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As UN Creates Separate Fiefdoms of Ethics, U.S. Declares Victory on Appeal Rights

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

UNITED NATIONS, December 4 -- A day after the UN unveiled a policy confining whistleblowers at each separate fund and program to a separate in-house ethics office, on Tuesday two very different views of the policy emerged. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told Inner City Press that "The way I understand it... the Ethics Office will have jurisdiction over all funds and programs."

            The head of the UN Ethics Office, Robert Benson, even in presenting the new policy to the media, acknowledged that when he took the job, "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.

            Even as Amb. Khalilzad presented it on Tuesday, whistleblowers have to "initially seek remedies inside their fund or program," and then might appeal an adverse ruling. But if the request is for protection against retaliation, and the agency can fire the whistleblower during the pendency of the case, before it can be appealed, it is possible that the staff member's G-4 visa will expire and he or she will have to leave the United States. [That this could be fixed by legislation, which the State Department could propose, has yet to be addressed by the U.S. mission to the UN.] On Tuesday, Amb. Khalilzad's spokesman said, "this is a successful win for the United States." To the press corps, this was a contrast to the U.S. having proposed and then hastily withdrawn a resolution about the Annapolis conference. On that, Amb. Khalilzad told reporters that to interpret chaos or freelancing would be a mistake. "This is not a banana republic," he said.

            Reuters' piece on Monday about the new ethics policy reported that "Khalilzad has said the central Ethics Office 'should have jurisdiction over all funds and programs.' He told reporters in September that would be 'a cost saving and an appropriate way to proceed.'"

            Now, each fund and program is setting up its own Ethics Office, causing duplication only to serve a drive for autonomy first voiced by the UN Development Program's Kemal Dervis, who in August told Benson that he would not let him proceed with an investigation in which Benson had already found a prima facie case of retaliation by UNDP against Tony Shkurtaj, who blew the whistle on irregularities in UNDP's programs in North Korea. Dervis unilaterally declared independence, and three and a half months later, the Bulletin formalizes his position.

Amb. Khalilzad at the stakeout: "this is not a banana republic"

            The Government Accountability Project on Tuesday issued a scathing statement that

"the Under Secretary for Management who wrote the 2005 bulletin with technical assistance from GAP [understood] that the bulletin applied across the UN system. Likewise, a panel of independent jurists evaluating the UN justice system in 2006 strongly recommended that the Ombudsmanís offices be merged into a single system-wide jurisdiction. But when the UN Ethics Office designated a UNDP whistleblower as a victim of retaliation, UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis declared that the Funds and Programs were not subject to the UN Ethics Office, effectively evading any future investigation."

            On Monday, Inner City Press asked Mr. Benson if he is satisfied with how UNDP has handled the whistleblower case it fought to wrestle back from him, the case of Tony Shkurtaj, who complained of irregularities in UNDP's programs in North Korea. Benson replied 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. In fact, it is now said that the panel has asked until April.  Queried 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, which was first raised in 2006 by the U.S. Mission to the UN.  To many, including some of the impacted whistleblowers, there appears to be a lack of follow-through by the U.S. Mission to the UN.

            Tony Shkurtaj, interviewed again late Tuesday by Inner City Press about the policy and the days events, said "this sounds like a banana republic... Why not establish unified standards in the first place that apply to all UN staff? The establishment of individual ethics offices in the agencies is going to be more expensive than strengthening one Ethics Office." We will have more on this.

* * *

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