Responding to the BBC programme ‘The Whistle-blowers: Inside the UN’

The BBC programme The Whistle-blowers: Inside the UN’ will have shocked UNA members. It reported on scandalous cases of wrongdoing, corruption and especially sexual harassment of junior UN staff by their line managers or superiors. Several UN agencies were cited including the Human Rights Council, UN Development Programme, the World Food Programme and UNAIDS. Professor Purna Sen of the London Metropolitan University’s Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit anchored the programme. Ms Sen worked at UN Women (2015-2020) and in November 2021 was appointed as Special Advisor to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

It is widely agreed that the United Nations has an ‘Impunity Problem’ but this has not come about by oversight or malice, rather by design. The Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations (1946) and another similar relating to the specialised agencies (1947), both agreed in London, set out to develop further the protocols first established by the League of Nations. The United Nations needed to be able to work in all Member States without hindrance and Article 104 of the Charter states that it ‘shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such legal capacity as may be necessary for the exercise of its functions and the fulfilment of its purposes.”

The Convention’s core provision with regard to immunity from jurisdiction states “The UN and assets wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process except when it has expressly waived its immunity.” However, staff disputes within the UN would be settled by its Administrative Tribunal. This structure was reformed in 2008 at the time that many of the incidents reported in the BBC TV programme took place. Clearly, senior staff members have hidden behind a wide interpretation of the Convention and the reforms have not been effective.  

A useful case study of such organisational failures can be read in THE UNITED NATIONS’ IMPUNITY PROBLEM, published by Code Blue. This examined a pattern of sexual abuse committed by WHO personnel against women and girls in the DRC during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak.WHO set up a so-called “Independent Commission” to “investigate” the allegations but this was far from independent, reporting to WHO leadership with WHO staff determining what evidence the commissioners could access. The case study examined alternative routes to justice for a victim, concluding that her ability to access any legal remedy is contingent upon the UN choosing to clarify the immunity of its personnel and choosing to allow its employees to be held criminally accountable. Its closing observation is sobering, “If the Organization continues to misuse immunity to shield its personnel from all systems of criminal justice, those working under the UN flag will continue to commit rape and other sex crimes with impunity.” The BBC programme has clearly shown that the UN continues to fail in addressing issues which seventy-five years ago might have remained hidden but now, in the era of MeToo, can no longer be ignored.

Since this programme was broadcast, the BBC has interviewed UN spokesperson Stephen Dujarric. The programme can be watched here.

UNA members must be in the forefront in challenging this outdated institutional mindset. Public support for the UN is vital and we must press for change.

Asylum seekers’ appeal to the European Court of Human Rights: clearing the fog of disinformation

“Opaque….scandalous….politically motivated” are the UK Home Secretary’s choice observations on the recent judgements of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ‘Rwanda removals’ incident has certainly lit up media interest, leading to predictable, partisan opinion but little explanation. The appeal to the European Court of Human Rights by those due to be flown to Rwanda sought an ‘interim measure’, not a lasting judgement. The government’s case for its planned action is well-documented elsewhere so this summary sets out to clarify what happened in Strasbourg, no more.

In agreeing to grant the interim measure, the ECHR noted that the asylum partnership arrangement between the governments of the UK and Rwanda provided for asylum seekers to have their claims considered after relocation to Rwanda but also that a UK Court would be ruling on the issue in July.

The ECHR ruled that the removal of the initial applicant should not take place until three weeks after the final decision of the UK court. However, on the same day as its ruling, five others also due to be flown to Rwanda, lodged applications with the Court, requesting similar interim measures to halt their own removal. In two of these, the Court decided to stay the applicants’ removal until 20 June so their requests could be considered in greater detail. Two others had their appeals rejected and the final request was withdrawn as the UK Home Office had by then ‘capitulated’.

The Court is empowered by the Convention to rule in such cases without prejudging the subsequent decision on the case by a UK court. Such requests to the ECHR are rare but apply when the applicants would otherwise face a real risk of irreversible harm. That irreversible harm was clear in this case because, if the UK Courts decide in July that the Home Office’s case falls, to whom should those already deported apply for return to the UK? The Home Office’s failure to respond satisfactorily led the ECHR to reach the only possible decision, whatever partisan media uproar this provoked.

A brief guide to the European Court of Human Rights

The Court was a creation of the Council of Europe, following the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953. Only a few years before, the machinery of the United Nations had failed to agree a Convention, that is a binding instrument that signatory states cannot cherry pick. Instead, the UN’s Members States had to settle for the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), although this is widely agreed as the most important international statement after the UN Charter itself. Rene Cassin of France and other European human rights activists who had worked on the UDHR knew that a Convention for Europe was both within their grasp and sorely needed as its member states were emerging from such a wounding war. The Court was set up in Strasbourg in 1959.

Today, the Council or Europe numbers forty-six member states. Only two member states have left it.  Greece pulled out in 1969, to avoid expulsion, after a military coup but re-joined five years later. Earlier this year, Russia pulled out following its invasion of Ukraine, which would have seen it expelled anyway. Few can imagine the UK following these.

The workload of the ECHR is enormous. In 2021, there were 72,000 pending applications including those targeting Russia (25%), Turkey (23%) and Ukraine (15%), collectively totalling two thirds of all applications. Only a tiny proportion of these reach legal process but each can create a storm in the accused Member State. In 2021, the Court dealt with 215 applications from the UK, 205 of which were declared inadmissible. Only one violated the European Convention on Human Rights but this failed to generate indignant outrage.

David Wardrop, Chair Westminster UNA