Victory for James Wasserstrom, the UN’s leading whistleblower
Jun 30th 2012 | from the print edition
IN THEORY the United Nations cherishes and protects whistleblowers. In practice, a clubby atmosphere prevails in which dissent counts as disloyalty. Now the UN’s highest tribunal has vindicated a victim of official harrassment.
James Wasserstrom (pictured), was posted to Kosovo to fight corruption. In 2007 he started raising concerns about what he saw as misconduct involving links between UN officials and a local utility company. His worries were ignored. After he complained to the UN’s oversight office, he says, his boss cut his staff, in effect abolishing his job, and had him investigated for misconduct. That culminated in his detention, the search of his house and car, and other indignities.
He appealed to the UN’s Ethics Office. After a year-long investigation it ruled that Mr Wasserstrom’s maltreatment was perhaps excessive, but did not count as retaliation against a whistleblower.
On June 21st, after a long and costly legal battle that unearthed documents backing Mr Wasserstrom’s case, the UN’s new Dispute Tribunal overturned that. Without ruling on the alleged corruption, Judge Goolam Meeran, in a blistering judgment, said “any reasonable reviewer” would have spotted the clear conflicts in the UN’s evidence and demanded, at the least, more investigation of the complainant’s treatment. Now an anti-corruption officer at America’s embassy in Kabul, he stands to gain $1m in damages, plus costs. The UN must now negotiate on that, and other remedies.
Mr Wasserstrom says his main aim is to speed reform of the UN. Since the scandal around the oil-for-food scheme (which allowed insiders to profit from bypassing the sanctions regime applied to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), progress has stalled, he says. He is particularly critical of top officials, including the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, for “deliberately undermining what they claim is support for whistleblowers” for footdragging and for misleading the General Assembly in these respects. “They clearly never expected that I would force them into court,” he said. The UN said it would not comment on the case while talks on remedies were continuing.
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