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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

UN/WIPO: Trump Administration Must Protect UN Whistleblower on North Korea

Bea Edwards, December 15, 2017

At the Government Accountability Project (GAP), we understand that the US government has been withholding 100 percent of its contributions to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) since April 2016 because the organization has failed to protect whistleblowers, including Miranda Brown who reported WIPO's shipments of US IT equipment to North Korea and Iran. The shipments circumvented US and other nations’ sanctions, but slipped through a WIPO loophole that officially left the authorization of such shipments to the discretion of the Director General, Francis Gurry. 

An independent review later commissioned by WIPO confirmed that if the Organization acted with the integrity Gurry claims to have, Member States would have been consulted before the equipment transfer to sanctioned countries. When Member Countries were actually consulted, they closed the loophole in question. The investigators concluded:

[We] simply cannot fathom how WIPO could have convinced itself that most Member States would support the delivery of equipment to countries whose behavior was so egregious it forced the international community to impose embargoes, and where the deliveries, if initiated by the recipient countries, would violate a Member State's national laws.

The senior WIPO staff member who informed the US government of the shipments, Dr. Miranda Brown, was forced to leave WIPO after her disclosure; Gurry accused her of “disloyalty” to him and told her – before witnesses – that her contract would not be renewed. Brown ultimately took a job at a much lower level in another UN organization. 

In the ensuing years, Brown continued to keep the US government informed of accountability problems at WIPO. She testified before the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC); at the hearing, Congressional representatives referred to WIPO as "the FIFA of the UN," referring to the scandal-ridden international football league. A US congressman speaking at the hearing also expressed his opinion that Gurry represents a threat to US national security.

Since the hearing, it has also come to light that Gurry was responsible for violations of procurement regulations, to favor an Australian firm. WIPO staff member Wei Lei, whose name was given to Gurry by investigators, was the whistleblower with allegations about Gurry’s misconduct in this case, and he is now in a precarious employment position. To date, however, Gurry remains firmly ensconced at the apex of WIPO officialdom. In fact, he crowed publicly about his own impunity and the failure of both the US and the WIPO to hold him accountable. In an interview last August, he told Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald: "She [Brown] was completely defeated – I'm not the one out there…”

He’s right. Brown, the whistleblower on Gurry’s shipments of US IT equipment to North Korea and Iran, continues to seek reinstatement. 

Under the Obama Administration, the US government did take a stab at penalizing WIPO for its punitive treatment of whistleblowers: the US withheld all of its annual contribution to the Organization. Because WIPO is largely funded from fees paid by patent applicants rather than contributions from Member States, however, the withholding makes only a symbolic difference to Gurry.

GAP has learned that the Trump Administration is poised to decrease the withholding for 2017 from 100 percent to 15 percent to ensure the US does not lose its vote in the WIPO General Assembly in January 2018. Under WIPO rules, a Member State that fails to pay its contributions for two years loses its vote. 

While GAP appreciates the problems for the US administration in losing its vote and, hence, what little influence it has at WIPO, any reduction in the withholding of US funding must be accompanied by an explicit commitment from WIPO's Director General to desist from targeting whistleblowers and to resolve the outstanding cases, including those of Miranda Brown and Wei Lei, as well as members of WIPO's Staff Council of the Staff Association.

GAP calls on President Trump to honor his commitment to protecting whistleblowers at all UN agencies and to uphold sanctions on North Korea by demanding Miranda Brown's reinstatement at WIPO. No whistleblower should lose her job for reporting the circumvention of sanctions on North Korea.