Until the United Nations can show that it has a credible record of protecting whistleblowers, employees who are aware of sexual exploitation or other human rights abuses in peacekeeping operations are likely to remain silent, writes Rasna Warah, a former UN staff member.
The recent protests in Haiti against United Nations peacekeepers who allegedly sexually abused a Haitian man occurred, unfortunately, at a time when the UN was desperately trying to protect its image after the recent release of the feature film The Whistleblower, which reveals UN personnel’s complicity in human trafficking in Bosnia.
The Whistleblower is a film based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a former UN peacekeeper who, while serving in Bosnia during 1999-2000 stumbled upon a horrific human trafficking ring that involved her colleagues in the UN, the US-based company that contracted her, and a cartel of local traffickers.
The film documents Bolkovac’s desperate efforts to save two Ukrainian girls sold into sexual slavery in Bosnia. Her attempts to expose the human trafficking ring that kidnapped and sold them were thwarted by UN bureaucrats and her bosses, who seemed more concerned about preserving their organisations’ reputations than protecting the lives of women.
Bolkovac was eventually fired by the organisation appointed by the UN to provide peacekeepers from the USA to Bosnia (and which is currently operating in Somalia), but successfully won a suit for wrongful dismissal in a British court.
One reviewer said the film “constitutes perhaps the darkest cinematic portrayal of a UN operation ever on the big screen, finding particular fault with top UN brass, the US State Department, and a major US contractor that supplies American policemen for UN missions”.
Sources say UN spin doctors have been working overtime towards damage control and to show that the world body is serious about addressing human rights violations and other wrongdoing by its own personnel.
Prior to the release of The Whistleblower, the UN Department of Public Information issued a press release stating that since the Bosnian case, the world body had adopted a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual exploitation and abuse.
However, in the Haitian case, which was revealed when a video of a young Haitian man being stripped and sexually molested by peacekeepers from Uruguay found its way on to the internet, the UN is already showing signs that it has high levels of tolerance for sexual and other kinds of abuse by its peacekeepers.
Despite the obvious sexual nature of the video and the views of a doctor who found evidence of sexual assault on the man’s body, the UN spokeswoman in Haiti told the Associated Press in September that preliminary investigations by the UN showed “no evidence of rape”.
Sexual abuse among local populations by UN peacekeepers is nothing new. Several cases have been reported in DRCongo and in other war-ravaged parts of the world. What is disturbing about these cases is that the UN, while claiming to have a “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse by peacekeepers, does not do much to protect those who expose such wrongdoing. This means that even if a UN staffer witnesses sexual abuse, he or she dare not report it for fear of retaliation. The Washington-based Government Accountability Project (GAP) has taken on several such cases of UN staff members who find themselves suffering severe retaliation, including intimidation and dismissal, as a result of their whistleblowing.
While sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers tends to get more media coverage, other cases involving fraud, misappropriation of funds, corruption and mismanagement somehow do not make it to the headlines. Nor are they adequately addressed by the internal oversight bodies of the UN.
I worked for the Nairobi-based headquarters of a UN organisation for almost 12 years and in all that time I saw only one case of someone being fired for misappropriation of funds. In that particular case, the termination of the senior official was prompted by powerful member states of the UN who orchestrated a “name and shame” campaign that led to the forced resignation of the official. It would hardly surprise anyone who has worked within the UN system that the organisation is, as GAP’s founder Tom Devine put it, “a unique and extreme case of organisational non-accountability”.
In January this year, the Associated Press published a review of the UN that found that theft of taxpayers’ money is rampant in the neediest countries, and that the UN is unwilling or unable to bring the culprits to book. For instance, the review, based on a UN Procurement Task Force report, found that no action had been taken following an investigation completed in December 2008 that discovered that $1m a day was being siphoned off from a UN safe in Kabul – funds that were part of an $850m rebuilding project in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, no action was taken after it was found that nearly half of $350,000 intended for a UN-funded radio station in Baghdad was used to pay off personal loans, a mortgage, and credit cards.
Another investigation revealed that there was major corruption and bid-rigging in UN contracts awarded to transport companies in Africa. In one case, a former UN peacekeeper based in Kosovo, who now serves as an anti-corruption officer at an American embassy, claimed that he was fired from his job after reporting what he suspected was a case of corruption.
An article published in the New York Times in June this year claimed that he suffered severe retaliation from his colleagues as a result of the reporting, including having his house searched and having posters bearing his picture hung around the headquarters to prevent him from entering the compound. The UN Procurement Task Force, established in 2006, uncovered dozens of such irregularities before it was disbanded in 2009, the result of pressure from some UN member states whose nationals had been implicated in some of the irregularities.
Since then, the number of cases investigated by the UN’s other oversight mechanisms has dropped dramatically. Watchdog organisations believe that this is because the leadership at the UN is unwilling to bring culprits to book, especially if they are nationals of influential member states. However, individual donor countries are now beginning to question how their money is spent by the UN. In March this year, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) published a review of several UN organisations and found that many consistently failed to deliver results on the ground. It also showed that some organisations had extremely poor records of transparency and accountability.
As a result, DfID announced that it would be cutting or withdrawing core funding from some of the worst-performing agencies, including the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). However, it is doubtful whether even these measures will lead to better oversight and more transparency within the UN’s various programmes and agencies.
