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UN agencies are failing whistleblowers: The case of the WHO whistleblower

WHO headquarter

The World Health Organization Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock

Transparency International Italia

On World Whistleblowers Day, we’re marking the important role of whistleblowers to society and their crucial contributions to the fight for a corruption-free world.

One whistleblower, Dr. Francesco Zambon, is expecting to receive an important decision any day now. He is a former World Health Organization (WHO) researcher and whistleblower who reported the pressure put on him by then Assistant Director Dr. Ranieri Guerra to modify a report he authored on Italy’s pandemic preparedness. The report was published by WHO in May 2020 and withdrawn the very next day.

Zambon initially reported his concerns about Dr. Guerra’s potential conflict of interest through internal channels, but his disclosure was ignored for several months. In December 2020, he decided to speak out publicly. In March 2021, following the unsatisfactory response, professional isolation and demotion that made his working conditions intolerable, Zambon resigned. The report was never republished.

The alleged retaliation he faced and the lack of protection for blowing the whistle led Zambon to request an internal review of his case by WHO. After this request was dismissed, he wrote to the Global Board of Appeal last September. The board was expected to decide on Zambon’s case last week but no decision has been announced yet. The Director-General of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has the last say on the case.

Several civil society organisations also came forward to support Zambon’s case and called for the WHO to thoroughly review his disclosures.

Not an isolated case

The WHO is not the only United Nations (UN) agency facing justified criticism for their treatment of internal whistleblowers; and Francesco Zambon is not the only whistleblower suffering retaliation or lack of protection after reporting misconduct at international organisations. We have been concerned about UN whistleblowers being singled out for retaliation for a while. One such case that we, along with other civil society organisations, called attention to was Emma Reilly’s, who is one of the whistleblowers interviewed for the new BBC documentary, The Whistleblowers: Inside the UN. The documentary exposes worrying allegations of retaliation against those reporting corruption, sexual abuse and mismanagement at the UN.

Emma Reilly, who previously worked for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had an experience similar to Zambon's. In 2013, she reported that her employer had shared the names of Chinese dissidents who took part in UN activities with Chinese government officials. At first, she was considered a whistleblower and entitled to protection – but was ostracised and harassed, nevertheless. In November 2021, Reilly’s whistleblower status was suddenly removed and she was fired for making “unauthorised disclosures” to the press.

Before Reilly, there came several other prominent cases. Their stories, along with the experiences of others who exposed wrongdoing across the UN agencies, confirm a previously known pattern. According to a 2018 UN global staff survey, 12.8 per cent of UN staff who reported or participated in investigating misconduct experienced retaliation for doing so.

Broken UN whistleblower systems need urgent reform

What these cases show is that the UN whistleblowing mechanisms are not working. Instead of being offered protection and their concerns of wrongdoing addressed, these whistleblowers faced retaliation and mistreatment.

Despite the creation of the Ethics Office in 2006, whistleblower protection remains weak across the UN, owing to structural barriers, flawed whistleblower protection policies, conflicts of interest and internal culture. Whistleblower protection policies are inconsistent and full of loopholes. Whistleblowers lack access to independent authorities to address and review their cases, and a “top-down” culture further discourage staff to speak up.

From public health to peace and security to human rights, international organisations play a vital role in tackling global challenges. It is essential that they have robust internal accountability mechanisms so that corruption, fraud and other abuses are detected and sanctioned. Ensuring that staff can report misconduct through safe reporting mechanisms and are protected against retaliation are key to ensuring accountability.

Transparency International, Government Accountability Project and the Whistleblowing International Network have recently urged the UN to improve whistleblower protection at its agencies, funds and programmes.

Now, following the deeply disturbing allegations of retaliation against those reporting sexual abuse and corruption in the UN, we are echoing the call for thorough investigations of all claims and reaffirming the need of urgent reforms of the UN’s internal justice system.

Francesco Zambon speaking at a conference. Photo: EU Prevent

Celebrate, not retaliate

When Francesco Zambon expressed his concerns to WHO Ethics Office, he could not have imagined the ordeal that followed. He expected his workplace – a big international organisation responsible for public health – to uphold high standards of integrity and protect its employees. Now, in addition to resigning because of mistreatment and his concerns being ignored, he is also facing civil and criminal complaints from Dr. Ranieri Guerra – the same person who allegedly pressured him to suppress the findings of his report. Guerra is seeking 2.5 million euros from Zambon in damages.

Despite all this, Francesco Zambon keeps fighting. The battle has been tough so far and it will get even harder if the WHO Global Board of Appeal and Director-General Tedros reject his appeal.

Civil society is also fighting alongside whistleblowers to ensure that structural deficiencies in the UN whistleblower protection are removed and internal procedures to review and investigate reports of misconducts strengthened. Because if these systemic issues are not addressed, we will keep having more such cases where people who had the courage to blow the whistle are mistreated – instead of celebrated.

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