UN ‘cannot be trusted to police itself,’ whistleblower says

UN peacekeepers in Haiti.

ROME-Peter Anthony Gallo, Director of ‘Hear their Cries’ and former UN investigator, speaks to the Italian Insider about Oxfam and the UN admission that privileges and immunities do not apply in child sex abuse cases. Q: What is the story behind 'Hear their Cries?' 

 A: My own motivation for it began with my utter disgust at what took place in Torino at the Secretary-General’s high level retreat in 2015, and that was the UN’s cover-up of the sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic. That whole sorry business stands as a monument to the total depravity of Ban Ki Moon’s senior management team.  The only thing that any of them were interested in was finding a reason to get rid of the one man in the whole organization who actually did his job and acted with any moral rectitude, and at the end of the day, it was the victims who suffered and the only people to lose their careers were Anders Kompass and Miranda Brown; the staff members who tried to do the right thing.

 That is what the UN has come to. The organization was so concerned with its own reputation that it would not protect children as young as nine years old from sexual abuse. It was very obvious to me that the UN was now part of the problem, not part of the solution. There was a clear need for somebody to take action and force them to act and force them to do what they are supposed to do, and that is essentially what ‘Hear their Cries’ has been doing.

 Q: How do you answer those who criticise you for 'sensationalising a problem that doesn’t exist?'

 Let me explain how the logic in the UN works. The UN insists there is no child sex abuse problem, just as they insist there is no sexual abuse problem, or fraud problem or any other problem they don’t want to admit to.

 The “proof” of this is that very few cases are ever reported, so that is the “proof” that very few cases exist. Then the “double proof” is that when these cases are investigated, very few are ever substantiated and that is of course “proof” that it hardly ever happens.

 What you then need to appreciate is that staff are dissuaded and intimidated so they are afraid to report misconduct, because they know that when they do, they will suffer retaliation and they are effectively shooting their own career in the head.  The whistleblower protection mechanism in the UN is useless, because it has been designed to be useless. It keeps the staff of the Ethics Office in a job, but they certainly don’t protect whistleblowers and everyone with half a brain knows that. That is why very little is reported.

 Secondly, the way that the UN conducts their “investigations” is nothing short of a joke, but it’s not just ineptitude. Its deliberate.

 If you look the evidence of incompetence and unethical conduct on the part of OIOS investigators, you will see a pattern; the same people responsible for the mismanaged investigations are the ones who are promoted. That is not a coincidence. The UN doesn’t want to hear about the scale of the problem, and if they don’t hear about it, it officially doesn’t exist.

 Do we know for sure that there have been 60,000 victims over the last 10 years? No, of course not, but we are working off the figures that are available to us from the UN.

 If somebody wants to dispute my arithmetic, they are free to do so.  If anyone wants to take me to task on the facts of anything I have said, they are free to do so – but nobody seems to be willing to do that.

 I am on record as having invited the UN to sue me if they have any objection to anything I have ever said or done. Oddly enough, nobody has shown any enthusiasm for going down that road.

 When the High Commissioner of Human Rights claimed that nobody was being retaliated against,  I offered to donate $10,000 to any charity of his choosing if he would produce the witness to confirm that. There was an opportunity to prove me wrong, embarrass me, and relieve me of $10,000 into the bargain  – but the UN wasn’t interested in my money.

 Ask yourself why.

 Maybe there is less than 60,000 victims. Maybe there are more. We don’t know.  It’s an estimate and at the end of the day, we will never know the real number - but you cannot dismiss an estimate as fictitious simply because you don’t want to hear it.

 Q: How many people has ‘Hear their Cries’ put people on the ground to deal with these cases?

 We don’t. That is not what we are about. We are really lawyers, not social workers. We are primarily interested in putting people in courtrooms. Committees, resolutions, hand-wringing and promises have not worked. We want to use the criminal law instead.

 Q: Can you do that?

 We set out to challenge the UN on their use of the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities to protect staff members from criminal investigation for sexual offences against children.

 In the CAR in 2015, the UN claimed that Privileges and Immunities DID apply, so a UN staff member could not even assist the French investigators in the CAR by introducing them to the victims.  That Human Rights Officer would - at most - only have been a witness, if even that, but the Office of Legal Affairs refused to let the French investigators talk to her. Without assistance from her, the French investigators could not find the victims, and without those victims, they could not build a case.... and that was why, at the end of the day, it went nowhere. By insisting that immunity had to apply;  the UN sabotaged the French investigation.

