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U.N. whistleblower: expose corruption at your own peril

U.N. whistleblower: expose corruption at your own peril

A U.N. disputes tribunal has awarded $65,000 in compensation to an American whistleblower in a landmark case that exposed failings in the U.N.’s Ethics Office and challenged the privileges of the U.N. secretary general to withhold sensitive internal documents from the U.N. administrative court.

The award was a fraction of the more than $3.8 million sought by James Wasserstrom, who was forced from his U.N. job in Kosovo after cooperating in an internal investigation of corruption by U.N. officials. He was subsequently stripped of his U.N. passport and treated like a criminal by his U.N. bosses.

Wasserstrom dismissed the award as paltry — enough to purchase "half a dozen first class plane tickets for the secretary general and his senior staff" — but too little to compensate for the "five years of legal battles and expenses" and the "degrading treatment" he endured.  

"I put them, the U.N. Ethics Office, the whistleblower protection machinery, and the internal justice system of the U.N. to the integrity test and they all failed," he told Turtle Bay. The "message to U.N. staff who might one day want to come forward and do the right thing: do so at your own risk. You have absolutely no protection. And those who retaliate against you suffer no consequences."

The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment this afternoon. (*See note below for U.N. response)

In February 2007, the American diplomat began cooperating with a U.N. inquiry into reports of kickbacks given to U.N. officials responsible for Kosovo’s energy sector. Two months later, Wasserstrom was informed that the United Nations was shutting down his department, the Office for Coordination of Oversight of Publicly Owned Enterprises, and that his contract would expire by June 30. In May, Wasserstrom signed a consultancy contract to advise executives of Kosovo’s main airport, triggering a conflict-of-interest investigation.

On June 1, 2007, Wasserstrom was detained by U.N. police. His home was searched: his office was cordoned off with police tape. A poster with his picture instructed officials not to permit him onto U.N. premises, effectively ending a 27 year career at the United Nations. The episode, he said, made it impossible for him to secure a new job within the U.N. system, killing off his prospects to gain full retirement benefits two years before he was scheduled to retire.

Wasserstrom — who now works as a senior anti-corruption advisor at the U.S. embassy in Kabul — filed a retaliation complaint in June 2007, with the U.N. Ethics Office. The office subsequently ruled that his treatment "appeared to be excessive" but that an investigation "did not find any evidence that their activities were retaliatory."

The case cast a troubling light on the U.N.’s internal safeguards for protecting whistleblowers. The presiding judge, Goolam Meeran, wrote  in his ruling that the U.N. Ethics Office, which bears responsibility for determining whether whistleblower retaliation has occurred, had failed to recognize "the significance of documentary evidence" showing he had suffered retaliation.

"There was clear and uncontested evidence, supported by the findings … that the applicant’s contractual rights were breached, which included clear evidence of severe human rights abuses," the judge wrote.

The breaches, however, were never addressed by the ethics committee, nor were the reasons for subjecting him to "such insensitive and degrading treatment," Meeran wrote. "In the absence of a cogent and satisfactory explanation, the inescapable inference must be that the underlying motive was retaliatory."

"The tribunal finds it difficult to envisage a worse case of insensitive, high handed and arbitrary treatment in breach of fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Meeran added. "The failure of the ethics office to recognize such gross violations calls seriously into question its suitability and effectiveness as a body charged with" helping the U.N. secretary general ensure the "highest standards of integrity" among staff and fostering "a culture of ethics, transparency and accountability."

The judge also battered the U.N.’s lawyers for having delayed the disclosure of key documents, including a critical internal investigative report on the case. "The tribunal has unquestionable power to require any person to disclose any document or provide any information that appears to it to be necessary for a fair and expeditious disposal of the proceedings’," Meeran wrote.  "The tribunal finds that the [UN’s] conduct of the proceedings in deliberately and persistently refusing, without good cause, to abide by the Orders of the Tribunal and not granting access to the full ID/OIOS’s investigation report constituted manifest abuse of proceedings.

Meeran awarded Wasserstrom $50,000 in compensation for the mistreatment he endured in Kosovo and $15,000 in legal fees. But the judge did not compensate him for the loss of his job in Kosovo, citing insufficient evidence that his firing was the result of retaliation.

The low award reflected the fact that judges on the U.N. disputes tribunal have "no power to award exemplary or punitive damages" against the organization. But Judge Meeran also denied Wasserstrom’s prospect of a larger award on the basis of a technicality.

Wasserstrom had argued that he was entitled to future compensation, including salary and benefits, because he would have expected to return to a job with his longstanding employer, the U.N. Development Program, after he concluded his stint in Kosovo. But he said the stain of the episode had made him unemployable.

The judge, however, ruled that irrespective of the merits of such a claim the U.N. Development Program was not a party to the dispute, and that Wasserstrom had no basis for raising a claim so late in the proceedings. "It is now too late to raise this matter," Meeran wrote. "Consequently, the tribunal dismisses all [Wasserstrom’s] claims regarding compensation for lost earnings and associated benefits."

*The U.N. issued this response after the story was posted. Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general:  "Judgements of the U.N. Dispute Tribunal are not final until they have been confirmed by the U.N. Appeals Tribunal. The organization is examining this judgment to determine whether an appeal is warranted. Consistent with established policy regarding ongoing cases, which includes cases under appeal and cases that may be appealed, the organization is not in a position to provide any further comments at this time."

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