The vaunted reforms adopted by the United Nations over the last two years have already failed to protect an important whistleblower. The executive in charge of the program where the whistleblower worked refuses to submit to an independent ethics probe, and in the meantime, Artjon Shkurtaj finds himself out of a job:
The top U.N. ethics official has found preliminary evidence that the U.N. Development Program retaliated against an employee who exposed abuse and rules violations in the agency’s programs in North Korea.
But the UNDP has refused a request from the ethics chief, Robert Benson, to submit to a formal investigation, saying it would appoint its own independent investigator. Benson’s findings, detailed in a confidential letter obtained by The Washington Post, dealt a blow to the United Nations’ top development agency, which has long said that the subject of Benson’s inquiry, Albanian national Artjon Shkurtaj, is not a whistle-blower.
Shkurtaj, who previously served in North Korea, said that he had worked for the United Nations since 1994 and that he was forced out after raising concerns about UNDP violations of its rules prohibiting the payment of local workers in foreign currency and the existence of $3,500 in counterfeit U.S. currency in a UNDP safe. The UNDP says that Shkurtaj is a U.N. consultant, not a staff employee, and that the agency declined to renew his contract after it expired in March.
“I noticed significant problems with how UNDP worked in that country,” Shkurtaj said Monday. “I alerted my chain of command of violations of U.N. rules, but they did nothing. I used the provisions of the U.N. whistle-blower protection policy and went to the outside to report these problems. UNDP retaliated against me for being a whistle-blower.”
Shkurtaj said he took his concerns to U.S. officials and the news media after the UNDP did not act. But UNDP officials have questioned his credibility in discussions with U.S. government officials and with the media. They have denied that he alerted his bosses to the presence of counterfeit cash.
Turtle Bay insisted that its new whistleblower protections would make the UN more responsive to corruption and abuse allegations. The UN has been rocked by a long series of scandals and embarrassments, including widespread sexual abuse and exploitation among its peacekeeping missions. The Oil-for-Food Program wound up so corrupt that it put billions of dollars into the pocket of the tyrant it meant to cripple while starving the Iraqis it meant to feed. The ethics reforms were meant to keep those scandals and abuses from repeating themselves, and the whistleblower protections supposedly guaranteed that UN employees would reveal them without fear of retaliation.
However, the definition of employee lies at the center of the UN’s dodge. Shkurtaj worked at the UNDP as a contractor, as do many of his colleagues. Technically, Shkurtaj didn’t get fired for blowing the whistle; the UNDP just didn’t renew his contract. Also, the UN policy on whistleblowers only applies to those who work directly for the UN Secretary-General — so none of its subsidiary agencies have any requirement to adopt it.
That will certainly send a clear message to all UN contractors. If you value your job, keep your mouth shut. It will also encourage the UN and its subsidiary agencies to spend the extra money to use contract workers rather hire employees. Executives at these agencies can consider the extra cost a type of job insurance — for themselves.
In the meantime, the UNDP says it will investigate Shkurtaj’s allegations on its own, including how the UNDP managed to keep Kim Jong-Il’s counterfeit money safe for him in their office vault. We can expect that wide-ranging inquiry to appear at about the same time that the UN closes its peacekeeping seraglios in Africa.