The high price of being a UN whistleblower

Photo by: Kaique Rocha / CC0

LONDON — When two United Nations officials took the tough decision to report what they saw as clear wrongdoing within their agencies, neither thought their actions would leave them feeling ostracized and blacklisted, and in one case, unemployed.

The role of whistleblowers in holding their organizations to account has come to the forefront of the aid sector’s attention in recent months following a string of sexual misconduct scandals, many of which were brought to light thanks to staff members speaking out.

Since February, whistleblowers have played a key role in exposing major safeguarding issues, including Oxfam’s handling of sexual exploitation in Haiti in 2011; alleged sexual harassment of female staff at Save the Children’s United Kingdom headquarters in 2012 and 2015; and several incidents within the United Nations.

Stories of whistleblowers lifting the lid on sexual exploitation, abuse of power, fraud or corruption within aid agencies are not new, however. The U.N. in particular has been involved in a number of high-profile cases in recent years, including disclosures made by two staff members — Emma Reilly and Miranda Brown — about alleged problems within the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.  

A report by the U.N. Joint Inspection Unit in 2016 found that “whistleblowers alone account for the uncovering of more fraud and corruption [within the U.N. system] than all other measures of fraud detection combined,” and recommended stronger measures be put in place to protect them.

But despite reforms, those who have been through the process say they have suffered as a result of their decision to report, and that fear of reprisals is preventing others from coming forward. Brown told Devex her life had “deteriorated” since reporting; Reilly that she had been “ostracized” within the aid community.

The issue more widely has caught the attention of development leaders in light of recent scandals, with the U.K.’s aid chief Penny Mordaunt highlighting the importance of protecting whistleblowers, and a new law proposed by the European Commission that would force companies and local authorities to establish stringent whistleblowing systems. However, whistleblowers within the U.N. system are not protected by national laws.

The U.N. says it is working to improve protection for whistleblowers, but that it is difficult.

“All large organizations face challenges in encouraging whistleblowing and preventing and protecting employees from retaliation for doing so … [The] U.N. is not immune from such challenges,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, told Devex.

But advocates say it is time to end the high price that whistleblowers often pay for coming forward — and that failure to do so threatens to undermine the organization’s work.

They want to see real cultural change and leadership to make sure victims and whistleblowers can come forward without fear; and they want protection mechanisms that are independent, confidential and impose penalties for retaliation against a person who reports.

Procedures and protections

Although whistleblowers are protected in many jurisdictions, there is currently no common legal definition. The G20 best practice guidance on whistleblowing policies states that common characteristics for protection include the disclosure of wrongdoing related to the workplace; reporting in the public interest; and disclosures made in “good faith” and on “reasonable grounds.”

NGOs have their own rules and regulations that vary depending on local laws. At many organizations, whistleblowers can report their concerns through internal mechanisms, but can also resort to external bodies such as domestic law enforcement or the media.

Within the U.N., internal reporting procedures vary across agencies, but the organization-wide whistleblower protection policy offers all staff protection from retaliation or reprisals. The policy itself does not use or define the word “whistleblower,” referring instead to “individuals who report misconduct or cooperate with duly authorized audits or investigations.” Protection is extended to staff who choose to report to external bodies under certain circumstances, for example, when a failure to report could lead to a “significant threat” to public health and safety, a violation of national or international law, or a “substantive danger to the organizations’ operations.”

It is the job of the U.N. Ethics Office to enforce that. If someone thinks they have suffered reprisals as a result of reporting, they can file a “protection against retaliation request form” with the office, which will then assess their case.

However, very few whistleblower complaints are upheld. Of 403 cases sent to the Ethics Office between 2006 and 2014, only four were established as retaliatory cases, according to a 2015 report by the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye. Later figures from the Ethics Office annual report show that between 2015 and 2016, the office received 23 requests for protection that fell under its jurisdiction. In six cases, it “determined that there was a prima facie case that the protected activity was a contributing factor in causing the alleged retaliation,” with investigations ongoing at the time of the report.

Staff members who feel they have not been protected, or that wrong-doers were not properly dealt with, can appeal to the U.N. Dispute Tribunal or U.N. Management Evaluation Unit. But because of the U.N.’s legal status, staff cannot appeal to national courts, which some say makes the system unaccountable.

Kaye himself criticized the U.N.’s whistleblower procedures which, “while well-intentioned, lack real independence and effectiveness,” he wrote in his report.

In 2014 the United States government introduced legislation requiring all U.N. agencies that receive U.S. funding to certify they comply with international best practices for the protection of whistleblowers, or face losing up to 15 percent of their U.S. funding.

This was introduced in part as a result of the landmark James Wasserstrom case, in which the former U.N. staffer successfully challenged the Ethics Office for failing to protect him from reprisals from his supervisors. It is down to the U.S. Department of State to determine whether the procedures at each U.N. agency meet its standards.

