PRESS CONFERENCE BY SPECIAL ADVISER FOR ETHICS OFFICE
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
11 May 2006
The recently established Ethics Office, as an essential part of United Nations reform, represented in a concrete and unequivocal manner the way forward in terms of transparent and accountable governance, Tunku Abdul Aziz, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Ethics Office, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference today.
The creation of the Ethics Office was also an acknowledgement that the United Nations did not operate in “splendid isolation”, but as a responsible member of a larger global constituency, he said. In that regard, the Office intended to adopt and fully comply with best international practices and standards in every respect. The Ethics Office would be central to the reform process.
[Established by General Assembly resolution 60/248 of 1 January 2006, the Ethics Office is tasked with assisting the Secretary-General in ensuring the highest standards of integrity among United Nations staff members and reinforcing a culture of ethics, transparency and accountability. The Office will, among other things, provide guidance and advice to staff on ethics and conflict of interest matters; administer the United Nations financial disclosure programme for senior and other designated officials; and develop content for ethics training.]
Outlining the function of the new Office, he said the fact that ethics had now become a critical factor in the United Nations reform process should be seen as a hugely positive step forward. Where in the past United Nations staff members were expected to comply with the rules and regulations governing their service, in today’s United Nations they were now being encouraged to go beyond mere compliance and to understand the true nature of public duty in the public interest.
The Ethics Office would assist in raising awareness of the debilitating effect of corruption generally and its enormous damage to the Organization, he added. The Office would also help to prevent unethical behaviour from becoming a way of life within the United Nations system. It would help staff members to recognize conflicts of interest -– “the curse of power”. The Office would also cultivate an ethical work culture in an environment that rewarded efficiency, loyalty and honesty. The world community expected the United Nations to lead by example. “To that extent and in a very real sense we are reinventing ourselves and rehabilitating our battered image by putting ethics in the driving seat where it should be if we are to claim our legitimacy to lead”, he said.
He said that aside from assisting the Secretary-General in achieving his management reform objectives, the main function of the Ethics Office was to provide the best possible advice to staff wrestling with ethical issues or dilemmas, advice that was totally untainted by outside influence or consideration. While recognizing that there was no such thing as absolute independence or freedom of action, it was nonetheless the aim of the Office, as far as the advice it gave, to ensure that it was not dictated to by anyone, not even the Secretary-General to whom the Office reported. That was the cardinal principle upon which the Office’s credibility would be judged.
The Ethics Office reported directly to the Secretary-General and made recommendations on policy matters, he said, and it would submit, through the Secretary-General, an annual report to the General Assembly. An important part of its work was to review the United Nations code of conduct and policies and practices with a view to ensuring a convergence of ethical objectives.
The Ethics Office would administer two important new policy initiatives, namely the United Nations Financial Disclosure Programme for senior officers and the “Whistleblower Protection against Retaliation”. Both those initiatives were intended to further improve ethical behaviour and accountability. The first enabled staff members to protect and defend themselves against unjustified allegations of corruption, while the Whistleblower Protection would act as an incentive to those who were deeply concerned about impropriety committed by their colleagues.
The Ethics Office did not replace any existing mechanisms for reporting misconduct, resolving grievances, policing or investigating cases, he said.
Asked to described his background in ethics, he said he had spent a great deal of his life -- 10 years in fact -- involved in the fight against corruption, first through his association with the Malaysian Chapter of Transparency International. Corruption could not only bring down Governments, but could also deprive ordinary citizens of their rights and material benefits. For him, it was a mission. His job was not to bring people down. One of his principles was not to name names or to investigate. He had not thought twice when he had been asked to help in setting up the Ethics Office. He regarded his assignment as an extension of what he had been doing. He hoped to make an impact. His message was, “don’t judge us now. Give us a chance to put the ethics house in order.”
The Ethics Office, he said in response to another question, was an internal organization within the United Nations system. It provided advice to individuals and groups of individuals on matters with an ethical dimension. The job of the Office was to prevent things from developing into a scandal. On the “oil-for-food” programme, his knowledge of it had been derived from what he had read. He hoped that, as a result of what they were trying to put in place, people would be willing to report what they saw as unethical public behaviour.
Why was the Whistleblower Protection policy being administered by the Ethics Office and not the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and what use was it for a whistleblower to go the Office if it was not going to investigate? a correspondent asked.
Responding, he explained that not everyone who lodged a complaint was necessarily a whistleblower in the accepted meaning of the word. The Ethics Office would listen to the people that came to it and look at their evidence. The protection the Office offered was against retaliation. If the Office found that there was a case for protection, the matter would then be referred to OIOS to investigate. The OIOS carried out the investigation, while the Ethics Office made a determination whether there was a prima facie case.
Noting that ethics were not just a matter of black and white, a correspondent asked whether the Special Adviser formulated what was considered to be ethical standards and whether the Ethics Office overlapped with the Ombudsman’s Office.
Responding, Mr. Whitton, a consultant in the Ethics Office, said the Office by itself did not formulate ethics standards, but had the mandate to review existing practices and rules for their ethics content. As had been the case, the ethics standards were set by a number of areas within the Organization, including the Office of Human Resources Management and the Ombudsman’s Office. The results of investigations would also be taken into account. The role of the Ethics Office was to consolidate the ethics viewpoint, which might be expressed in standards.
