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Americas

The UN whistleblower who’s got Obama’s vote

© Sophie Pilgrim/ FRANCE 24

Video by Jessica LE MASURIER

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2014-02-27

Seven years after he was arrested, probed and sacked for revealing widespread fraud at the UN mission in Kosovo, James Wasserstrom is leading the campaign against corruption and impunity at his former employer – with assistance from the US.

American James Wasserstrom was the United Nations’ top corruption officer in Kosovo when he warned of a lucrative kickback scheme that would see $500 million paid to Kosovar officials and senior members of the UN mission in Kosovo (Unmik).

His subsequent arrest, investigation and dismissal on charges of misconduct were slammed by the UN’s Dispute Tribunal in 2012 as “humiliating and degrading treatment”.

The ruling found that the UN Ethics Office and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- who is directly responsible for the office -- had failed to properly review claims that Wasserstrom had suffered retaliation within the UN for whistleblowing. But five years into the ordeal, he was awarded only a tiny fraction of the $3.2 million he had requested in financial losses, receiving just $65,000.

Wasserstrom described the pay-out as “sending a truly ghastly message to whistleblowers inside the UN”. But the affair did not end there. Wasserstrom’s ordeal became a case in point for the Government Accountability Project (GAP), the US’s major whistleblower NGO.

In January this year, Wasserstrom and the GAP celebrated a long-sought victory when President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that Wasserstrom had lobbied Congress to approve. The first of its kind, the bill forces the US State Department to withdraw 15% of US funding from any UN agency that fails to adhere to best practices for whistleblowers.

The suprising move comes amid stinging criticism of the US over its handling of notorious whistleblowers Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley), the US soldier who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking 700,000 classified military documents to WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who has claimed that US officials want to have him killed for leaking a mass of highly-sensitive documents to the media.

Unlike Manning and Snowden, who dared take on their own government, Wasserstrom has his eyes set on the UN – a bureaucratic behemoth routinely accused of mismanaging its $5.4 billion annual budget, 22% of which is provided by the US.

‘Culture of snitching’

In a statement hailing the adoption of the new law, the GAP described it as “a forceful provision largely in response to the case of Wasserstrom v. Secretary-General of the United Nations”.

Wasserstrom also believes that without his own glaring example of injustice, the law would “almost certainly not” have made it to Congress. He is now pushing other countries to adopt similar rules.

“My aim in this is really to make sure the taxpayer who sees his euros or yen or dollars being wasted in so many exercises will feel some push to pressure these governments – the major funders of the UN – to take this question of UN fraud, UN waste, UN abuse and UN corruption much more seriously, by demanding similar laws,” he told FRANCE 24.

Wasserstrom says his case is indicative of a culture of impunity prevailing throughout the UN – where he worked for 28 years – that is maintained by a “top-down and highly centralised” system. Whistleblowing, he says, "as an organic, bottom-up movement,” is chided as “snitching”.

“There’s a real anathema to individuals from lower levels coming forward and pointing the finger at their superiors,” he said. “The fact that whistleblowers generally save their employers millions is barely even acknowledged”.

‘No incentive’ to blow whistle

Wasserstrom’s assertions appear to be backed up by statistics. Reports from the UN Ethics Office show that 343 protection-against-retaliation inquiries were submitted between 2006 and 2012, but that the office ruled in favour of only one claimant.

Wasserstrom also believes that for every one of the 343 inquirers, there were three more that dared not reach out to the Ethics Office.

“I think the danger is that if people see what I went through, then it gives them absolutely no incentive to come forward,” he said.

Wasserstrom’s ordeal was particularly harrowing because, as he points out, the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) also acts as a law enforcement agency.

“They arrested me, barred me from UN premises, put up ‘wanted’ posters with my photograph and contact details on the gates of every UN premises, covered my office door with crime scene tape, and then blasted it out into the media that I was a corrupt UN official,” he said.

“After a year of this misery, during which they did everything possible to destroy me professionally, I was absolved of any wrongdoing, and yet, they [the UN Ethics Office] said that all the terrible things that happened to me were random acts by rogue actors. My persecutors faced absolutely no retribution.”

While Wasserstrom worked to rebuild his professional reputation and struggled through a protracted legal battle, the dozen or so actors he had accused of orchestrating the kickback conspiracy continued their careers in Kosovo and elsewhere, and as Wasserstrom puts it, “enjoyed uninterrupted lives”.

UN embarrassment

The adoption of the US law serves as an embarrassing vote-of-no-confidence for the UN, which has struggled to step up the protection of whistleblowers despite its 2006 pledge to do so following the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq, which saw UN research officer Rehan Mullick fired from his post after reporting the mass pilfering of aid.

The organisation has made very little of the new legislation. A full three weeks after Obama signed it into law, UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement that the changes had been taken note of and that the organisation would "continue to apply our whistleblower protection policies throughout the UN system”.

But Wasserstrom is optimistic that the law will have an effect on conduct. “In my view, the UN responds well to financial consequences,” he said. “So I’m quite sure this law is causing concern at the highest level.”

But Wasserstrom, who now works for the US embassy in Kabul, says he wants all UN member states to agree on new safeguards for whistleblowers.

“I’m not expecting universal adoption of these best practices right away, but perhaps over time this will change substantially what’s going on inside these agencies,” he said.

So far, Wasserstrom says his proposal has met with positive reactions in the UK, Germany and the Nordic countries. France, he added, “has not been so much on the radar”.

Date created : 2014-02-15

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