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Strengthening whistleblower protection: an international imperative

Whistleblowers play an important though often risky role in exposing corruption. They need better protection from retaliation and greater recognition for their achievements.

Corruption by its nature is secret and to expose it often requires ordinary people who witness wrongdoing to speak out about it. This can endanger lives and livelihoods, which is why strong whistleblower protection laws are indispensable. If no one is going to protect you for doing the right thing, why expose yourself to being fired, defamed, blacklisted, attacked or even killed?

The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) recognises the importance of whistleblower protection and reporting channels. However, many of the 167 countries that have ratified the Convention still lack adequate legal protections, or the means and will to use them to protect and empower whistleblowers.

Transparency International established internationally accepted guidelines to strengthen whistleblower protection in countries that have signed the UNCAC.

Last week the Implementation Review Group (IRG) established by the United Nations to monitor how the UNCAC is being implemented, met in Vienna. We are now in the third year since the UNCAC introduced a monitoring mechanism to produce reports about how well countries are implementing their commitments under the Convention. The IRG’s job is to evaluate the results of the review process and make recommendations to the Conference of States Parties that will meet in November in Panama.

Shortcomings and recommendations on whistleblower protection

The UNCAC review process has shown that there are wide variations in how countries implement whistleblower protection. This type of protection is particularly complex and difficult to guarantee by law because of cultural differences and a lack of specificity on what laws can and cannot do to protect whistleblowers. But there are universally agreed minimum standards and best-practice guidelines.

TI’s International Principles for Whistleblower Legislation include 30 specific recommendations on what works best to protect the brave people who decide to speak out. The guiding principle is that all people working in the public and private sectors should have:

  • accessible and reliable channels to report wrongdoing
  • robust protection from all forms of retaliation, and
  • mechanisms for disclosures that promote reforms to correct legislative, policy or procedural inadequacies, and prevent future wrongdoing

These principles were presented in a panel discussion organised by Transparency International and the UNCAC Coalition during a meeting between the IRG and NGOs in Vienna last week Transparency International also presented a study analysing the IRG’s reviews of countries’ performance in meeting the UNCAC’s whistleblower provisions. It found that the UNCAC review process does not pay enough attention to the issue of whistleblower protection, and that the IRG should recommend that governments take more action on whistleblowing.

To advance whistleblower rights, the IRG and UNCAC countries should draw on extensive civil society experience and include the comprehensive guidelines produced by Transparency International.

The call for more whistleblower protection is also being made by the UNCAC Coalition, a group of more than 350 non-governmental organisations around the world that monitor and promote the UNCAC. That network is calling for action at the 5th Conference of States Parties for the UN Convention against Corruption due to take place in Panama from 25 – 29 November 2013. They would like the UN to be tasked with expanding the work in this area.

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