The scandal in Iraq
The story of UN complicity in theft and fraud was played out dramatically in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign. On 25 January 2004, Al-Mada, a newspaper in Baghdad, published an article that claimed that it had obtained a secret list of individuals, firms and bodies to whom the Iraqi leader had allocated crude oil during various stages of the UN Oil-for-Food programme.
Many of the recipients of the Iraqi oil were not oil companies, but were politically influential in some way, and included, among others, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Communist Party, French politicians, the president of Indonesia, a British member of parliament and politicians from Jordan, Syria and Egypt. In total, some 2,200 companies from over 40 countries were implicated in the scandal that saw roughly $1.8bn disappear into individual pockets.
These revelations hardly surprised Michael Soussan, a former employee of the UN Oil-for-Food programme in Iraq between 1997 and 2000. Soussan left his UN job after he discovered a series of irregularities in what was then the largest humanitarian operation in UN history.
In an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal in March 2004, Soussan alleged that the UN was aware of
front-companies used by Saddam Hussein (which were giving up to 10% kickbacks to the Iraqi leader), but “preferred to look the other way rather than address obvious signs of what was going wrong”.
One week after his shocking exposé, the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, appointed Paul Volcker to lead a team of international investigators who spent months unravelling details of the mega-scandal.
Soussan testified before the US Congress about his allegations and has written a book called Backstabbing for Beginners that explains how the biggest scam in UN history was allowed to continue under the neglectful eye of UN officials who were charged with ensuring that UN sanctions against Iraq did not harm civilians.
Like many idealistic UN employees who “come to the organisation filled with passion for making a positive difference in the world,” Soussan soon realised that too many battles were being fought within UN corridors by people and nations that had only self-interest in mind.
He shows how UN bureaucrats, Iraqi officials, politicians and front-companies colluded in price-fixing and kickback-taking at the expense of the Iraqi people. The net result was that Saddam Hussein became fabulously wealthy and the Iraqi people suffered from lack of food, medicine and other essential goods.
Soussan’s use of anecdotes and satire to describe the inner workings of the UN and his recounting of his frustrating attempts to bring about more transparency in the Oil-for-Food programme, certainly resonated with me.
In 2009, I reported several irregularities within my section to all my supervisors, but instead of addressing them, I was humiliated and intimidated, and eventually forced out. I realised then that I had inadvertently become an “accidental whistleblower”.
Contrary to popular belief, most whistleblowers do not report wrongdoing to the media; they often report it first to their supervisors out of a sense of duty and “doing the right thing”. If the intention is to gag the whistleblower, retaliation and dismissal soon follow. Quite often, whistleblowers resign from the organisation when the retaliation becomes unbearable.
In 2005, in the wake of the Oil-for-Food scandal, Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a Whistleblower Protection Policy that was developed after months of consultation with GAP and other experts in whistleblower protection law. The policy established an Ethics Office that is responsible for receiving appeals for protection from whistleblowers.
In 2009, the UN created a new and improved internal justice system – consisting of a Dispute Tribunal and an Appeals Tribunal – to review whistleblower cases and other employee grievances.
Despite a raft of policies to protect whistleblowers, however, the UN’s record in protecting whistleblowers has been dismally poor, says Shelley Walden, the international programme officer at GAP. Between 2007 and 2010, for instance, the UN Secretariat’s Ethics Office found a prima facie case of retaliation in only 1.5% of the cases it received. In other words, the UN Ethics Office failed to protect more than 98% of whistleblowers who approached it for help.
Walden says that in 2007 the current UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, weakened protection for whistleblowers significantly when he decided that UN programmes and specialised agencies could create their own piecemeal whistleblower policies.
Most of these new policies are weaker than the 2005 policy that GAP helped the UN draft. Ban Ki-moon has also challenged several UN Dispute Tribunal orders and decisions that were favourable to whistleblowers.
Moreover, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, the investigating arm of the UN, has often refused to investigate whistleblower retaliation cases.
“Until the UN can show that it has a credible record of protecting whistleblowers, employees who are aware of sexual exploitation, or other human rights abuses, in peacekeeping operations are likely to remain silent. As a result, opportunities to curb atrocities similar to those depicted in The Whistleblower will continue to be lost,” says Walden.
The one complaint that the UN did take seriously though is that of Ismail Ahmed, a former employee of the UNDP who said he suffered retaliation from his boss for claiming that the UNDP Somalia programme was corrupt. In March 2010, the UNDP Ethics Committee upheld Ahmed’s complaint, a decision that came in the wake of a controversial report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia, whose investigations revealed that up to half of the food aid sent to Somalia was stolen by a network of corrupt transport contractors, militia and local UN employees.
The Monitoring Group recommended that further investigations be conducted and that the contracts of the transport contractors mentioned in its report be terminated.
However, in August this year, the Associated Press reported that theft of food aid was still rampant in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and that much of this food ends up for sale in the city’s markets. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP), the largest supplier of food aid to Somalia, continues to deny that food aid is being diverted or stolen. After the Associated Press report, WFP spokesperson Greg Barrow suggested that the diversion of food aid amounted to just 1% cent of the total amount of assistance that reached Mogadishu and that “the scale of the alleged theft is implausible”, a claim denied by the AP reporter Katharine Houreld, who took several pictures of US, Japanese and WFP food aid being sold openly in Mogadishu’s markets.
(Rasna Warah, a former UN-HABITAT staff member, is a columnist with the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper. This article is adapted from an essay published in her book, Red Soil and Roasted Maize: Selected Essays and Articles on Contemporary Kenya, published by AuthorHouse in 2011.)