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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

U.N. OIOS: Watchdog or Lapdog?

, October 15, 2009

In honor of the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the UN University hosted a panel today entitled “Watchdog or Lapdog? Maximizing the Value of Internal Oversight for a Better United Nations.” Cheers to the organizers for concocting this witty title; jeers to them for sugarcoating the topic.

Although the event – which included an opening address by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a panel with Under-Secretary-General for Management Angela Kane (who has been accused of misconduct for publicly retaliating against a whistleblower) – seemed to present OIOS as an effective watchdog (albeit with room for improvement), GAP’s sources beg to differ. A preponderance of the evidence shows that the OIOS Investigations Division (OIOS/ID) – the unit that is supposed to investigate misconduct – is in many cases failing to do so and is also avoiding the implementation of much needed steps to improve its capacity to serve as an effective watchdog:

Exhibit #1: The Secretary-General stated during his opening remarks that the establishment of the UN’s Ethics Office was a significant accountability advance. What he failed to mention was that according to theEthics Office’s August 2009 report to the General Assembly (para. 66), OIOS/ID failed to investigate a case of whistleblower retaliation referred to it by the Ethics Office, even though OIOS is tasked with conducting such investigations (para 5.5). Several whistleblowers have also approached GAP with complaints about OIOS’ failure to investigate their retaliation claims. How can OIOS expect witnesses to come forward with misconduct allegations when it refuses to protect them from retaliation for doing so? GAP submitted this question to the panel (via email) but the moderator failed to raise it, opting instead to end the panel 20 minutes early for a milk and cookie break. 

Exhibit #2: As alluded to by panel member Inga-Britt Ahlenius, Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services, OIOS/ID has been without a permanent director for more than two years, despite the nomination of qualified candidates, such as former head of the UN Procurement Task Force Robert Appleton. The fact that OIOS/ID lacks a permanent director who is protected from pressure and retaliation deprives the organization of a needed resource and deterrent to corruption, as pointed out in paragraph 22 of OIOS’ 2009 annual report. GAP also submitted a question regarding this situation, which the moderator once again failed to raise.

Exhibit #3: External reports have found that OIOS-ID is broken. A 2007 review by a UN consultantfound that there appeared to be “something fundamentally awry with ID, its operating procedures and its underlying culture.” A separate assessment found similar problems and stated that: “the lack of effectiveness and high quality work of ID/OIOS is of critical importance because it affects the overall functioning of the Organization. First, it is detrimental to the Organization’s ability to manage and detect corruption, fraud and other serious offenses, which has in recent years damaged the reputation of the Organization and has engendered a sense of mistrust. Second, it impedes the ability of the Organization to combat and prevent future instances of wrongdoing.” OIOS has also come under fire from a former OIOS investigator who accused the office of whitewashing a report about wrongdoing committed by UN peacekeepers in the Congo.

Exhibit #4: As reported by the UN’s Independent Audit Advisory Committee, OIOS (especially OIOS/ID). as an extremely high vacancy rate, as more than 27 percent of its authorized posts are unfilled. Meanwhile, sources report that many OIOS/ID investigations into significant cases of fraud, such as one involving the misuse of USAID money by UN agencies in Afghanistan, are languishing. The rumor is that OIOS/ID is not conducting a single external investigation at the moment despite ongoing allegations of serious corruption. The General Assembly has requested that the Secretary-General fill these vacancies as a matter of priority. But instead of filling these positions, OIOS/ID is reportedly trying to reduce its mandate by claiming that it does not have the authority to investigate external contractors or former staff members accused of misconduct. But if they don’t, who will? 

Until OIOS/ID addresses these problems, it will be unable to effectively conduct its vital watchdog mission.