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UN Ethics System Formalized But in Fragments, Whistleblowers in Wilderness of Fiefdoms

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, December 3 -- Three and a half months after the UN Development Program disputed the jurisdiction of the UN Ethics Office to continue investigating the case of a UNDP whistleblower, a Secretary-General's bulletin was released which formalizes this fragmentation, while saying that common "principles" will apply. UN Ethics Office Robert Benson, who in an August 17 memo first publicized by Inner City Press found a prima facie case of retaliation by UNDP, was the new policy's defender in a UN press conference Monday. Inner City Press asked him point-blank if when he took the job, he thought it included jurisdiction over the whole UN system. Yes, he said, "on the application of ethics, I did consider that the UN is the UN when I came in the front door. But then someone in my office told me there are separate funds and programs and I said, ah. okay... Short answer, I expected the whole UN." Video here, from Minute 30:14.

            Benson was far from the only one who through that the UN Ethics Office covered the whole UN. But when UNDP administrator Kemal Dervis objected, it sent up a stand-off that led to the policy announced on Monday: not One UN but a collection of fiefdoms in which every chieftain is his or her own judge. Inner City Press asked Benson if he is satisfied with how UNDP has handled the whistleblower case it fought to wrestle back from him, concerning irregularities in UNDP's operations in North Korea. Benson repeated that he does not comment on particular cases, adding that it is his understanding that the case is now before an "Independent Panel established by the [UNDP] executive board."  Video here, from Minute 58:26. Inner City Press asked him if that panel was established by the executive board or by Kemal Dervis himself, with a wink and a nod from Board chairman Carsten Staur.

            On November 29, Inner City Press asked Mr. Staur about the status of the panel's review of the whistleblower's case, and Staur indicated that the review might continue into January 2008. Asked if and when UNDP will make copies of internal audits available at least to member states, who contribute the money to UNDP, Staur indicated that the issue is still developing, and said he wasn't sure if it would require additional voting by the UNDP Executive Board. There has seemingly been no progress on this issue. Staur said that despite North Korea having barred the UN Board of Auditors from visiting that country to perform the audit that as called for, the mandate of the Panel has not been expanded.

      Inner City Press asked Benson if he has spoken with and passed the information underlying his finding of retaliation to the Panel. Yes and no, he answered. Yes he spoke with the Panel, but he did not pass on any information. Rather, he went back and ask those who spoke with him during his inquiry, and some but not all consent to have their names given to the Panel.

            Benson repeated that it is his understanding that the composition of the Panel was voted on by the Executive Board of UNDP. "I may stand to be corrected, but that is my understanding." Action by the Executive Board is not noted in either DP/2008/2 nor DP/2008/1. Some start for the independence of UNDP's in-house ethics system...

The UNDP Panel, with the Secretary-General, "One UN" not shown

            Another UNDP whistleblower, Mattieu Koumoin from the UNDP-Global Environmental Facility, got a September 14 letter from Benson declining to look into his case because of, among other things, its pendency before the UN's Joint Appeals Board. On Monday Inner City Press asked if this means that those seeking protection against retaliation stand even less chance of receiving protection if they have an case in the UN's (broken) internal justice system. Benson said that each case is viewed individually. But prospective whistleblowers, already given reason to worry from Benson's August 17 and September 14 letters, may find scant comfort in the Bulletin released Monday. Benson made much of a so-called safety valve in which the director of a fund or program could voluntarily refer a matter to Benson's office. Inner City Press asked Benson if in cases where an agency's head or deputy head is the alleged retaliator, he or she should refer the case to the central Ethics Office, as a form of recusal. They "could," Benson said. "Should?" Inner City Press asked again, on the theory that even an Ethics Officer stripped of much of his jurisdiction can still provide guidance. "Could," Benson repeated.

   The one possibly saving grace, the seeming right to appeal to the UN Ethics Office if the fund or program does not "consider" a case in 45 days, or after an adverse decision, still involves "consultation with the Ethics Committee," which will include a representative of the underlying agency, with no automatic recusal specified in the bulletin. This bulletin, three and a half months after the issue was squarely raised when UNDP's Dervis rebuffed Benson's jurisdiction, does not even take into account the danger of agency's in-house ethics offices delaying action on requests for protection against retaliation until after the complainant's G-4 visa has expired and they've had to leave the country. Some start for stripped-down powers, limited as to funds and programs to an ill-defined appeals process, of the UN Ethics Office... We will continue to follow these issues; watch this site.

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Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540