Tuesday, September 9, 2008

At UN, From Togo Lies to Red Flags, Discrimination and Corruption Alleged

UNITED NATIONS, September 8 -- Whistleblowers about the UN are nearly always nameless, given the UN's record of retaliation. Given this record, Inner City Press grants and defends anonymity of whistleblowers. Recently, however, a former UN system staff member in Angola, Ivory Coast and at the International Criminal Court for Rwanda approached Inner City Press with his story, explicitly asking that he be quoted by name. He produced UN evaluations of his previous work, and a list of UN system jobs he has applied for without success.

"They've put a red flag on my file," he said. "I'm a lawyer but they've given me no chance to defend myself. The General Assembly should start a team to investigation discrimination and corruption in the UN, and they should use my story and my contacts. Please go ahead and name me."

His name is Joseph Owondo. He first approached Inner City Press at the Security Council stakeout. He wore an identification card from the Guinea-Bissau mission, for which he is working. He previously worked for the mission of his native Gabon, and before that for the UN, most recently in 2003 to 2005 as head of human rights for the UN Mission in Ivory Coast. He left, voluntarily, and returned to New York. Later he applied for a UN human rights post in Togo, another French speaking country. But after he applied, a colleague called him and said, "There's already someone for that post."

"How can that be?" he asked. "They've just advertised the post, and they say they're going to interview me."

"That's just for show," his friend told him. "You'll see."

When the interview occurred, it was conducted according to Mr. Owondo by a three-person panel. None of the three spoke French. "But the official language of Togo is French," Owondo protested.

"Togo officials all speak English," the head of the panel insisted.

Owondo disagreed, and made his answers in French. He did not get the job, the person it has been pre-promised to got it. "This is what happens in the UN and everyone knows it but doesn't say," Owondo told Inner City Press this week. "People are afraid, they'll lose their jobs or have red flags put on their files and never get a job. This is what's happened to me."
Staged signs in Cote d'Ivoire - not in English

Owondo paints a bleak picture of the current UN, saying that disappointment is widespread, even leading, he said, to suicide. "That lady who died out on the lawn?" he asked, pointing down at the grass between the UN and the East River. "Why does a person come in to their work if they want to kill themselves? Then a man died for lack of medical attention. We've hit a new low. The UN belongs to everyone. Member states have to beat their hands on the table and change things."

On August 4, Inner City Press exclusively reported on a seven-page letter to Ban Ki-moon which alleged systemic corruption and discrimination in the UN, primarily in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Click here for Inner City Press' story, which called the author, who wrote under the pen name Alice Gervais, a whistleblower, and wondered what investigation or retaliation might follow.

After publication, and without Inner City Press even having asked, a member of Ban Ki-moon's Office of the Spokesperson told Inner City Press that no request for protection for retaliation had been filed with UN Ethics Officer Robert Benson, and that Ban Ki-moon would have no response, since it was an "anonymous" letter. Since then, numerous staff members have complained to Inner City Press about this non-response, asking why the factual allegations in the letter, against high UN officials, are not being inquired into, for example by the Office of Internal Oversight Services. Inner City Press sent OIOS chief Inga-Britt Ahlenius questions weeks ago, only to receive an auto-response that Ms. Ahlenius is on a six-week vacation extending through September 15.

On September 3, Inner City Press re-sent the seven-page letter to the spokesman for DPKO, Nick Birnback, and two other UN officials, asking for comment and response on the factual allegations in the letter. To date no such response have been received. Mr. Owondo has told Inner City Press that he has been "accused" of being the author of the letter.

"I did not write it," Owondo emphasized. "Many of the things in the letter, I know nothing about. But there is truth in that letter, that must be investigated. The General Assembly, which starts later this month, has to look into this. The UN itself won't do it, they just try to silence staff members who speak out. Take my evaluations, please put them online. I have nothing to be afraid of. They know where to reach me."

We'll see.

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