New U.S. Reformer at the UN Must Review Whistleblower Protection

Isobel Coleman, senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York
Isobel Coleman, senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Coleman said she expects 'very tough' negotiations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By voice vote on December 16, 2014, the U.S. Senate confirmed Dr. Isobel Coleman as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations for Management and Reform. Dr. Coleman comes to the U.S. mission with ambassadorial rank and sterling intellectual and policy credentials. Some observers, however, are not sure that these qualities will help her address the stubborn mismanagement issues at the UN. This is a real concern because, after the arguments about peace, security, human rights and development cool down, it is actually the management of the place that really matters.

The United Nations, as we all know, has its enthusiastic supporters and its bitter detractors, but it lacks real management reformers, who recognize both its strengths and weaknesses, its potential and its pitfalls. There are a few, though, and Thomas Weiss, author of What's Wrong with the UN and How to Fix It, is one of them.

Weiss begins by explaining a couple of basic propositions about the United Nations. First, the organization is based on a paradox: It is a conglomeration of nations -- all of which guard their sovereignty jealously -- that makes decisions and enforces resolutions, most of which impinge on national sovereignty.

Moreover, as Weiss points out, no country protects its own nationhood as fiercely, while violating the sovereign rights of other Member States as frequently, as the United States. So the U.S. is both the beneficiary of multilateral intervention and a vocal critic of it. Maintaining such an unprincipled stance is only possible because the United States has unequaled power at the U.N. No other country or group of countries has the clout that Washington does. As Weiss writes:

Alongside the UN, which is global in membership, there is another world organization - the United States, which is global in reach and power. There is no precedent for its military, economic and cultural predominance...

American exceptionalism thus remains an enduring issue and is the most starkly apparent in the realm of international peace and security. Before the war in Iraq, the United States was already spending more on its military than the next 15 - 25 countries (depending on who's counting); and its spending is now about seven times that of China...

Washington's sheer might and willingness to resort to unilateralism will dominate every level of UN affairs - normative, legal and operational.

The second feature Weiss points to at the UN is its dual character. In fact, there are two United Nations. First, the U.N. is its political bodies -- the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Human Rights Commission, etc. Secondly, the organization is its Secretariat -- the Office of Personnel and Human Resources, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, the Department of Management, etc. -- and the bureaucrats who run it.

The Secretariat is staffed by appointees from the Member States, some of whom receive their positions through political connections, but most of whom win their posts through international competition. They must contend with the schizophrenia of multilateralism vs. unilateralism, bureaucratic demands imposed by nearly 200 governments, continuing fiscal insecurity and world crises. Most staff members have little to do with the peculiar machinations of the General Assembly, yet they must implement its resolutions regardless.

Both detractors and boosters, according to Weiss, tend to focus on the political bodies of the UN when they express, variously, their frustration or their respect. But the Secretariat, which is responsible, day-to-day, for the Organization's operations, is a more practical focus for reform.

It is from the staff of the UN, its funds, programs and specialized agencies, that whistleblowers come. And when they suffer retaliation, many of them come to us at the Government Accountability Project (GAP). Through them, we've seen the operational problems at the Secretariat. First and foremost are the shortcomings of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, which are to be independent of both the political bodies and the bureaucracy of the Secretariat, but are not. Cronyism, nepotism and political influence cripple the oversight function.

Although at the insistence of the U.S., the UN has a policy in place to protect whistleblowers, in reality the Organization freely retaliates against them. The U.S. State Department, which talks the talk and rhetorically supports whistleblowers, in practice, routinely abandons them to reprisal.

To combat this tendency, the U.S. Congress made 15 percent of the U.S. contribution to the UN contingent upon the implementation of best practice whistleblower protections. Secretary of State John Kerry then reported to Congress that: 1) well over 90 percent of requests to the UN Ethics for protection from retaliation at the Secretariat were apparently denied in the years 2012 and 2013, and 2) best practice whistleblower protections are in place.

This seems odd, doesn't it? Since the Ethics Office was established in 2006, it has maintained this same dismal record. Why would so many staff members try to claim that they are whistleblowers when they're not? Especially when you consider that in the eight years since the Ethics Office was established, very few of those it actually recognized as whistleblowers benefited from its protection anyway. Often, in fact, the Ethics Office abandons whistleblowers to retaliation so blatantly that even the U.S. Congress is shocked.

Take James Wasserstrom's case. He was an anti-corruption officer in Kosovo who exposed an alleged $500 million dollar kickback scheme involving high level officials in the Kosovo government and at the UN. After reporting it, his job was abolished, he was subjected to an investigation, his home was ransacked and his car was searched -- as if he were the criminal rather than the witness. Seven years after the fact, the injustice in this case remains unaddressed.

Dr. Coleman should assign priority to penetrating the impunity around retaliation like this. If she can do that, and address the issue, she will have accomplished a great deal in the management and reform of the United Nations. At GAP, we're hoping that the other global institution -- the U.S. government, which annually vouches for effective protection of whistleblowers despite the appalling record of the Ethics Office -- doesn't get in her way.


Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization. She is also the author of The Rise of the American Corporate Security State.