Trump’s Whistleblower Attack ‘Undermines’ U.S. Global Accountability Push
The United States faces charges of double standards in its campaign to promote whistleblower protections at the U.N. and international organizations.
On Sept. 19, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally complained in writing to Fang Liu, the Chinese secretary-general of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), asserting that the United Nations agency she leads has done too little to protect whistleblowers in its ranks.
The letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, was only the latest instance of a senior U.S. diplomat making the case for greater accountability at the United Nations. For decades, U.S. officials have championed the cause of whistleblowers in foreign countries, the U.N., and other international organizations, where they have been lionized as courageous truth-tellers protecting the interests of American taxpayers who give generously in the form of foreign assistance and U.N. dues. (The United States continues to contribute more money to U.N. programs than any other country.)
But Pompeo’s stern message—he wrote that actions at the aviation agency “do not reflect a commitment to UN best practices on whistleblower protection”—has been muddied by U.S. President Donald’s Trump efforts to discredit and unmask the identity of the White House whistleblower in the ongoing impeachment probe. Trump has called the whistleblower, who said the president used the power of his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate unsubstantiated claims of corruption by one of his Democratic rivals, a “spy” and said on Wednesday, “This country has to find out who this person was.”
And Pompeo, who listened on the president’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has refused to fully cooperate with a congressional investigation into the whistleblower’s claims.
Observers of the U.S. role at the U.N. say the White House’s response to Ukraine scandal has seriously set back its calls for international accountability. “The president’s attack on the whistleblower eliminates all the credibility the United States needs for leverage on this issue,” said to Tom Devine, the legal director for the Government Accountability Project. “It severely undermines long-standing U.S. policy and funded commitments to strengthen whistleblower rights globally.”
The dispute at ICAO comes as the agency’s 193 member states are meeting in Montreal for its 40th assembly. The United States—frustrated by the agency’s failure to implement a strengthened whistleblower policy agreed by its 36-member council back in June—pressed the assembly to “endorse” the “immediate implementation” of the whistleblower policy. But China, backed by some African governments, opposed the effort, saying the agency’s bureaucracy needed to move at its own pace to formally integrate the policy into staff policy.
The defense of whistleblowers has also emerged as something of a subplot in the competition for global influence between China and the United States, which increasingly faults top Chinese officials at the U.N. with pursuing narrow national objectives at the expense of the greater good and failing to uphold the rule of law, including the protection of whistleblowers in their departments.
In the summer, the State Department circulated a diplomatic note to foreign delegations in Rome, urging them not to vote for a Chinese candidate for director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization. The candidate, the United States argued, “has shown a blatant disregard for critical issues, such as those involving sexual harassment and whistleblower protection,” according to the note, which was obtained by the news agency Devex. The effort failed, and China’s favored candidate, Qu Dongyu, beat the U.S.-backed candidate 108 to 12.
More broadly, the United States argued that Chinese nationals have abused their positions, pursuing China’s national interest at the expense of the international community. It cited China’s leadership at Interpol, which issued red notices against Uighur activists and other Chinese dissidents. The paper also cited televised remarks made earlier this year by Wu Hongbo, the former undersecretary-general for the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Wu proudly defended his decision back in April 2017 to expel a Uighur human rights advocate, Dolkun Isa, from a U.N. conference, saying “we have to strongly defend the motherland’s interests.”
“Chinese leaders at INTERPOL, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have demonstrated a bias towards Chinese foreign policy and a lack of transparency and accountability,” the U.S. note said.
The push for whistleblower accountability has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy for decades. In 2005, Christopher Burnham, then the U.N. undersecretary-general for management, introduced stepped-up protections for whistleblowers at the United Nations. (Burnham, by the way, also pledged allegiance to his own government.)
As part of its anti-corruption efforts, the U.S. Agency for International Development has been pressing governments from Serbia to Ukraine to pass laws protecting whistleblowers. Each year, the State Department is required by law to certify the U.N. protects whistleblowers or else it must withhold 15 percent of U.S. contributions to the organization’s administrative budget.
“The United States is deeply committed to advancing oversight, ethics, and accountability at international organizations through our continuous support of independent ethics office, enhanced oversight functions , and effective accountability mechanism,” Pompeo wrote in the Sept. 19 letter. “The establishment of these systems and credible whistleblower protections is a long standing priority for the United States.”
Pompeo acknowledged that the Montreal-based U.N. agency, which sets standards for international civil aviation, has taken “some steps to try to elevate its standards and ethics and accountability.” But he said it had not gone far enough to ensure “full transparency” in its activities.
In his letter to Liu, Pompeo made no reference to a specific whistleblower. But U.S. concerns over lack of protection for staff who expose wrongdoing were heightened by the experience of Vincent Smith, who accused ICAO officials of downplaying and eventually covering up evidence of a sophisticated November 2016 hack of the body’s computer system by a Chinese outfit, Emissary Panda, with links to the Chinese government, according to an investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
“When the article broke, some in the Secretariat were more concerned about finding the leaker than giving the council an accurate portrayal of what actually happened,” Thomas Carter, the U.S. ambassador to ICAO, said in a May 7 speech to International Aviation Club of Washington. “To put it bluntly, ICAO systems were totally exposed by a foreign state actor, and two completely independent forensic investigations proved this to be true. The way the hacks—by the way, not just one, but four—were handled was unacceptable.”
The U.S. push for the immediate implementation of stronger whistleblower policy drew firm support from U.S. allies from Brazil, Colombia, Canada, the European Union, and New Zealand. But Washington faced fierce resistance from China and Africa. On Wednesday, the United States—which contributes about a quarter of its $75 million annual budget—reportedly warned the assembly it would withhold its dues until it moved more swiftly to address its governance concern.
On Thursday, the United States agreed to a compromise with China and other ICAO members to back a provision that would “support” the immediate implementation of the whistleblower policy. It remained unclear whether that would be sufficient to convince Washington to withdraw its threat to cut funds. The U.S. ambassador, Carter, continued to seek assurances that the policy would apply retroactively to Smith.
For her part, Liu insisted Thursday that she had not delayed the rollout of the whistleblower policy.
“With respect to ICAO’s Whistleblower Policy, the ICAO Secretariat is already formalizing and implementing this in line with what the U.S. and our other Council States had endorsed at their June session earlier this year,” ICAO spokesperson Anthony Philbin told Foreign Policy. “Otherwise we work to continuously improve this Organization and to make it as transparent, accountable, and efficient as possible.”
For those who advocate on behalf of whistleblowers, the spectacle of a U.S. president characterizing one as a spy who would have been executed in an earlier period of U.S. history doesn’t help.
“This hands a talking point to other countries to say, well, the United States is questioning its own whistleblower protection policies at the moment,” said Peter Yeo, the president of the Better World Campaign, a U.N. advocacy group. On the other hand, Yeo said, “the whistleblower protection system is working as intended at the moment.” The whistleblower’s identity has not been revealed, and no retaliation has occurred. If that continues to be the case, this “should strengthen our hand at the U.N.”