By George Russell
The United Nations' five staff associations sent a stinging message to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Wednesday, demanding reinstatement of a whistleblower who lost his job after reporting financial and other irregularities in the program of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in North Korea.
The resolution also condemned a “culture of impunity permeating the higher levels of the organization, complemented by a dysfunctional internal justice system.”
It called on Ban to implement justice system reforms that have already been presented by an independent panel, and, most dramatically, asked the secretary-general to order the head of UNDP, Kemal Dervis, to submit his organization to the jurisdiction of the U.N.’s recently established ethics office. That office has already declared that it found “prima facie” evidence of retaliation against the whistleblower, a 13-year U.N. veteran named Artjon Shkurtaj.
The staff resolution was the latest step in a bizarre standoff that has developed at the U.N. over the Shkurtaj case, in which the UNDP has declared that the ethics office, created by the General Assembly to establish system-wide standards of employee protection and conduct, does not have jurisdiction because UNDP is not part of the U.N. Secretariat.
For its part, the U.S. mission to the U.N. has declared that the ethics office, the capstone of efforts so far to reform the U.N., already has the jurisdiction it requires. Even while holding that position, U.S. diplomats have been fighting to make sure that an ostensibly independent inquiry into the matter, ordered up by UNDP as a substitute for an ethics office investigation, is more than a whitewash.
But the staff resolution is also a reflection of the deep unrest among ordinary U.N. employees at the lack of legal protection and other rights for them at the U.N., which enjoys immunity from the laws of nations including the host United States.
Staffers complain — always anonymously — about retaliation by their superiors when they report abuses and the powerlessness of quasi-judicial tribunals set up on their behalf. Their complaints were confirmed by a special panel set up by Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, that called for a complete overhaul of the U.N. justice system. That overhaul so far has not taken place.
The Shkurtaj case has thrown the same issue into a much more explosive arena. The operations manager of UNDP in North Korea from 2004 to 2006, Shkurtaj told his superiors about a variety of unauthorized activities there, including the funneling of hard currency to the regime of dictator Kim Jong-Il, the presence of many North Korean government employees in staff UNDP positions, and the presence of $3,500 in counterfeit U.S. currency in a UNDP office safe.
Shkurtaj says he was told to keep quiet about his findings, and was fired after he took the information to the U.S. mission at the U.N. UNDP says that he was merely a temporary UNDP employee whose contract was not renewed, and press leaks that could only have come from UNDP sources have hinted that Shkurtaj may have falsified documents.
The entire issue, which has been brewing since Shkurtaj left UNDP several months ago, hit a new level of tension with the ethics office finding in his favor and the subsequent assertion — including by the secretary-general himself — that his own office lacks jurisdiction in the case. At a press conference last week, Ban declared he would go to the General Assembly to get clearer guidelines for the office, but that is viewed in staff association circles as a ploy to further bury the issue in bureaucratic procedure.
As the resolution makes clear, the staff associations feel that Ban already has the authority to order UNDP and other U.N. agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Program to submit to the ethics office. Ban currently has the power to hire and fire the heads of the agencies.
In an e-mail interview after the staff association vote, Shkurtaj declared the result to be further vindication of his view that the U.N. has violated his rights.
As for Secretary-General Ban, he has left New York for Turin, Italy, to take part in a three-day retreat with top U.N. officials in advance of the next session of the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September. Among those also attending the retreat is UNDP chief Dervis.