The United Nations whistleblower policies: an illusion of protection?

Authors: Alannah Meyrath and Denise Overkleeft

Threatened, bullied, harassed and eventually fired. It happened to Miranda Brown and will most likely happen to Emma Reilly, two United Nations (UN) employees who blew the whistle on misconduct within the organization. While the UN has a policy that legally protects whistleblowers, they are in reality often left to their own devices. 

Article 33 (Protection of Reporting Persons) of the UN Convention against Corruption, provides legal protection from retaliation for whistleblowers who report misconduct within the UN. According to the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), effective whistleblower policies show an organization’s commitment to accountability, integrity and ethics. Components of strong organizational governance and risk management, important for an organization as the United Nations, which presents itself as committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. 

“No whistleblower ever made it through the whole ordeal and is still working at the UN”, says Emma Reilly, a human rights lawyer. She was recognized as a whistleblower by the UN in July 2020, seven years after she reported the Chief of the Human Rights Council Branch Eric Tistounet in 2013 for actively providing names of dissidents to the Chinese delegation. 

Reilly started working for the UN Human Rights Office (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR) in January 2012 and was reassigned in February 2013 to support interaction of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the Council. A few days in, she was informed that the Chinese government was asking around for names of Chinese dissidents that applied to speak in front of the Council, something the Chinese government tries to prevent at all costs. The same request had already been denied to Turkey a year before. But, according to Reilly, Tistounet suggested that because it was China, the matter was up for debate. Reilly expressed safety concerns and noted that the UN Human rights office should apply the same rule to all Member states.  

At this point Reilly did not know yet how deep the Chinese policy actually ran. A meeting was held with the Chinese delegation, presenting this request as an unprecedented one, when in reality Tistounet has been allowing this Chinese policy since 2006. According to Reilly, it started out as an individual act that is now implemented in the Council’s policies. Hundreds of names have been given to the Chinese government and in the 2013 meeting Tistounet argued that the list of participants in the UN Human rights council was public and announced weeks in advance. This list however, was never published at any point. Reilly says that this whole meeting was just a farce. 

The Lens contacted Eric Tistounet for his side of the story. In a response he wrote that he “would have liked very much to respond to our queries and rectify fake news and defamation.” Yet, given the matter at large is subjected to internal UN investigations, Tistounet is however not at liberty to discuss them externally.

Raw video: UN Human Rights Council spokesman Rolando Gomez responds to Fox News about the allegations of handing names of dissidents to the Chinese government

Reilly started to report this policy first internally, later externally. In an attempt to make Reilly complicit, she herself was asked to provide names to the Chinese government to consequentially stop her reports. Instead of implementing the whistleblower policy and protecting Reilly, the UN then proceeded to threaten Reilly to stop the reports externally and not talk to the press. The UN even went as far as putting her under investigation, an important and required step to be able to fire her.

Reilly is not the only person the UN whistleblower policy seemed to have failed. Just like Reilly, Miranda Brown blew the whistle at the UN’s Human Rights Office and was actually fired: “I disclosed child sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic,” she says. “After which I have been subjected to ongoing retaliation by the UN for over five years, including the loss of my job, harassment, and blacklisting,” she adds. 

And Reilly and Brown are no exceptions. As part of a review of whistleblower policies within the UN, the Joint Inspection Unit conducted 17 personnel case studies. Almost all the respondents indicated that they suffered psychologically in the process of reporting. Many experienced sleepless nights, were depressed and felt a significant impact on their personal lives. On top of that, most of them believed that their reporting had effectively put an end to their future career prospects within the UN. 

Yet, these were the people that did report the misconduct. Out of the 15,862 respondents to a survey among 23 UN system organizations, the majority of respondents – who claimed to have witnessed misconduct – did not report it. In reality, this means that much wrongdoing within the UN goes unpunished, which does not only encourage bad behaviour, but can also damage the UN’s reputation. 

In a letter to dutch Ambassador van Dalen, a diplomat Reilly reached out to in Geneva, Reilly acknowledged that “there is no transparency within the UN and the only way to find out about misconduct is through whistleblowers disclosures.” However, instead of encouraging the reporting of wrongdoing, the UN tries to shield itself from reputational damage by silencing its personnel. 57% of the respondents who witnessed wrongdoing, said that they did not report it out of fears of retaliation that could include losing one’s job, receiving a poor performance evaluation or damaging one’s career opportunities. 