To date, just one agency — the World Intellectual Property Organization — has lost U.S. funding as a result. At the time, the agency did not have an ethics officer, and there had been long delays in opening investigations. But campaigners say there are problems in other U.N. agencies. Beatrice Edwards, a senior analyst at the Government Accountability Project, said her NGO is petitioning the U.S. to enforce the law more strongly and described “evidence of retaliation against whistleblowers” at the U.N. as “persuasive, voluminous and current.”

A State Department official told Devex that it “continues to work to strengthen protections against whistleblower retaliation, including improving organizations’ whistleblower protection policies, to assure that whistleblowers can report wrongdoing without fear of reprisal.” They said that, since 2014, the department has “submitted an annual report to Congress evaluating the extent to which the U.N. and U.N. agencies are meeting criteria related to access to audit reports and protection of whistleblowers from retaliation.”
Dujarric told Devex that the U.N. has had “a strong protection against retaliation policy for over a decade,” which was “reviewed and further strengthened” in early 2017. These changes were “jointly developed and agreed upon by the U.N. administration and staff representative bodies,” he said.

The spokesperson also said the Ethics Office “has a similar degree of independence” to ethics offices in other organizations and pointed to recent improvements, including a “significant increase” in findings of retaliation. In 2017, the office upheld five cases, which is “the same number as for the total during the past nine years or so,” Dujarric said — and has made a finding of retaliation in two cases during 2018 to date.

“This significant increase may signal greater confidence by staff in the protection provided by the organization, which may in turn encourage more reports of wrongdoing,” he said.

Nonetheless, in January 2017, Secretary-General António Guterres established an “internal working group” to explore whether additional reforms were needed. As a result of that process, protections were expanded to include U.N. consultants and contractors. Guterres is also exploring “enhancing the independence of the Ethics Office by having it report directly to the General Assembly, instead of … to the Secretary-General,” according to a statement.

But campaigners say that even the proposals do not go far enough.

“Career destroying”

Emma Reilly had been working at OHCHR for a year when, in 2013, she was asked to hand over the names of a number of human rights defenders planning to attend the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva to the Chinese government, without their knowledge or consent. Reilly said she was astonished by the request, which she believed could put their lives in danger.

“I felt it was very dangerous. I couldn’t think of a purpose for which China would want this information other than to intimidate dissidents and their families,” she said.

“I also felt confident that it was clearly against both OHCHR’s mandate and the rules of the Human Rights Council. The U.N.’s human rights office should not actively facilitate human rights abuses by China, and that shouldn’t be a controversial stance.”

Despite repeatedly reporting her concerns to senior OHCHR staff through the proper internal channels, the names were handed over. OHCHR maintains this did not violate its rules and that the dissidents had already “made public their plans to attend the Human Rights Council session.” It also says it took “precautionary measures” to ensure the security of Chinese activists who attended the conference.

Reilly has since been embroiled in a battle with the Ethics Office over her requests for protection from those whose actions she reported. She claims she has been “blacklisted and insulted,” both within the U.N. and by people outside it. For example, she says she has been excluded from meetings, that false rumors were spread about her, and that her performance reviews included “false and prejudicial information” which stopped her from being promoted or transferred to a post away from those she had reported against. Her case was leaked to the press in 2017, but she says it was not by her.

“It’s career destroying to be seen to even have coffee with us [whistleblowers],” she said, adding that she feels “ostracized” within the organization.  

“Stupidly in hindsight, I felt confident that senior managers would simply listen to my report and act to stop the handing over of names to China. I had no idea I was setting myself up for five years of reprisals,” she added.

OHCHR said in a statement in 2017 that Reilly “never faced reprisals” and that she “had her contracts renewed and remains employed by the organization on full pay.” They also point to the fact her claims were investigated and “found to be unsubstantiated.”

Reilly still works for the U.N. and was recently transferred to a new post in Geneva away from the office where she made the complaint — something she has been requesting for years. She told Devex she stayed on because she believes in the U.N.’s mission, but also because she is “determined” to keep fighting for the protection the U.N. claims to offer whistleblowers. She also believes she is unlikely to get a job externally, since “a lot of NGOs rely on good relations with the U.N.”

Her case triggered special rapporteur Kaye to write a letter to the head of OHCHR warning that the current system was having a “deterrent effect on U.N. staff who in the future seek to disclose wrongdoing ... which, in turn, may undermine the organization and its work as a whole.”

A recent internal survey of U.N. staff, a copy of which has been seen by Devex, revealed that staff “lack confidence that they can report misconduct without retaliation.” Only 45 percent said they believe whistleblowers will be protected.

Miranda Brown, another OHCHR whistleblower, has a similar story. The former head of East and Southern Africa at the agency said her life has “deteriorated” as a result of her decision in 2014 to help expose child sexual abuse allegations in the Central African Republic, to which the U.N. had turned a blind eye. Her actions, along with those of her boss Anders Kompass, caused the French government to launch a criminal investigation into the alleged involvement of French troops. They were also validated after an external independent panel issued a hard-hitting report that described the U.N.’s failure to respond to the allegations as a “gross institutional failure.”

The organization did not renew her contract, which Brown believes was a result of her actions. However, OHCHR disputed this, saying the position had always been a temporary one covering for another official who had subsequently returned from assignment. She appealed to the Dispute Tribunal, but the case was dismissed.

