Odious Debts

Honesty doesn’t pay at UN, staff say in survey

Steven Edwards
National Post
June 16, 2004

United Nations: When Montrealer Andre Sirois blew the whistle on gross mismanagement at the United Nations, he thought he was doing it a favour.

But he found himself ostracized and denied promotion as a translator for the UN’s war crimes court for Rwanda.

This was despite being proved right and seeing Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, fire the court’s first chief administrative officer and deputy prosecutor.

An internal UN survey shows many staffers believe they will suffer the same fate if they speak out about fraud or wrongdoing, so they keep their mouths shut.

The results have shocked Mr. Annan, who ordered the survey to show the UN’s “integrity” after it pushed through a major international treaty on corruption.

The moral health of the UN is important because the organization presents itself as the world’s moral compass.

Typical responses from 6,086 staffers give the general picture.

“Senior leaders caught in serious breaches of ethics should be punished, not promoted as usual,” said one. Another identified “old boy networks within the UN system who protect and advance the careers of certain groups [and] nationalities.”

Since it was established after the Second World War, the UN has grown into a sprawling organization with the goal of spreading peace and prosperity around the world. Its multi-billion dollar funding comes from member countries, with developed nations such as Canada providing more than 80% of the cash.

But 56.2% of respondents say staff and management claim they care about ethics, then act differently. Only 14.2% said the reverse was true.

Huge scandals have erupted over the years, but the UN usually investigates itself, then compiles “lessons learned” that rarely result in firings.

The survey shows staffers have no confidence in this system, with 46.1% saying supervisors who violate ethical or professional conduct guidelines are not disciplined appropriately or consistently. Only 9.5% thought the disciplinary measures were fine.

The United Nations tells world governments the way to avoid corruption is to encourage openness, but 43.7% of its staffers believe attempts to report professional misconduct is “career-limiting.” Only 9.7% felt they could continue to move up the ladder after exposing wrongdoing.

The problem, the survey said, is there is little protection for whistleblowers.

In a letter to staff, Mr. Annan said the organization would try to do better.

“We will inform all staff about the means available to them for reporting on suspected misconduct,” he wrote. “We will also develop measures to reinforce formal protection for whistleblowers.”

The question of whether whistleblowers can come forward with impunity will take on growing significance in coming weeks as a UN inquiry gets underway into corruption allegations over the US$65-billion oil-for-food program it ran in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Mr. Annan has declared the inquiry “independent,” but Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve Board chairman leading it, has already seen staffers quit over lack of funding. The inquiry is also hampered by its inability to subpoena witnesses or take testimony under oath.

Under Canadian law, whistleblowers may receive some of the money collected or saved because of their actions. At the UN, they are often threatened with dismissal.

That is the possible fate of two field workers who joined a former UN official to write a book revealing widespread sexual shenanigans, drugs, corruption and incompetence in UN peacekeeping missions.

“The tendency at the UN is to save face rather than save lives, and to shift the blame rather than fix the problem,” said Andrew Thomson, one of the authors, who remains at the UN as a medical doctor.

He wrote Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell On Earth with Kenneth Cain, a former human rights official, and Heidi Postlewait, a UN training officer.

“Even if you are not fired, many people do not come forward because of the way you are subsequently treated in the workplace,” Ms. Postlewait said. “There’s pressure where you’re made to feel like the bad guy. And you feel like you will never get another promotion.”

Having his phone cut was just one form of harassment suffered by Sirois after he and two other UN officials at the Rwanda court alleged mismanagement that included misuse of money, nepotism and favouritism.

Next, the chief administrative officer, Andronico Adede of Kenya, fired him. It took another year before UN headquarters in New York realized Sirois and his colleagues were right. It took until last year for its Administrative Tribunal to review his firing.

It was stunned to find Adede had replaced favourable job performance reports in Sirois’ file with bad ones. Sirois had taken the precaution of photocopying the originals.

He was awarded $240,000, but officials have told him a “mistake” may mean he only gets $188,000.

He estimates he has lost $600,000 in salary, pension and costs. He could appeal – but that would take several more years.

Categories: Odious Debts

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