Currently the United Nations ethics standards were expressed in a number of different documents, as was the case in most organizations, he said. It was job of the Ethics Office to determine whether that might be better done as a single document or single instrument of policy and then to align that document or professional standards with institutional settings that enabled public officials to comply with them. The Office was looking at much more than a simple code of conduct.
What was legal was not always ethical, Mr. Abdul Aziz added. The Office was currently looking at such issues and would provide a set of guidelines so that people would know what was ethical and what was not.
Responding to a question on financial disclosure forms, Nancy Hurtz-Sokya, the Interim Head of the Ethics Office, noted that over 1,000 staff members were expected to file financial disclosure forms. Under the staff rules, financial disclosure applied not only to senior officials but to others, including those with procurement and fiduciary responsibility. Staff members were required to file the forms by 31 May.
Would the Office come up with a document spelling out what the United Nations considered ethical behaviour? a correspondent asked.
Responding, Mr. Whitton said such a document already existed in the form of the standards of conduct for international civil servants, which was part of the ethics framework the United Nations had adopted and incorporated in various ways. He agreed that ethics was not to be narrowly connected or identified with corruption. It went beyond that to such issues as abuse of office by public officials. With that mindset, one could see retaliation against a whistleblower by a boss as an abuse of office and unethical conduct.
Asked when the new guidelines would apply, Mr. Abdul Aziz said as soon as they could be put together, certainly within the next three months.
Asked if the financial disclosure forms would be made public, Mr. Abdul Aziz said there was no intention to make them public. It was essentially an internal control mechanism and it was pointless to turn them into a public display.
Where was the disclosure if the forms would not be made public? the correspondent asked. Responding, Mr. Abdul Aziz said the forms would be received by the Ethics Office and would then go out to professionals, such as auditors or accountants. If they found something odd, the Office would be alerted. It was an internal mechanism to ensure that United Nations staff did not get into a conflict of interest situation.
If professional auditors came up with a finding of appearance of conflict, what would the Office do with the information? a correspondent asked. Responding, Ms. Hurtz-Soyka said the financial experts would discuss with the staff member in question whether he/she would be willing to divest himself/herself of an investment of concern. If there was a situation where the staff member wanted the Ethics Office to come in and advise, it would do that as well.
Asked whether the auditor would go directly to the staff member, she said at this point, the Office had not worked out all of the specifications. The purpose was to see if there was some conflict and how it could be resolved for the protection of the staff member.
It depended what was meant by disclosure, Mr. Whitton added. Full public disclosure was regarded in some countries as appropriate for ministers and Heads of State, but not for public servants. They disclosed internally to their organization for other reasons, only one of which was the prospect of finding illicit enrichment. If illicit enrichment was a serious issue it was probably not going to be disclosed in such a form. Canada’s system, for example, had been to get officials who were required to disclose to confront their interests once a year and to determine whether they had a conflict of interest. It was essentially preventive and not about a policing mechanism.
There were also concerns about the confidentiality of the information, he added. The approach that had been adopted involved internal disclosure initially to an expert. If the expert could not resolve the problem with the individual concerned, they could report it to the Office. If the official refused to resolve the problem, in principle he/she could be terminated. If an official taking up a new position refused to lodge a satisfactory declaration and resolve the issues in it, the offer of employment could be withdrawn. It depended which purpose one was trying to serve. Public disclosure was not the only purpose.
There was nothing wrong with being wealthy if one could account for the wealth within the context of work within the United Nations system, Mr. Abdul Aziz added. The Ethics Office was looking for conflict of interest situations.
Could whistleblowers still go to OIOS where they could expect an investigation or did they have to go to the Ethics Office? a correspondent asked.
Mr. Whitton said staff could still go to any organization and disclose misconduct, corruption or conflict of interest. The job of the Ethics Office was to deal with retaliation. The Ethics Office was an additional protection. Nothing about OIOS’ mandate had changed.
The aim was to ensure that civil servants operated not only within the laws and rules of the United Nations, but also in an ethical manner, Mr. Abdul Aziz said.
Asked whether the decision not to publicly disclose financial forms was a decision of the General Assembly, Ms. Hurtz-Soyka said that it was not.
It sounded like journalists were being asked to trust the Ethics Office and not interfere, a correspondent said.
Mr. Abdul Aziz said that was not the case. It was early days. The Ethics Office needed to take a holistic view of the situation and then arrive at its own recommendations. He was asking the press not to judge the Office until it was properly functioning.
Trust had to be earned, not demanded, Mr. Whitton added. A first step in earning everyone’s trust could be seen in the fact that disclosure of misconduct to the media by a whistleblower could be protected.
Asked whether he was satisfied with the scope of the Office’s mandate, Mr. Abdul Aziz said the mandate was as comprehensive as he would like it to be. There was plenty of scope to bring about the improvements that would make a difference to the reform process. He was not in favour of a bloated organization. His job was to give advice and for that there was no need for dozens of people. The Office’s staffing levels were consistent with its requirements. The Ethics Office would be a lean, mean little outfit.
It seemed that unethical behaviour was not a scandal until it became public, a correspondent said.
Responding, Mr. Abdul Aziz said the Office would, through information and education, try to make people realize the importance of complying with the rules and ensure that they paid attention to ethical behaviour. It was important not to focus on one or two incidents that had given the Organization a bad name and remember the thousands of United Nations staff members who worked hard and whose only interest was to serve the Organization. The overwhelming majority of people worked quietly and without a fuss. “Let us take a balanced view”, he said.
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For information media • not an official record
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