A whistle. Photo by: Neil Moralee / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — A new internal review of the whistleblower policies at the United Nations reveals major gaps in protection for people who report abuse or misconduct.

The Joint Inspection Unit — the only external oversight body of the U.N. that can conduct investigations — has found that “existing protection policies are marked by inconsistencies and limitations in operational effectiveness” across the U.N. system.

Staff who witness abuse or misconduct are also not likely to report abuse, according to the year-long review, concluded in December 2017 and released late last week in Geneva. The review covered retaliation policies across 28 U.N. organizations.

The report, which offers various recommendations to boost support and protection for whistleblowers, is one of the latest bodies of research revealing a frequently fragmented and unsupportive work environment for aid and development workers worldwide.

A leaked staff engagement survey, conducted in December 2017, showed one-third of polled staffers are afraid to report misconduct, as Devex reported.

The new review by JIU similarly shows that, more often than not, U.N. workers will not speak up if they have witnessed misconduct.

According to a global staff survey, conducted in addition to a review of existing policies and procedures, just 45 percent of respondents said they had witnessed misconduct or wrongdoing in the past five years. Less than half of those 45 percent said they had reported it — and about 13 percent of all personnel who did report misconduct or wrongdoing within the past five years experienced retaliation.

Only 56 percent of respondents, meanwhile, said that they knew how to report misconduct and wrongdoing at their respective organizations.

“Through interviews and the global staff survey, the Inspectors found that, while personnel understood what constituted misconduct/wrongdoing, they lacked clarity on to whom to report it, particularly in organizations that do not have a central unit designated to receive such reports,” reads the report. This could result in confusion and a lesser chance of choosing to report.

Protection policies for whistleblowers — typically developed in an “ad-hoc” manner following a high-profile case — are another issue. The policies tend to vary in scope of “activities and personnel covered,” according to the report, which questions their “operational effectiveness.”

Experts on sexual harassment and abuse at the U.N. have also said that differences in reporting across U.N. agencies and murky reporting processes has an impact on how people who have experienced abuse or misconduct themselves choose to move forward on a claim.

Amidst a slew of allegations against high-ranking U.N. officials, several U.N. agencies and bodies have taken steps in the last several months to both clarify and expand the mechanisms for reporting abuse. The staff helpline established at the U.N. Secretariat earlier this year is one example.  

Differences in employment status is another factor that can influence potential whistleblowers, according to JIU.

U.N. workers who work under a “nonstaff” category — mainly consultants, contractors, interns, and others — were less likely to report than full-time staffers. About 45 percent of the U.N.’s workforce is categorized as nonstaff, and that number is likely to grow, the report notes, given  budgeting and funding restraints.

The review recommends, among other measures, that executive heads of U.N. agencies update their relevant whistleblower policies by 2020 to address the noted shortcomings and gaps.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.