 ‘Hear their Cries’ has clearly had some effect because now, following Andrew McLeod’s appearance on CNN, the UN has done a complete 180 and is now saying that immunity does NOT apply to child rape cases, so the answer is yes – we can haul UN officials into court, and we will.

 Q: So why are you interested in Oxfam?

 Only because there were victims involved. The fact that this time it involved aid workers not UN personnel is not really important, it is the same problem. The entire humanitarian aid industry – and it IS an industry  – is out of control. There are volunteers and people working on the ground in some of the most arduous of conditions, working for the most noble and admirable of causes, and this shows how the senior people at the top are behaving.

 Q: What do you think the lesson is in the Oxfam story?

 Look at the tidal wave of outrage that has swept the UK. It shows that the general public demands the one thing these organisations do not want to give them, and that is accountability.

 The Oxfam story is really no different from what you hear about the UN on a regular basis. The difference is that people in the UK can relate to Oxfam. Its in the High Street. They gave them money. The UN is far away and there is no personal connection.  Agencies like the FAO, IFAO and the WFP are like some sort of strange quango hidden behind the UN a million miles away; but Oxfam is close and Oxfam is tangible.

 People are understandably shocked that the management of an NGO would exploit the people they claim to try to help, and betray the trust of their own staff.  

 It also shows there is a “cover-up” mentality there, it is the very same as you find in the UN, and the Red Cross was exposed doing the very same thing about 2 weeks ago.  It all points to a common attitude towards sexual predators, all of these organisations will let them off in order to preserve their own precious reputations, which is great news for the offenders, of course, they can play musical chairs and carry on.

 Q: Was it not just an error of judgement?

 Call it what you will, decisions have consequences. If Oxfam had referred Roland van Hauwermeiren and his buddies to the Haitian National Police in 2012, it would have been a very minor bump in the road and all forgotten in 10 minutes.  Instead, the cover-up was worse than the crime. There is a very real danger that Oxfam will now collapse because of it.

 You have to look at the Weinstein Company.  A few months ago, that was a business worth some US$400 Million.  I think you will find the net worth of the company is about the price of a bag of chips.

 Again it comes full circle and back to the Secretary-General’s retreat in Torino in 2015; the most senior ranks of the UN, sitting around drawing a fat salary for pontificating, lacking the native intelligence to realise that when informed of the sexual abuse of children, the general public would expect them to do something to stop it.  Oxfam brought this upon themselves, unfortunately.

 Q: But if Oxfam collapses, will that not be a case of punishing everyone for the actions of the few?

 In a way, but it really depends on who you think is being punished. There might be Oxfam staff who will lose their jobs, but at the end of the day; Oxfam does not exist for their benefit. Oxfam exists to help the needy.

 After what has been in the news, Oxfam staff can hardly blame the British public for not wanting to spend their money in the local Oxfam charity shop, and they can hardly blame the British Government for not trusting Oxfam with the taxpayers money. They can, however, blame Oxfam management for not dealing with van Hauwermeiren and his seedy mates at the time.

 The entire sector should take a lesson from this; that they are accountable to their donors because as far as the UK is concerned, the ‘Oxfam’ brand has suffered irreperable harm. The UN and its agencies are similarly tarnished, unfortunately.

 But what about the people in the developing world who rely on Oxfam aid?

 Yes, if Oxfam does collapse, they may suffer temporarily, but other charities are going to work to fill that gap – and many of the Oxfam staff in the field are likely to be picked up by whoever moves in to take over their projects.  

 Q: Do you think aid should be cut?

 As far as the private donor is concerned, that is up to the individual. I used to support a number of charities that will no longer get a penny from me. My own experience of the UN has made me a lot more selective about who I will give to, and I think a lot of people will be doing the same. Oxfam lost over a thousand regular monthly donors over the week-end, but that is peanuts compared to the government’s aid budget.

 At the national level, I agree with the Government when they say that Oxfam cannot be trusted with taxpayers money; Lord Hague who was quoted saying there was a strategic, moral imperative to deliver aid to the world’s poorest people, and I do believe that. I am also onside with Jeremy Corbyn who said that the Oxfam scandal is not a reason to cut the budget, it’s a reason to manage it more carefully.

 This is not a party political issue - and shame on anyone who would make it one -  it is all about accountability, and that means when there is a complaint, it has to be investigated thoroughly and professionally. That is what has been missing.