A mother of two children, Brown is now “unemployed and struggling financially; it’s had a terrible impact on my family,” she said, adding that she has applied for multiple positions both within and outside the U.N., but to no avail.

“You’re vulnerable not just in your own organization but across the system,” she said. She believes her problems with the U.N. have made other NGOs reluctant to hire her.

GAP’s Edwards said these experiences are common for whistleblowers at many organizations. Other whistleblowers Devex spoke to within the U.N. and in the aid sector more broadly shared similar stories.

“In all cases, the whistleblowers’ worlds turn upside down,” said Edwards.

“They go to work for institutions that, at some level, they believe in … Then retaliation exposes the real character of the institution. Sometimes, they’re in shock. Some develop serious health problems. Many never recover.”

“The problem isn’t the U.N. policies as written, but the complete failure of the U.N. to apply them. The system is designed to never find any wrongdoing.

— Emma Reilly, U.N. whistleblower

Advice for whistleblowers

Brown continues to advocate for reform of the U.N. system, including by submitting evidence to the U.K. parliament’s ongoing inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

Part of the problem at the U.N., she believes, is that the whistleblower policy is “very complicated,” and there needs to be better training so that senior staff fully understand it. She also wants staff representatives at the agencies to do more to support whistleblowers, saying many are afraid of suffering reprisals themselves.

“Staff reps need to do more [but they] need their own professional union so they can’t be attacked for supporting whistleblowers,” she said.

U.N. spokesperson Dujarric said staff representatives had been involved in the development of the new whistleblower policy, for example through “joint global town halls” which were held in 2017 with the New York U.N. Staff Union and Ethics Office.

These “focused on the protection against retaliation policy, aimed at highlighting the changes in the policy as well as walking the staff through the entire protection against retaliation process, formal reporting mechanisms, and informal conflict resolution,” Dujarric said.

Separately, the U.N. Joint Inspection Unit is currently carrying out a review of whistleblower policies and practices, due to be published this summer. Aside from a simpler policy that comes alongside better training, the whistleblowers want to see effective protection mechanisms that are independent, confidential, involve mandatory enforcement of findings, and impose penalties for retaliation, reprisals or general interference with a whistleblower’s disclosure.

But fixing the system will require more than good policies; the people implementing the policies also need to change, whistleblowers said.

“The problem isn’t the U.N. policies as written, but the complete failure of the U.N. to apply them. The system is designed to never find any wrongdoing,” Reilly said.

There needs to be a complete cultural change in attitudes toward whistleblowing, with leadership from the top, whistleblowers believe.

Addressing gender imbalances within the U.N. will also be key to reform, some said. Reilly suggested that young, female complainants were particularly vulnerable to reprisals, especially given the U.N.’s notoriously male-dominated senior staff.

“It’s much easier to defame a woman and portray them as difficult and attention seeking,” she said.

Despite their negative experiences, both Brown and Reilly say they stand by their decisions to speak out.

“I couldn’t not report child sexual abuse,” Brown said. “In my darkest hours, I tell myself that whatever I’ve reported has been substantiated by independent investigations … I’m the whistleblower for that.”

Reilly said she would do it again, but differently.

“Obviously if there’s an immediate danger to someone’s life or safety you have to report it immediately [through the proper channels],” she said. “But if not, then [if internal channels have failed] I would recommend finding another job, leave, and then go to the press,” adding that she only saw “movement” in her case after it was leaked to the media.

Brown said that if internal measures fail then reporting it to a member state — whether your own country or those involved in the case — and receiving a letter in acknowledgment, may be the best way to go about it.

“The safest way is to report something to member states, but don’t expect them to act,” she said, emphasizing the importance of putting allegations in writing, usually to an ambassador, and attaching evidence and documents. Brown also recommended whistleblowers “package” the information into “something they can send back to their capitals.” It needs to be in “bite-sized chunks” and to make clear what is expected of them.

Once you have acknowledgment that the member state has received the report, that is the time to go to the media, Brown said. But she also advised would-be whistleblowers to think carefully about how to approach reporters, both in terms of how they present and frame their case, and in terms of protecting their identity.

“It can be difficult to cold call a journalist and get them to publish [your story],” she said. “Just because you think you have a story does not mean to say the newspaper is going to think so.”

“You need both member states and media, you won’t get an impact without it,” Brown said. “Think about what you’re trying to achieve … [and then] find a way of using member states and the media to help.”

However, media attention can be a double-edged sword, she said, and whistleblowers need to be prepared to be defamed in the public eye, as well as internally.

“Lots of statements get made to the media which the whistleblower has no way of countering.  I’ve seen interviews saying I left the U.N. voluntarily but I have it in writing that I was asked to leave,” she said.

Both women maintain that their actions and continued campaigning are intended to make the organization, and the aid sector as a whole, stronger and more accountable.  

“I strongly believe in the U.N. and its mandate and I don’t want to be part of undermining it,” Brown said. “But it has to be forced to behave in a responsible way.”

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.