Time for the UN and other legislators to deliver on whistleblower protection

31st October 2016

Photo credit: Kids.Britannica.com

The fate of the whistleblower who exposed sexual abuse by peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic shows the UN needs to improve its internal procedures. The incoming Secretary General has an opportunity to effect real change that shouldn’t be wasted.

Ahead of the announcement that António Guterres will become the next Secretary General of the United Nations PCaW and other members of the Whistleblowing International Network wrote a list of questions to the prospective candidates asking them to respond to growing concerns about the failure of systems to protect whistleblowers within the UN and beyond. As yet no response has been forthcoming, though the Government Accountability Project (GAP) welcomed Guterres’ appointment and the ‘unwavering commitment to transparency, accountability and oversight’ outlined in his vision statement.

Though GAP rightly pointed out that ‘the tone at the top’ is important in fostering a culture receptive to whistleblowing, words alone do little unless combined with substantive legislative change. These days there is no shortage of law makers, experts and international initiatives highlighting the important role that whistleblowing plays in exposing wrongdoing and defending the public interest, yet the reality for whistleblowers is too often an extremely negative experience.

In Europe PCaW and other civil society organisations have launched a campaign for legislators to promote continent wide whistleblowing legislation, a need that was given cautious acknowledgment in a recent statement in the European Commission’s Work Programme. The passing of the Trade Secrets Directive sent a poor message about the EU’s commitment to whistleblowing and the successful prosecution of the LuxLeaks whistleblowers shows real protection and a much needed public interest defence is some way off.

The UN has a poor record in protecting whistleblowers. Senior aid worker Anders Kompass was suspended last year after disclosing an internal UN report into the sexual abuse of children by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic. After the UN office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights received the report and took no action, Kompass sent it to French prosecutors so those responsible could be brought to justice. High ranking UN officials were involved in Kompass’ suspension and, though Kompass was completely exonerated by a report commissioned by Ban Ki-moon, earlier this year he resigned citing the “complete impunity” for those who mistreated him and “that lack of accountability is entrenched in the United Nations.”

The UN has systems in place that ostensibly allow whistleblowers who suffer reprisal to seek relief. However in a recent case two whistleblowers were retaliated against after reporting that their supervisor had tampered with evidence in an ongoing investigation. Both were told that the mere fact they were accused was not sufficient for the UN to intervene on their behalf. This view was in stark contrast to that of the UN human resources department who, upon receiving job applicants from both whistleblowers, required them to explain why they were the subject of disciplinary action. As such two concurrent UN policies hold that being under investigation for disciplinary action is an action worthy of explanation, but not worthy of protection.

The recognition that whistleblowers play a vital role in helping organisations and the public by exposing wrongdoing is becoming ever more widespread, yet it is unrealistic to think this alone will make victimisation a thing of the past. The onus is on governments and supranational organisations like the EU and the UN to do far more to protect and encourage whistleblowing in society. Talk is cheap for legislators outlining their commitment to reform, but for whistleblowers the time is now and their need is great. We hope that the new UN Secretary General will really listen and properly reform the system.

Tom Casey