Guest Post: The United Nations, Post-Conflict Societies, and Whistleblower Protection — Understanding the Connections

Ambassador Ugljesa Ugi Zvekic, Former Permanent Representative of the Republic of Serbia to the United Nations Senior Adviser and currently Adjunct Professor at LUISS School of Government in Rome, contributes the following guest post, which is based on research conducted by Ambassador Zvekic’s students Giorgio Sirtori, Alessandro Sabbini, and Alessandro Dowling:

Post-conflict countries are breeding grounds for corruption, due to the combination of weak (or non-existent) institutions, the chaos generated by both the previous conflict, the willingness of international interveners (and donors) to tolerate corruption as the price of stability. Indeed, of the sixteen ongoing international peacekeeping operations across the globe, almost all of these operations take place in some of the most corrupt areas of the world. While it is tempting to say that tackling corruption can and should be left to a later time, after basic needs have been met and basic rights have been guaranteed. But in fact our research, including case studies on international peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Kosovo, reveals that corruption jeopardizes peacekeeping and state-building operations per se, and, consequently, it is vital to incorporate anticorruption efforts at the earliest stages of these kinds of operations.

Given the importance of anticorruption measures in state-building and peacekeeping operations, one issue that should be high up in the agenda of the United Nations is that of whistleblower protection. However, the UN’s own policy on internal whistleblowers has been disappointing, and jeopardizes the UN’s efforts to fight corruption and to promote accountability in post-conflict settings.

The most notable case, which Matthew discussed in an earlier post on this blog, concerns James Wasserstrom, a former UN official who, while stationed at the UN mission in Kosovo, reported the misconduct of his direct superiors and suffered retaliation in return.

Mr. Wasserstrom reported his case to the UN Ethics Office, which, after investigation, denied there was retaliation involved, and so he tried to have the decision reviewed by the UN Dispute Tribunal. The UN Secretary General then appealed to the UN Appeals Tribunal, claiming that the decision by the Ethics Office could not be received by the UN Dispute Tribunal in the first place, not being an administrative decision. Central to the whole case was the receivability of the case itself. The UN Appeals Tribunal decreed that Mr. Wasserstrom’s claim was not receivable by the UNDT since only administrative decisions are judicially receivable, and the Ethics Office does not pass “administrative decisions.”

However, our analysis of the case – based on a combination of common sense and a close reading of UN Secretariat Bulletins (11, 21, 22) –found that UNAT’s conclusion is flawed because the Ethics Office is by nature an administrative body, and so its decisions can and should be reviewed by UNDT if necessary. The consequences of the present state of affairs –making the UN Ethics Office decisions non-receivable by internal judiciary bodies – greatly impedes anticorruption efforts, because potential whistleblowers will be unwilling to report corruptive misconduct within UN offices, thereby undermining accountability for corrupt practice.

Addressing and bridging the accountability gap for whistleblower protection is the best claim the UN has to live up to its role as leader in international anticorruption. This, in turn, will be a first step in supporting the international community in carrying out with hope and credibility peace-keeping and state-building operations around the world.

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