While the whistleblowers were threatened not to talk to the press about their cases, Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, actively talked to the media about Brown. In off-the-record emails from March 2018 to an undisclosed journalist, Colville is discrediting Brown: “If Miranda had truly been maltreated by my organization, I would say all power to her in her quest for justice. It is my duty to warn you that you are being manipulated.“

The idea of these emails being off record, gave Colville the opportunity to let out his feelings. Calling former colleagues “pretty shitty people” and describing the situation as “crap” and “two and a half years of [..] bullshit”, shows the unprofessionality Colville displays. He has no problem roasting both the media and Brown and therefore actively engages in retaliating against Brown behind her back. Colville never expected these emails to be shared around. 

Even though Colville’s behaviour leaves much to be desired, his points are raising questions: “Now she claims SHE is the whistleblower in the CAR (Central African Republic) sexual abuse case itself – even though this was not a claim she made when describing herself as “a key witness”, he writes. Colville interprets Brown’s whistleblower claim as a last resort to save herself after all her claims did not work out. 

In other words, Colville suspects Brown of malicious reporting – the reporting of wrongdoing or misconduct in the absence of reasonable suspicion or without any form of evidence. Colville claims that Brown misuses the whistleblower policies: taking over the persona of a whistleblower to demand a job she has no entitlement to”, as Colville writes in the email. 

It is difficult to determine to what extent there has been any misconduct against both Brown and Reilly. To get an overview about Reilly’s case, The Lens contacted dr. Antenor Hallo de Wolf, Assistant Professor International Law and Human Rights at the University of Groningen. “The Independent Review of the Determination of the UN Ethics Office [..] strongly suggests that there has been some wrongdoing and bias against Reilly. It does not allow one to fully conclude this is actually the case yet,” Hallo de Wolf explains. 

UN Photo/Elma Okic
The Human Rights Council, Geneva (file photo, May 2018)

Among other things, The Ethics Office has decided that none of the principles could take precedence over the possibility of a better political relationship with the Chinese government. Besides, Reilly’s reports about the Chinese policy misconduct could not have been reports of misconduct as UN senior managers took no action to stop the policy. According to The Ethics Office, someone would have stepped in if something wrong would have happened, but nobody did, meaning there is no misconduct from the UN’s side.

Reilly’s case was presented before Judge Rowan Downing, who partially ruled in favor of her submission about the failure to act on her complaint about abuse of authority. If the senior managers failed to act on her complaint and the judge agreed to that statement, why did the Ethics Office introduce it as a key factor for not granting Reilly the whistleblower protection?

One month after Judge Downing heard the case he was let go without any real explanation. Furthermore “there seems to be no information about whether the judgment issued by Downing has been subjected to a follow-up, which is rather concerning,” says Dr. Hallo de Wolf. Is there no follow-up because Judge Downing partially agreed with her in the first place? 

While there is no hard proof, it does seem that something is wrong when it comes to the whistleblower policy. The Ethics Office, which is responsible for protecting the whistleblowers from retaliation, has received 40 applications in the most recent reporting period, and not one application has yet been found worthy of protection. According to Reilly, the whistleblower policy has just been implemented so that the United States would not cut its funding. 

Inquiries about the whistleblower policies within the UN
(published in the annual report of The Ethics Office in 2015)

The report of the Joint Investigation Unit disclosed something similar during their review: “These protection against retaliation policies, more often than not, emerged as ad hoc responses to high-profile whistle-blower cases or were adopted in response to Member States’ requests.” This raises the question if the whistleblower policy is more about appearance than actual reality. 

The Lens contacted the UN and has so far not received a response about the success or effectiveness of the whistleblower policy. 

United Nations leaders are expected to set the tone at the top: they should set the example for staff to follow, act on and react to. The people in higher positions should be the ones who create and support a culture of accountability, integrity and responsibility – in which ethical values and principles are adhered to. The implementation and effective application of whistleblower policies play a vital role in this: they signal an organization’s value on ethical conduct. 

A report by the UN Joint Inspection Unit from 2016 found that “whistleblowers alone account for the uncovering of more fraud and corruption within the UN system than all other measures of fraud detection combined.” Yet, these whistleblowers themselves are often not much welcomed by the higher-ups within the UN. Instead of showing gratitude, the UN has in multiple cases responded with retaliation measures in an attempt to protect the organization. But now that the whistleblowers receive media attention, the question is whether retaliation against whistleblowers protects or worsens the reputation of the UN.

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