Whistleblowing has long played an essential role in exposing corruption or wrongdoings by systems where internal monitoring mechanisms have failed. It serves as a tool, though to the detriment of the whistle-blower, to unmask and give the general public an understanding of how and why internal control mechanisms have failed. One must pay closer attention when the United Nations, an entity with varied organs that operates in nearly every nation, fails to meaningfully address concerns and accounts of whistleblowers.

One must pay closer attention when the United Nations, an entity with varied organs that operates in nearly every nation, fails to meaningfully address concerns and accounts of whistleblowers.

The most recent incident that has caught public attention is that of Maureen Achieng, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Chief of Mission to Ethiopia, and Dennia Gayle, Representative at United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In an interview with an independent journalist, Jeff Pearce, these two high-ranking UN officials discuss irregular reporting channels established in the months following the onset of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict in November of 2020. They explain that due to increased humanitarian need, more coordinators were brought into the region to meet the affected population’s needs. However, according to Achieng and Gayle, these new personnel regularly bypassed the existing chain of command, which includes country representatives, and reported directly to U.N. headquarter offices in New York and Geneva.

This unconventional side-lining of heads of agencies hints at the greater internal procedural struggle within the U.N. system. Their account sheds light on the ringing question of alligences in a complex conflict between the elected government of Ethiopia, and the presently recognized terrorist group, the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who became the defacto administrators of Tigray, and the relief efforts therein. Achieng and Gayle were both placed on administrative leave under a citation of “unauthorized interviews’’ on October 11th and 12th respectively.

What are the United Nation’s own whistleblower policies?

The United Nations claims to extend protection to all staff members, regardless of type of appointment and duration. The policy considers protected activities to be reporting and cooperation pursuant to ST/SGB/2017/2/ Rev.1 where protection is provided when an evidence based report is made internally to the United Nations Ethics Office in good faith and within a 6 month period since awareness of misconduct. The U.N. also allows for external mechanisms of reporting when the reporting is necessary to avoid threats to public health and safety, damage to U.N. operations are eminent, the aforementioned misconduct is in violation of national or international law, or when internal mechanisms prove insufficient.

Though the regulation is extensive, misalignment between policy and practice demonstrates that protection is not guaranteed to those that undermine the greater institution. In fact, a 2015 U.N. report exposed that between 2006 and 2014 the Ethics Office evaluated 403 cases but established only 4 as retaliatory. This outcome left 55% of staff believing there would be little to no protection of whistle-blowers resulting in diminished confidence of the internal reporting mechanism.

The following three high profile whistleblower cases (James Wasserstrom, Miranda Brown and Emily Reilly) illustrate why there is staff reservation against reporting, and flaws with the implementation of the whistleblower policy of the U.N.

In 2007 James Wasserstrom, while serving as the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Oversight of Publicly Owned Enterprises in Kosovo, reported concerns of corruption between senior U.N. officials and top politicians over a proposed power plant and mine. His action was met with retaliatory measures like non-renewal of employment contract and the closure of his office which he took to the Ethics office.

However, Wasserstrom’s claims were dismissed by a secondary evaluation system (U.N. Investigation Division) forcing him to take the case to the U.N. Dispute Tribunal in 2009. By 2012 his case was resolved with compensation of 65,000 (USD) in damages. It’s important to note the time it took the U.N to process cases and equally important that the measures taken prove to not be heavy enough deterrents for international organizations to refrain from future misconduct. Conversely, the consequences paid by whistleblowers are careerlong.

What is clear with these precedents is the converse relationship between weak deterrents for the institution
contrasted with long term reprisal for whistleblowers cultivating a culture of fear and acceptance of wrongdoing.

Another such case is that of, Miranda Brown who in 2014 was the Director of the Africa Branch at the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). At the time, her office received a report from a human rights officer in Bangui, CAR in which he documented sexual abuse of young boys in an Internally Displaced Persons camp by U.N. peacekeepers. Brown and her then supervisor, Anders Kompass, forwarded this report to OHCHR in Geneva but saw no measures taken to rectify the situation. Thus in July 2014, Kompass and Brown disclosed the allegations of abuse to French authorities and law enforcement. Within months, Brown was terminated and Kompass suspended pending an internal investigation. Though Brown’s claims were validated by an independent panel convened by Member States, she was blacklisted and her contract never renewed.

Similarly, Emily Reilly, while working at OHCHR in 2013 received an email in which she was asked by Chinese officials to turn over names of human rights defenders who planned to attend a Human Rights Council (HRC) meeting in Geneva. Believing the request to be against OHCHR mandate and HRC rules, she reported her concerns to her seniors but learned the names were already handed over. The misconduct occurred to limit mistrust between China and the agency. Challenging this action resulted in reprisal in the form of exclusion from meetings, dissemination of false reporting and performance reviews which included false and prejudicial information. After 5 years of engaging with the Ethics Office, Reilly is recognized as a whistleblower, however she still has multiple active proceedings and was terminated from the U.N. mid November of 2021.

What is clear with these precedents is the converse relationship between weak deterrents for the institution contrasted with long term reprisal for whistleblowers cultivating a culture of fear and acceptance of wrongdoing. Organizations that have the power to validate and redefine misconduct, are inept at implementing sufficient protection of those that expose the corruption of the institution itself. Such is the case of Achieng and Gayle where their act of whistleblowing was redefined as an unauthorized interview. Achieng and Gayle’s case is still unfolding. Thus far, both officials have been placed on administrative leave and have been recalled from Ethiopia. The different U.N. agencies involved have distanced themselves from the officials citing the recording as antithetical to U.N. principles and values. Unlike the email evidence Reilly gathered, Achieng and Gayle can only refer to a timeline signifying change in normal operating procedures and the hearsay that the sidelining is due to assumed political preference.

Though it is yet to be determined if the UN regards Maureen Achieng and Dennia Gayle as legitimate whistle-blowers, granting them the protection they deserve, the Ethiopian public is witness to two major pitfalls. One, the fact that questions of corruption were raised by high ranking officials where the greater UN was accused of taking a political stance which might affect the outcome of a war; raising issues of sovereignty, and the unintended outcome of international interventions in protracted conflicts. Secondly, that challenging the status quo is not without repercussions, even in an internationally trusted body like the U.N.

The U.N. is burdened to not only uphold the standards but to be a bastion of good practice. Ethiopians and Africans alike, have made their protests public over Achieng and Gayle’s removal through the hashtag “#IamMaureenAchieng”. This timely public outcry maybe the only path of action the public has to protect whistle-blowers, but it might also serve as a wake up call for the U.N. to re-evaluate its policy as reservation towards international aid and development agencies continues to rise.