New whistleblower policy could give move to defund the UN a boost

About 6 months after a United Nations watchdog report suggested better protection for UN whistleblowers, the global bureaucracy is about to produce a policy that could make a bad situation for those employees a lot worse.

It could also produce an early headache for new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who took office on January 3, as he faces U.S. legislators who are eager to cut UN funding as a result of the Security Council’s Dec. 23 resolution condemning as illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Critics say the new whistleblower policy reinforces a two-tier standard at the scandal-scarred UN, in which only those pointing fingers at the most serious kinds of wrongdoing get full protection for their actions.

They also argue that it further increases possibilities for retaliation against anyone making  less high-profile allegations of internal UN wrongdoing or abuse of power,  and forces staffers to rely more heavily on internal organizations they consider to be weak or compromised to protect them in those lower-profile cases of alleged corruption and abuse.

According to the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based organization that supports whistleblowers, “UN management is narrowing the definition of a ‘protected disclosure’ in a revised policy,” and “it should not be made more restrictive.”

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UN bureaucrats say the organization’s aim is to streamline procedures for  protecting accusers and investigating newly defined “public interest” claims of wrongdoing; keep pettier grievances from clogging up the system by referring them to other channels; and use the UN’s internal investigators and Ethics Office to help prevent “retaliation before it occurs,” as well as “clarify roles and responsibilities.”

They also point to the fact that  UN member states have been grouching loudly that the organization’s internal deliberations over the new  policy have already taken far too long, and that they were given a deadline of the end of 2016 to come up with the version they now have in hand.

The new protection policy is sitting on the desk of fledgling Secretary General Guterres, as part of his legacy from former Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who faced a variety of grave, whistleblower-ignited scandals during his decade-long tenure and, according to critics, mishandled many of them.

They ranged from allegations of secret UN transfers of forbidden foreign currency to the nuclear-ambitious regime of North Korea to the welter of sexual abuse scandals involving non-UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, where the UN was accused of inaction and deliberate coverup by an independent panel of jurists and legal experts.

A UN spokesperson told Fox News that the new policy will be published “as soon as practicable in the New Year,” by which time Guterres, who has spoken publicly of the need to protect whistleblowers, will also have signed off on it.

How soon is likely a tricky question for Guterres as he faces the prospect of those irate  U.S. legislators, whose actions will gain ever greater weight after the inauguration of Donald Trump, himself no fan of the U.N.’s anti-Israel actions.

One weapon at their disposal could be a U.S. statute passed in 2015 that mandates Washington to withhold 15 percent of its UN contributions if the Secretary of State does not certify the organization is implementing and enforcing “best practices” to protect whistleblowers from retaliation for “internal and lawful” public disclosures.

The full extent of those contributions is not really known:  the Obama Administration quit publishing tallies in 2010. But the U.S. is responsible for paying 22 per cent of the UN Secretariat’s so-called regular budget of  some $5.46 billion for 2016-2017, which is about half of what the organization is expected to spend. (The U.S. is also responsible for 28.57 per cent of the current $7.9 billion UN annual peacekeeping budget.)

So far, the U.S. has only imposed its withholding penalty on one UN organization, the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)—which  gets the overwhelming bulk of its revenues from external fees and where U.S. government contributions are miniscule.

And in that case at least one UN whistleblower, Miranda Brown, who says she lost her job as a result of publicizing alleged abuses of power by WIPO’s Executive Director Francis Gurry, has never been reinstated.

“It is pretty clear that the Obama Administration bent over backward to avoid imposing the [withholding] penalty elsewhere, by misinterpreting or putting the best possible spin on UN whistleblower policies” observed Brett Schaefer, a UN expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

On whether the incoming Trump Administration should make use of the 15 per cent penalty provision to enforce tougher standards, he said, “I hope that they do so. Whistleblowers are a critical for unearthing mismanagement and criminal behavior in organizations like the U.N. They need to be protected.”

UN whistleblowers and their outside supporters have already made clear their feeling that the impending policy changes for the vastly larger UN Secretariat don’t come anywhere near the “best practices” accolade that the U.S. statute uses as a benchmark. UN staff association leaders raised concerns about the changes in an initial get-together session with Secretary General Guterres on Jan. 4.

The Ethics Office’s meager findings of retaliation, however, are cited in a different context by a UN spokesperson, who noted that in 153 preliminary reviews of retaliation claims, only 5, or about 3.3 percent, were actually found to involve retaliation (with six reviews still pending).

The spokesman compared those findings favorably with similar work at other institutions such as the World Bank (2 percent of cases found to be retaliatory).

Problem is that early last December, a GAP study declared that the World Bank had similar problems involving “a climate of insecurity among the staff about management’s commitment to whistleblowers, as well as … uncertainty about the protections actually in place.”

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