The case of Emma Reilly, who works for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, illustrates how difficult — and perilous — it can be to report criminal, illegal or unethical activities within the UN.
In 2013, Reilly told Navi Pillay, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that a senior member of staff was giving the Chinese Government the names of dissidents who were to attend a meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Instead of reprimanding the staff member who was placing the dissidents’ lives in danger, Pillay’s senior staff began harassing Reilly.
It was only in 2016, when Reilly informed the Irish Government of this betrayal of human rights defenders by her organisation, that the practice did stop. Now Pillay’s successor, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, wants to have Reilly investigated for “leaking” information.
In 2014, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights suspended Anders Kompass, who reported to French authorities that French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic were sexually abusing internally displaced children.
MEDIA EXPOSED SCANDAL
Only after the media exposed the scandal was an investigation conducted. The French troops were eventually sent to France to face charges, but sadly, the Paris prosecutor’s office decided that they could not be charged due to “insufficient elements”.
Whistleblowers like Reilly and Kompass suffer retaliation because they are viewed as an existential threat to the UN’s moral authority and legitimacy.
And despite its claims to neutrality, the UN is also a highly politicised organisation where influential member states can make it do their bidding, even when such actions violate its core mandate.
The Reilly and Kompass cases highlight the deficiencies despite a whistleblower protection policy that has been effective since 2005.
As his parting gift to the UN, the former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon even oversaw the drafting of a revised whistleblower protection policy that gives the impression of granting more protection to whistleblowers, but which, in reality, does the very opposite. Unfortunately, the revised policy was approved last month by new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
For starters, it gives even more power to the UN Ethics Office, which is supposed to investigate cases of retaliation against UN whistleblowers, but which has had a dismal record in this regard.
A US-based watchdog found that 95 per cent of whistleblowers’ complaints to the Ethics Office never get investigated, and that the whistleblowers get little moral support from this office.
They face the threat of being “disciplined” if their allegations are found to be false or based on “rumours”. This means that if a staff member suspects wrongdoing, and makes a complaint so that further investigations can be carried out, and then it is determined that there was no wrongdoing (which usually happens as the UN rarely admits that such takes place within its hallowed halls), that staff member could face disciplinary action for spreading “rumours”.
The revised 2017 UN whistleblower protection policy is an improvement on the old policy in that it does allow UN whistleblowers to approach an external entity or individual if they believe that the internal justice system has failed them or is unlikely to protect them. However, it severely limits the kinds of information they can divulge and the types of entities and individuals they can approach.
The revised policy states that an individual can only report misconduct to an external entity or individual if the report does not cause “substantive damage to the Organisation’s operations”, which is another way of saying that if the revelation does not damage the UN’s reputation.
In the Reilly and Kompass cases, the UN could argue that by approaching a government, they had damaged the UN’s reputation, which could impact the organisation’s operations. What’s more, the UN could even “discipline” Reilly and Kompass for spreading “rumours”.
In short, the revised policy is essentially a gag order on whistleblowers and a significant step backwards in improving accountability within the UN. It appears to give whistleblowers greater leeway in reporting wrongdoing, but takes away this freedom through stringent conditions that cannot be met because most whistleblower cases never reach the official investigation stage. The revised policy thus reinforces the UN’s culture of cover-ups, corruption and impunity