Friday, July 4, 2008

GAP Commends UN Ethics Director and Secretary-General for Defending UNDP Whistleblower


Contact: Bea Edwards, International Program Director
Phone: 202.408.0034 ext 155, 202.841.1391

Contact: Shelley Walden, International Program Officer
Phone: 202.408.0034 ext 156

GAP Commends UN Ethics Director and Secretary-General for Defending UNDP Whistleblower

(Washington, D.C.) – The Government Accountability Project (GAP) applauds United Nations Ethics Office Director Robert Benson and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for defending a whistleblower who was denied due process by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

On June 27, the United Nations Ethics Office found that UNDP whistleblower Artjon Shkurtaj was not permitted to respond to allegations made against him by the External Independent Investigative Review Panel (EIIRP). The decision stated that the ad hoc EIIRP panel – which investigated Shkurtaj’s much-publicized disclosures regarding UNDP wrongdoing in its North Korean office, and the retaliation he faced for exposing this – violated the Investigative Guidelines of the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food-Programme. The Ethics Office Director recommended that Shkurtaj be compensated as a result.

This past Tuesday, the spokeswoman for the Secretary-General announced that the UN Secretariat stood behind the decision of the Ethics Office. In taking this position, the Secretary-General has challenged UNDP’s treatment of a whistleblower. UNDP exempted itself from the jurisdiction of the UN Ethics Office and the whistleblower protection policy last August after Benson ruled that there was prima facie evidence of retaliation against Shkurtaj by UNDP.

“Ban Ki-moon’s support for this decision is a reversal of a year-long backslide in whistleblower protections at the UN,” stated Shelley Walden, GAP International Program Officer. “We applaud the Secretary General’s defense of this whistleblower and hope that the Secretariat will strengthen the due process and free speech rights of other whistleblowers by restoring the system-wide jurisdiction of the Ethics Office and whistleblower protection policy.”

UNDP responded to the Benson decision by claiming that the due process errors cited are the fault of the now-disbanded EIIRP and not of UNDP itself. However, the specific error for which Benson faulted the panel was its unilateral attack on Shkurtaj, which it included in its final report and released to UNDP without allowing Shkurtaj to defend himself. UNDP is also at fault for the same reason: UNDP posted the report on its Web site without allowing Shkurtaj to correct serious errors of fact in the report that were defamatory.

“The EIIRP report demonstrates investigative incompetence, ignorance of the standard of proof in whistleblower cases, and the gratuitous defamation of a whistleblower who tried to protect UNDP from misconduct,” said Bea Edwards, International Program Director. “As an independent review, this exercise is such an embarrassment that even UNDP is now trying to disown it. Rather than connect the retaliation dots, the Panel tried to erase them.”

The erosion of whistleblower rights began last November, when the Secretary-General issued a bulletin that allowed UNDP to ignore the rulings of the Ethics Office. Instead of respecting Benson’s decision on the Shkurtaj matter, Kemal Dervis, Administrator of UNDP, established a separate Ethics Office for UNDP, as well as a weaker whistleblower protection policy. Other UN agencies followed suit, and the November bulletin resulted in a proliferation of whistleblower policies and ethics offices in the UN system that do not meet the independent and comprehensive standards set out in the original 2005 UN policy to comply with a mandate of the General Assembly.

GAP, which has advised Shkurtaj throughout his ordeal, believes that there were due process violations in the EIIRP investigation serious enough to invalidate its findings. Most importantly, the panel demonstrated its ignorance of the relevant standard of proof in a whistleblower case. UNDP failed to establish that its action rescinding Shkurtaj’s appointment as Operations Manager of its North Korea office, after he reported wrongdoing, was not retaliatory. Under the UNDP whistleblower protection policy, once Shkurtaj had been designated a whistleblower, UNDP had to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that it did not retaliate. But UNDP presented no substantive evidence at all, other than the statement of the officer responsible for the withdrawal of Shkurtaj’s appointment that she did not retaliate. In short, at this point in the proceedings, Shkurtaj did not have to prove that the withdrawal of the appointment was retaliatory. UNDP had to prove that it was not.

The Panel itself was not appointed in an independent manner. Its members lacked the impartiality and expertise needed to investigate these disclosures properly, as demonstrated by the fact that members inappropriately devoted a significant portion of their report to attacking Shkurtaj rather than investigating the retaliation described above and easily verified. In fact, the panel’s report was, in itself, retaliatory.

Government Accountability Project

The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, GAP’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, GAP is a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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