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UN ordered to compensate whistleblower

Tribunal rules in favour of ex-UN employee, but he says settlement is too small to deter graft.
Last modified: 21 Mar 2013 04:31

The United Nations has been ordered to pay a former employee $65,000 in a lawsuit that has raised questions about the UN's commitment to protecting whistleblowers and stopping corruption.

The UN Dispute Tribunal, which was established to improve accountability in the international organisation, ruled in favor of James Wasserstrom last summer, as Al Jazeera detailed in this report.

It was discovered at that time, that Wasserstrom was forced out of his job in a UN field office and harassed after he reported a possible kick-back scheme involving senior UN officials in 2007.

Judge Goolam Meeran's cash award handed down this week, however, was significantly less than the $3.3mn sought by  Wasserstrom. He was awarded $50,000 for damages and $15,000 for legal fees.

Wasserstrom said the amount is not enough to deter the international organisation from misconduct in the future.

"That's an insult to whistleblowers and a green light for retaliators," said Wasserstrom, an American who now works as a senior anti-corruption advisor for the US government in Afghanistan. "We got the truth, but where is the justice?"

Wasserstrom was working at the UN Mission in Kosovo when he began to suspect senior UN officials charged with overseeing Kosovo's energy sector of corruption. The office he headed up, the Office for Coordination of Oversight of Publicly Owned Enterprises, was shut down after he initiated an internal investigation into the alleged scheme.

His supervisors then launched what the judge described as an "unauthorised and unwarranted investigation" against him, during which Wasserstrom had his passport seized and his home and car improperly searched. His office at the UN was cordoned off with crime scene tape. "Wanted posters" with his name and photograph were placed around UN facilities.

Wasserstrom first complained about his treatment to the UN Ethics Office, which found no basis for his claim of retaliation. In his decision, the judge cited Wasserstrom's "impeccable" record of service, called his treatment "appalling", and said that the failures of the UN Ethics Office called into question its "suitability and effectiveness" in doing its job.

"The Tribunal finds it difficult to envisage a worse case of insensitive, highhanded and arbitrary treatment in breach of the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Meeran wrote.

The judge also scolded the UN for "deliberately and persistently refusing" the tribunal's order to share its full report into the investigation of Wasserstrom's initial claim.

In awarding damages, however, the judge ruled that Wasserstrom was not entitled to lost wages and compensation due to a technicality. Meeran said a claim for wrongful termination should have been filed with the agency that originally hired him, the UN Development Program.

In response to Al Jazeera's request for comment, Farhan Haq, a UN spokesperson, provided the following written statement.

"Judgments of the UN Dispute Tribunal are not final until they have been confirmed by the UN Appeals Tribunal. The Organization is examining this judgment to determine whether an appeal is warranted. Consistent with the established policy regarding ongoing cases, which includes cases under appeal and cases that may be appealed, the Organization is not in a position to provide any further comments at this time."