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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

UNA-USA Publications: Universal Whistleblower Protection Policy for the UN

June 03, 2008
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By GAP International Program Associate Shelley Walden.

In order to regain the trust of its staff and uphold its mission, the United Nations must create comprehensive whistleblower protections modeled on international best practices. It is essential that the organization also continue to reform its internal justice system and enforce impartial investigation practices. Failure to do so makes the UN vulnerable to future scandal, corruption and a substantial loss of credibility.

As a champion of human rights standards – and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption – the UN should be at the forefront of protecting whistleblowers from retaliation. Toward that end, in 2005, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a whistleblower protection policy that was a breakthrough for freedom of expression at intergovernmental organizations. The policy, which was developed after months of consultation with experts in whistleblower law, established an independent Ethics Office, with staff responsible for receiving appeals from whistleblowers.

This policy was put to the test in 2007, when six whistleblowers from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – the UN’s global development arm – came forward, believing that they would be protected. These whistleblowers’ allegations ranged widely, identifying UNDP misconduct in North Korea, violations of procurement regulations in a climate change mitigation project in Africa and unauthorized altering of security reports in Turkey. Last August, the UN Ethics Office reviewed one of these cases and ruled in favor of the whistleblower. In response, UNDP administrator Kemal Dervis asserted that UNDP was not subject to the jurisdiction of the UN’s Ethics Office.

To defend his position, Dervis explained that UNDP has, under past management, “introduced human resources policies/procedures in many ways that are more modern…than many other parts and…the Secretariat.” Dervis said that, as the UNDP is a voluntarily funded organization, he wanted to protect its autonomy and flexibility and make sure it was not subject to the politicization of the Secretariat. He probably did not want to set a precedent in adopting the Secretariat’s rules and procedures, especially at this critical moment when the UN is assessing ways to harmonize and integrate its various fragmented pieces. At the time of Dervis’ statement, however, UNDP did not have a whistleblower protection policy in place.

Unfortunately, the policy that UNDP subsequently created did not match the standards of the Secretariat’s policy. For example, UNDP did not extend protection from retaliation to all relevant personnel. The 2005 UN policy explicitly protects “any staff member, regardless of type of appointment, intern or United Nations volunteer.” In contrast, the UNDP policy explicitly precludes protection for numerous categories of employees, including independent contractors working with UNDP under Special Service Agreements, UNDP staff members seconded to another agency, people employed under service contracts, volunteers and interns.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would better serve the UN if he challenges this secession and asserts that the 2005 policy be applied system-wide. The policy bulletin he issued in November 2007, allowing UNDP’s policy to stand and encouraging other funds and programs to take the same step, is one he should reconsider. Ban’s bulletin authorizes the replacement of one Ethics Office – which was structurally independent from management in the funds and programs – with a proliferation of ad hoc internal ethics offices in which management has the final decision-making authority. These offices, which create a new level of bureaucratic delay and inefficiency, could cost the UN system upwards of $4.5 million a year.

Numerous funds and programs, including the World Food Program, the UN Children’s Fund and the UN Population Fund, have followed UNDP’s lead and insisted on their own whistleblower policies and ethics offices. These policies are inconsistent and, on the whole, less comprehensive than the original UN policy established in 2005.

The UN has numerous opportunities in the coming months to unify and strengthen its procedures for protecting whistleblowers. An entity that could do so is the newly formed Ethics Committee, which is tasked with establishing “a unified set of standards and policies of the United Nations Secretariat and of the separately administered organs and programs.” One way the committee can fulfill its mandate is to insist on a universal whistleblower protection policy, ethics office and investigative body for the UN as a whole. So far, that is the most cost-effective option.

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