PRESS CONFERENCE ON WHISTLE-BLOWER POLICY BY UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR MANAGEMENT
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
22 December 2005
“If we are going to have a culture here of ‘I am not going to lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do’, then we have to have a whistle-blower protection policy”, Under-Secretary-General for Management, Christopher Burnham, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.
Announcing the introduction of such a policy at the United Nations, he said that last Monday, the Secretary-General had signed a bulletin on “Protection against retaliation for reporting misconduct and for cooperating with duly authorized audits or investigations”. The policy –- which Mr. Burnham characterized as an exceptional one -- will take effect on 1 January 2006, pending the establishment of the ethics office.
Mr. Burnham said the newly introduced measures aimed at protecting individuals who had the courage to come forward and fulfil the last part of the adage he had quoted -– “or tolerate those who do”. Addressing concerns raised by staff in last year’s integrity perception survey, the policy was the product of the effort to bring in best practices from many nations and international organizations. It should give full assurance to the staff aware of corruption and fraud that their voice would be heard and that they would be protected from retaliation. For the first time, staff had been given certain criteria for reporting misconduct. Their first obligation was to report it to the proper authorities within the United Nations, but they were also provided with other outlets, including “the people’s court of last resort” -– the press.
At the same time, it was also important to stop “this culture of anonymous assassination hit-mails that are going around this place”, with people accusing each other of untoward behaviour, he said. Under the new policy, transmission and dissemination of unsubstantiated rumours was not considered a protected activity and actually constituted misconduct.
Introduction of the whistle-blower policy was the first part of a two-phase project, and he had high confidence that “we’ve gotten this first portion right”, he said. The next step would involve the work of a high-level redesign panel that would examine the administration of justice and due process at the United Nations, beginning in February and culminating with a report next July. It would be critical to ensuring that the administration of justice within the Organization was fair, open and transparent, providing staff members with the protection they deserved.
Mr. Burnham also presented to the press financial disclosure forms, which, he said, together with the budget resolution -– “hopefully, in the offing in the next 24 hours” -– and the creation of the ethics office, would be a very important aspect of the reforms within the United Nations.
Asked if the new policy was equal to what one could find in an American corporation, Mr. Burnham replied that he could not speak for the corporate sector. However, the Government Accountability Project -– a 28-year-old non-profit public interest group that promotes government and corporate accountability -– had labelled the new policy as “the gold standard”, remarking that it was the first time an intergovernmental body had guaranteed the freedom of expression. The United Nations was the first international organization that had endorsed public freedom of expression.
However, the General Assembly President had stressed that follow-up action was needed from the Assembly to provide independent enforcement, a correspondent said. Mr. Burnham agreed with that remark, saying that much would depend on the work of the redesign panel.
Describing further steps at the beginning of next year, he said: “We will be back here, raring to go, in January.” One of the more important goals in the first quarter would be submitting new international public sector accounting standards for approval by the Assembly. At the end of February, the Secretary-General was expected to submit a report on the review of rules and regulations. Work would also continue on the review of mandates that are older than five years, as well as the Capital Master Plan.
On the state of negotiations on the Capital Master Plan, he added that he believed there would be an interim budget for that project that would keep it on target for a 2006 ground-breaking. Such an interim measure would give the Assembly time to fully examine all the options available. At the same time, it was important to keep in mind that “the longer we take, the more expensive it gets”.
To a question on the ethics office, he said that there was broad support within the Assembly for the creation of such a body. There had been debate, however, on the staffing level, and he suspected that consensus would be reached on the basis of the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) to begin the process with four positions. If necessary, his Department intended to augment such a decision, as much as possible, within existing resources.
A correspondent said that, as a way out of the budget impasse, the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand had put forward a budget proposal that would authorize the Secretary-General to enter into expenditures in the calendar year of 2006 of up to, but not exceeding, $900 million. Further expenditures would be addressed at a resumed session. Would such a proposal, if adopted, alleviate the budget shortfall that had been anticipated in connection with a “three-month budget” that the United Nations Controller had referred to at a recent press conference?
Mr. Burnham responded that “tremendous progress” was being made and all the parties had come together in an effort to reach agreement on the budget that would meet the cash-flow needs of the Organization.
Regarding the measures that would “make the United States Congress happy”, he said that a number of Member States had expressed concern about the cost of the United Nations. To say that it was only a concern of the United States was wrong. It was certainly shared by the Government of Japan and numerous other States. The cost had skyrocketed in the last 20 years. “If you include peacekeeping, we are brushing up against $10 billion now”, he said. With that, global taxpayers “absolutely required” accountability, transparency and ethics. That would involve accurate reporting and auditing, the adoption of meaningful accounting standards, identification of weaknesses and measures to rectify them. Standards throughout the world included annual reporting to “shareholders”. It was important to say to Member States: “This is what we said we were going to do with your money, this is, in fact, what we have done with your money and, if you continue to invest with us, this is what we will do with your money.”
In response to several questions about the meaning of the “changes in culture” that he was referring to, Mr. Burnham said it was important to build a community that would not engage in unethical activities. Towards that end, it was important to provide proper training and nurture staff, “get the performance-appraisal system right” and hold the managers accountable for its proper implementation. Further, people wanted to be recognized and appreciated for what they were doing -- they must feel that they have engaged in an important way in the United Nations mission.
One of the proposals before the Assembly related to a one-time staff buy-out, he said. Some individuals had lost their passion and were just waiting for retirement. It was necessary to give them an opportunity to leave the Organization, while at the same time recruiting people who had the passion to make the world a better place.
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For information media • not an official record
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