UNITED NATIONS, Dec 29 (IPS) – After being politically crucified over charges of malfeasance and mismanagement, the U.N. Secretariat has responded with a new “whistle-blower protection policy” aimed at encouraging staffers, contractors, consultants and even the public to help expose corruption in the world body.
The new policy, which comes into force in January, assures whistle-blowers that there will be no retaliation for reporting misconduct and “for cooperating with duly authorised audits or investigations”.
But Merrill Cassell, a former budget director for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, remains sceptical of the new rules.
“The United Nations is famous for punishing staff in other discreet ways — like preventing promotion, transfer to difficult duty stations or finding excuses for early retirement,” Cassell told IPS.
He said the human resource function will need to activate new mechanisms to strengthen the appeals and staff protection systems when the whistles start blowing.
Cassell said that U.N. staff unions should study the new rules and advise staff accordingly.
“It will be very difficult for the United Nations to apply those rules unless the culture of the organisation changes dramatically, where supervisors will need to re-learn to value the expression of difference, especially from junior staff, and regard these views with distinction and honour, and thus prevent a lot of whistles being blown,” he said.
He also said it would be necessary for the United Nations to set up a structure so that staff could lodge complaints in confidence or anonymously.
According to Guy Candusso, vice president of the U.N. Staff Union, the new policy is a good beginning and a significant achievement for the organisation.
“But staff should remain cautious until we see how it will be implemented under the new Ethics Office, which will be established in 2006,” he told IPS.
In addition to this policy, it is critical to reform the internal justice system at the U.N. and provide staff with job security through career contracts, he added.
The U.N.’s 64 billion-dollar now-defunct oil for food programme in Iraq — aimed at easing the suffering of Iraqis from economic sanctions — has been singled out as a prime example of gross mismanagement by the U.N. Secretariat.
After 18 months of investigations, the former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker concluded that over 2,200 companies and individuals paid kickbacks to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to win contracts — all under the supervision of the U.N. Secretariat.
The Volcker inquiry found “illicit, unethical and corrupt” behaviour in the tainted oil-for-food programme, which was created in April 1995.
The U.N. Secretariat has also come under fire for mismanaging some of the U.N. peacekeeping missions overseas through overpayments, fraud, waste and nepotism in doling out contracts, and lacking accountability and transparency in management.
“If we are going to have a culture here of ‘I am not going to lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do’, then we have to have a whistle-blower protection policy,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Management Christopher Burnham told reporters last week.
He said the whistle-blower protection policy will be the first of a two-phase project. The next step would be the reexamination of the administration of justice and due process at the United Nations, beginning in February and culminating with a report in July 2006.
The protection policy, he said, will take effect on Jan. 1 pending the establishment of an Ethics Office. The proposed office has “broad support” within the 191-member General Assembly, but there has been an ongoing debate on staffing levels, said Burnham, a former U.S. State Department official.
He said the new policy should give full assurance to staff members — who are aware of corruption and fraud — that their voices would be heard and that they would be protected from retaliation.
“For the first time, staff had been given certain criteria for reporting misconduct. Their first obligation was to report it to the proper authorities within the United Nations, but they were also provided with other outlets, including the peoples’ court of last resort — the press,” he added.
At the same time, Burnham said, it was also important “to stop this culture of anonymous assassination hit-mails that are going around this place, with people accusing each other of untoward behaviour.”
Under the new policy, transmission and dissemination of unsubstantiated rumours was not considered a protected activity and actually constituted misconduct, he added.
Meanwhile, the Washington-based Government Accountability Project (GAP), a public interest group that promotes government and corporate accountability, issued a statement last week praising the United Nations for “a new standard of whistle-blower protection in an anti-retaliation policy”.
But it warned that the new policy should be viewed in the larger context of unfinished structural reforms that awaits General Assembly approval in 2006.
“This is the gold standard for freedom of speech at international organisations,” GAP Legal Director Tom Devine said in a statement released last week.
The U.N. policy, he said, satisfies 15 out of 20 criteria in GAP’s compilation of best practices for whistleblower protection. By contrast, the World Bank’s policy and the U.S. Whistleblower Protection Act only pass 12 of the 20 tests.
While applauding the reforms, the statement said, GAP noted that the United Nations has not yet finalised interpretations that conform to standard legal boundaries for whistleblower rights — such as protection against guilt by association, false perceptions of whistle-blowing, and preemptive strikes when an individual is exposed as on the verge of whistle-blowing by preparing evidence for dissent.
“It would be premature to conclude that U.N. whistleblowers are safe. Any one of these loopholes could erase the policy’s benefits, or turn it into a trap,” Devine warned.
Under the current structure, he said, the policy also fails to meet international best practice standards for enforcement of rights through independent investigation and adjudication of disputes stemming from whistle-blowing.
“Only the General Assembly can ensure complete protection to whistleblowers by instituting significant structural reforms to provide this verifiable independence,” he added. IPS – Inter Press Service