State of denial: the UN and the protection of its whistleblowers

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7 December 2012

UNJustice has learned with grave concern and sense of shock that the UN Secretary-General, through the UN Legal Counsel, H.E. Ms. Patricia O’Brien, has just lodged a cross-appeal to the United Nations Appeal Tribunal (UNAT) seeking to have 16 paragraphs (numbers 60-76) of a United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) ruling redacted. On 12 July 2012, a landmark UNDT ruling suggested that former UN staffer Ms. Vesna Dzuverovic suffered retaliation and “RECOMMEND[ed her case] to the Secretary-General for sympathetic review with a view to bringing substantive justice and closure to it” [para. 74 UNDT/2012/105, original emphasis].
The UNDT also tried to send a very important message to the Secretary-General about the importance of effectively upholding the UN whistleblowing policy, noting that, exceptionally in this case:
“This recommendation is made bearing in mind the special measures that have been put in place with regards to the protection of whistleblowers who risk their jobs, professional lives and livelihoods by courageously seeking to expose wrong-doings within the Organization.
The United Nations, being the foremost international Organization for setting standards for governments and other organizations, needs to review the case of this Applicant as this will serve not only the ends of justice but also to reassure whistleblowers that they are indeed protected” [paras. 75 and 76 UNDT/2012/105].
Following these findings, on 7 September 2012, Ms. Dzuverovic wrote to the Secretary-General pleading for the UNDT recommendation to be accepted and to be provided with a remedy. However, her letter received no reply and she had no option but to reiterate her request through a formal appeal to the UNAT.
The position of the Secretary-General is incomprehensible. The UN whistleblowing policy is a major element of the UN reform agenda and a first step in preventing retaliation is its recognition.
Last year, on 14 October 2011, following a film screening of "The Whistleblower" at the U.N. Headquarters, the Secretary-General declared that “[the film] underscores how important it is to speak out against abuse or injustice... Those who do so, in good faith, must not be punished ... We need to promote a culture in which people feel free and obliged to raise their voices in the face of wrongdoing and abuse."
Surprisingly, the cross-appeal now lodged by the Secretary-General constitutes an alarming backtracking of the UN whistleblowing policy which goes exactly in the opposite direction of the UNDT recommendation, sending the wrong message that protection of UN whistleblowers should not exist and impunity should be offered to all those who may choose to victimise or retaliate against fellow UN colleagues who have made credible allegations of misconduct.