Reprisal Indicated In a U.N. Program

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007

UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 20 -- The top U.N. ethics official has found preliminary evidence that the U.N. Development Program retaliated against an employee who exposed abuse and rules violations in the agency's programs in North Korea.

But the UNDP has refused a request from the ethics chief, Robert Benson, to submit to a formal investigation, saying it would appoint its own independent investigator. Benson's findings, detailed in a confidential letter obtained by The Washington Post, dealt a blow to the United Nations' top development agency, which has long said that the subject of Benson's inquiry, Albanian national Artjon Shkurtaj, is not a whistle-blower.

Shkurtaj, who previously served in North Korea, said that he had worked for the United Nations since 1994 and that he was forced out after raising concerns about UNDP violations of its rules prohibiting the payment of local workers in foreign currency and the existence of $3,500 in counterfeit U.S. currency in a UNDP safe. The UNDP says that Shkurtaj is a U.N. consultant, not a staff employee, and that the agency declined to renew his contract after it expired in March.

"I noticed significant problems with how UNDP worked in that country," Shkurtaj said Monday. "I alerted my chain of command of violations of U.N. rules, but they did nothing. I used the provisions of the U.N. whistle-blower protection policy and went to the outside to report these problems. UNDP retaliated against me for being a whistle-blower."

Shkurtaj said he took his concerns to U.S. officials and the news media after the UNDP did not act. But UNDP officials have questioned his credibility in discussions with U.S. government officials and with the media. They have denied that he alerted his bosses to the presence of counterfeit cash.

But he has received strong backing from the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, who have called on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to shield Shkurtaj from retaliation.

The creation of a whistle-blower protection policy in the U.N. secretariat nearly two years ago was hailed as a landmark in international accountability. But the Washington-based Government Accountability Project -- which once praised the U.N. policy -- said the UNDP's action exposed a flaw in the policy: It applies only to employees directly under the secretary general, so several U.N. programs can opt out.

"It really doesn't look good," said Beatrice Edwards, GAP's international program director. "The simplest good faith thing to do is to apply the policy across the board."

The UNDP's stance, meanwhile, dealt a setback to Ban's efforts to extend whistle-blower protections to all U.N. employees. It also underscored the limits of the U.N. chief's power to impose changes in a system made up of several quasi-independent relief and development agencies, including the UNDP.

Benson conceded that his office has no formal jurisdiction over various U.N. funds and agencies, including the UNDP. But he appealed to the UNDP administrator, Kemal Dervis, to allow the investigation to go forward because the UNDP has inadequate whistle-blower protections. "I believe it would be in the best interests of the United Nations and UNDP to do so," Benson wrote in a confidential Aug. 17 letter to Dervis.

But the UNDP said that the U.N. Board of Auditors is already examining its North Korea program and that it is seeking to appoint an independent team or individual to look into Shkurtaj's allegations. "Having multiple processes reviewing related or identical issues would not be the most effective way to achieve closure of this matter," said Christina LoNigro, a spokeswoman for the UNDP.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company