO and IAEA, the fox guards the henhouse, whereas at WHO there is no guard at all. This is bad news for whistleblowers, who will inevitably be swallowed up whole.

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