January 17, 2006
The new United Nations Ethics Office, hotly debated in the final hours of December's prolonged budget negotiations, is already supporting the Organization's new whistleblower protection and financial disclosure policies by answering questions from staff members about their responsibilities to comply.
Conceived by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Office was formally established on 1 January as part of a set of new initiatives endorsed by national leaders attending the 2005 World Summit. "It's been a very intense 16 days," Melissa Parke, who is on loan from the Department of Management to jump-start the initiative, told the UN News Service when interviewed on Monday in the sparsely furnished Secretariat premises housing the Ethics Office.
Ms. Parke, along with Elia Armstrong, an expert in public integrity from the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, with support from Amal Abdallah, also lent by Management, are advising UN staff on the new policies while helping to assemble the interim office and lay the groundwork for a permanent unit that will eventually serve some 29,000 personnel worldwide.
So far, they said, staff are taking advantage of the Office's hotline number, calling to ask questions about accepting specific gifts, their financial disclosure obligations and whether whistleblower protection policies extend to certain cases. "The whole idea of an ethics office is to prevent problems before they arise," Ms. Armstrong explained. "To try to identify, and to try to help staff identify, what is a conflict of interest and what their obligations and protections are."
In that light, the Office is consulting with other UN units to define a referral system for staff with various kinds of problems or complaints. Other tasks will eventually include awareness training on ethics issues. "It's not a 'gotcha' or enforcement office," Ms. Parke stressed, noting that the UN already has sound mechanisms to deal with misbehaviour when it occurs, such as the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which serves as the world body's independent watchdog.
Initially, the Office was mistakenly perceived by staff members and delegates as a reaction to the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal, she said. They felt its proposed establishment amounted to an admission that the UN and its staff were generally corrupt. That misinterpretation helped fuel the controversy that made the Office one of the last items approved in the budget negotiations.
Immediate creation of the Office was necessary, however, to administer the financial disclosure programme and the new whistleblower policy, both of which were mandated by the Assembly to take effect on 1 January as part of the Secretary-General's broader reform initiatives.
In the case of a complaint of retaliation for whistle-blowing, the Ethics Office will conduct a preliminary review to see if there was a credible case. If so, it will forward the matter to the OIOS. Under the new financial disclosure system, the value of gifts that UN officials will be required to report will drop from $10,000 to $250, and financial disclosure forms will be required from a far broader spectrum of officials than the current range of assistant secretary-general and up.
Besides advising on obligations under that policy, the Ethics Office must administer the filing and acceptance of disclosure forms. These functions, integrated into an ethics resource, were key parts of the Secretary-General's reform agenda and had been conceived well before the independent inquiry into charges of mismanagement and corruption of the Oil-for-Food Programme, the Office staff said.
Because of the complexity of conflicts of interest issues in the current climate, ethics offices are becoming normal tools for effective management, they added. The UN Convention against Corruption mandates independent bodies, such as ethics offices, within civil service organizations to promote sound public administration. "If we're promoting those offices, shouldn't we provide the model here?" asked Ms. Armstrong.
The next step in establishing the Office will be the appointment, by senior management, of a well-respected outside ethics expert to be the interim head of the Office. That appointment should take place by the end of the January, the staff said.
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