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At UN, Whistleblowing in the Wind as Ethics Office Fails 99% of Complainants

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, April 9 -- Even when the whistle is blown in the UN's lack of effective protection for whistleblowers, the UN's response is first to refuse to comment, then to churn out statistics that experts in the field view as misleading.

On April 8, Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's deputy spokesman Eduardo Del Buey:

Inner City Press: There was a press conference earlier today across the street by the UNMIK [United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo] whistleblower, Mr. [James] Wasserstrom, and he is calling on the US to implement a law which would cut 15 per cent of the funding by the US to the UN for failure to protect whistleblowers. And one of the questions that arose that I would specifically want to get your response to is whether in the whole course of his case, which has been pretty widely reported, the Secretary-General or his team has ever sought to meet with GAP [Government Accountability Project] or with Mr. Wasserstrom in terms of trying to reform what seems to be a broken whistleblower protection system? I was told by GAP that the Secretary-General has never responded even to letters from them. So how can that be?

Deputy Spokesperson Del Buey: Well, Matthew, the only thing I can say is the matter is under consideration for appeal to the UN Appeals Tribunal, and of course, we cannot comment on it until the litigation is over.

Inner City Press: He was complaining this morning that, despite what he called retaliation, what was found to be retaliation, he was awarded $65,000, which doesn’t even cover his costs; he says other whistleblowers won’t come forward. Is the Secretary-General trying to reduce that further or does he also feel that his award means that whistleblowers essentially will just stay quiet?

Deputy Spokesperson: Matthew, as I said, that the issue is under litigation, I cannot comment on it.

  The next day, April 9, Inner City Press asked Del Buey a more generic question: how many claims of retaliation has the UN Ethics Office process, and many has it verified or “established”?

  Later on April 9, the UN sent Inner City Press the following statistics:

Subject: Your questions on complaints presented to the Ethics Office
Date: Tue, Apr 9, 2013 at 3:40 PM
From: UN Spokesperson - Do Not Reply [at]
To: Matthew.Lee [at] innercitypress [dot] com

In response to your question at the noon briefing, we can say that from August 2006 to July 2012, the Ethics Office initiated 106 formal retaliation complaint preliminary reviews. Of those 106 cases, 1 remained under review and 18 were closed as a result either of the complainant having withdrawn or abandoned his or her complaint or of the case having been resolved informally to the satisfaction of the complainant. For the remaining 87 complaints, the Office determined that 9 had presented prima facie cases of retaliation and referred those cases for formal investigation. Investigations were completed for five of the cases, after which the Office determined that retaliation had been established for one of them. Four cases are still pending completion of the investigation.

  Even though, or perhaps because, Ban Ki-moon has not responded to their inquiries, the Government Accountability Project are among the experts in this field. So Inner City Press asked GAP's Shelley Walden about the UN's response. Here is GAP's reply:

This information appeared in the UN Secretariat Ethics Office’s 2012 report (see A/67/306, para. 47). The Ethics Office says it initiated 106 formal retaliation complaint preliminary reviews, but if you add up all of the protection against retaliation inquiries mentioned in the Ethics Office’s reports from 2006-2012, the number comes to 343...

The Ethics Office says that it completed a preliminary review in 87 cases and ultimately determined that retaliation was established in one case. But whether you use the 87 number, 106 number or 343 number, the UN Ethics Office has still failed to protect 99% of UN staff members who have requested protection against retaliation.

The reason that we tend to use the 343 number is because we don’t know how many of these people had valid retaliation complaints that the Ethics Office failed to review, due to lack of jurisdiction or for other reasons. We know, for example, that the Ethics Office will not review retaliation complaints from UN police officers as they have concluded that they are not protected by the UN whistleblower protection policy when they report misconduct. So those kinds of cases are reflected in the 343 number but are most likely not reflected in the 106 number. To be fair, the Ethics Office has informed us that some of the 343 cases were not whistleblower cases (i.e. claims in which the staff member was not a whistleblower and merely wanted to contest a performance review). They also include cases in which someone requested advice regarding the protection against retaliation policy, but did not submit a complaint.”

  Still. And what about the UN's now clear retaliation against the Press, going as far as a non-consensus March 18 raid of its office, and March 21 leaking to BuzzFeed of photographs of its desk and bookshelf? We'll have more on this -- on the retaliation front too, we hope. Watch this site.

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