President Donald Trump’s inaugural speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week was in sharp contrast to that of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The US president managed to offend several of the delegations — including North Korea, which he threatened to “destroy”, and Iran, which he described as a “murderous regime”.
The UN chief, on the other hand, was diplomatic, urging the international community to be more responsive to challenges facing the world and empathetic to the plight of refugees and others suffering the consequences of war and conflict.
However, what both leaders agreed on was that the UN needs to be more efficient and less bureaucratic and that its whistleblowers must be protected.
Mr Guterres promised to improve whistleblower protection at the UN, which has had a dismal record. Unfortunately, we have seen this movie before, so we should not expect this arcane and highly unaccountable organisation to undergo radical surgery.
In 2005, in the wake of the UN Oil-for-Food Programme scandal in Iraq, in which billions of dollars were lost to fraud, the then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan promised far-reaching reforms, including the creation of an ethics office that would look into claims made by whistleblowers and to protect them from retaliation.
However, very few whistleblowers are protected by the UN; on the contrary, most are forced to resign or are fired, demoted or blacklisted by the organisation. (The contract of Rehan Mullick, the UN database manager who alerted his bosses about the Oil-for-Food scandal, was not renewed.)
What’s worse, most of their cases never get investigated and the crimes or misdemeanours they report continue unabated.
In 2014, when Anders Kompass, a high-ranking UN employee, reported to the authorities in France that French peacekeepers under the authorisation of the UN Security Council in the strife-torn Central African Republic were sexually exploiting boys as young as eight, the UN’s senior managers responded by asking Kompass to resign.
When he refused to do so, they suspended him for “unauthorised disclosure of confidential information” and directed their internal investigations towards him — rather than towards the peacekeepers who had allegedly abused the children!
Although an inquiry later exonerated Kompass of all charges, his experience with the UN had been so traumatic that he resigned shortly after.
That is one of several cases that illustrate the treatment meted out to those who report wrongdoing within the UN.
The UN adopted a revised whistleblower protection policy in January this year but it is, in many ways, much worse than the older one. It places the onus of establishing misconduct on the whistleblower, and even threatens to “discipline” the whistleblower if his or her allegations are found to be “false or misleading”.
This means that, if a staff member suspects wrongdoing and makes a complaint so that further investigations can be carried out, and it is later determined that no wrongdoing took place (which usually happens as the UN is adept at cover-ups), the staffer could face disciplinary action — the threat of which would most likely silence most would-be whistleblowers.
In essence, these conditions constitute a gagging order on whistleblowers — a significant step backwards from the 2005 policy, which provided qualified protection to UN whistleblowers who spoke to outsiders or the media. Moreover, the UN’s internal justice system presents an insuperable conflict of interest as the UN is both judge and defendant in such cases, which explains why very few whistleblowers obtain justice through these mechanisms.
One reason illegal or unethical acts committed by UN officers go unpunished is that the UN Charter accords them immunity from prosecution; they cannot be tried in national courts.
To reduce criminality and unethical practices within the UN, therefore, it is important to establish an independent external arbitration tribunal that can investigate and hear such cases. And it should not be funded by UN member States — who may use their clout or resources to influence cases involving their nationals — but by external sources such as philanthropists, NGO networks and other organisations committed to improving accountability and transparency in the UN.
In addition, the immunity clause in the UN Charter must be removed so that crimes committed by UN officers can be tried in national courts or external tribunals.