 These aid organisations need to be held to higher standards, and while the compliance may be a challenge for them, the UN and its agencies have no excuse at all. They have been wilfully blind to what is going on all around them for years.

 Q: But did Oxfam not investigate van Hauwermeiren at the time?

 The UN says they investigate these complaints too – and what they mean is they put three blind mice on to the problem.

 Yes, Oxfam did an investigation, and as a result, they let van Hauwermeiren resign quietly, just as he had been allowed to resign quietly from Merlin.  This was a man with a history of sexual misbehaviour in at least three countries.  They failed to look into his past when they hired him, and when he did the same in Chad, Oxfam did nothing. When forced to do something, they let him off to go get a similar job with ‘Action against Hunger’ in Bangladesh.

 Who is now looking into what he did there?   Does Oxfam not owe an apology to the girls somewhere in Bangladesh who he sexually abused there? They could have stopped him and they chose not to.

 What interests me more, however, is that although this guy van Hauwermeiren has been exposed in the press, there were others involved.

 Where are they now?  Are they in Rome working for WFP and reading your newspaper every week?

 Can any NGO or any UN agency give any credible assurance that none of them is currently employed by them?

 And it gets worse.....  because I am sure that there will have been many Oxfam personnel in Haiti after the earthquake who have now moved on to other jobs in other NGOs or in the UN system and they had absolutely nothing to do with any sex orgies.   Those poor guys will now be suspected of involvement in something they had absolutely nothing to do with, and I have no idea how they can clear themselves of the suspicion that they were!     

 The UN has only recently woken up to the idea that they should not actually employ anyone who had been fired from another part of the UN system for sexual exploitation and abuse. It only took them 70 years, but they still don’t act on the information they have.  

 Q: What do you mean they don’t act on the information?

 I was an investigator in OIOS, and we did not have access to the ‘Misconduct Tracking System’ held by another department, so when I was preparing to interview someone, I had no way of knowing if we were looking at an isolated incident or one of a hundred similar complaints. We had no way of guaging of a witness could be relied on or if they had a history of making bad faith complaints against an innocent man. That was deliberate.  With more background information, investigators have a better chance of proving misconduct, but that is not what the UN actually wants.

 In the course of investigating a medical insurance fraud case, I was told I could not ask any questions about the subject’s medical history because that was “confidential.” I asked once how I could see the Statement of Assets that senior staff members have to file with the Ethics Office because that was also “confidential.”

 Some of us believe that an investigation is supposed to find out exactly what happened, but the UN would prefer somebody just to go through the motions so they can pretend something was done.  Draw your own conclusions as to why that would be.

 Once the investigation function is compromised - or staffed with hand-picked wise monkeys inclined to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil – the outside world can have no confidence in the results of those investigations.

 Never mind the outside world, victims can have no faith in the system, and if the staff do not trust the system, misconduct spreads like a cancer.  

 Q: Are you saying that the UN doesn’t actually want to find their investigations to find anyone guilty of sexual misconduct?  

 That is an over-simplification.  What the UN wants their investigations to do is to justify the decision that somebody has already decided they want to make.

 I have seen cases where staff members have been cleared of any misconduct despite volumes of evidence against them, and I have seen cases of staff members being dismissed on the strength of an investigation that was so bad the Keystone Cops couldn’t have made a bigger mess of it if they were all on LSD.  I have also seen the most outrageous incompetence and wrongdoing by investigators being hushed up; but the UN is not worried about that. Incompetent or unethical investigators can be relied upon to produce exactly what the UN wants to see.

 That is how some sexual predators are exonerated, and how the flimsiest of allegations are used to destroy the lives of the innocent.

 The UN system cannot be trusted to police itself. For years they have used the immunity argument, now, after the hammering the UN took over their mishandling of the child sex abuse scandal in the CAR, and more recently the fall-out from the Harvey Weinstein case and news stories about the extent of sexual harassment inside the UN, they are now saying that immunity does not apply, but they are still clinging to their own internal procedures in order to protect those people they want to protect.

 There is a reason why statues of the Goddess Justicia always portray her blindfolded.  The law has to apply to everyone because if it doesn’t, it applies to no one.

 Q: Do you not accept that you can make the same comments about many countries?

 Absolutely, there are many countries in the world that are corrupt to the core – but nobody looks to them for leadership!

 The UN holds itself out as the font of Human Rights, and the leading force promoting the Rule of Law in the world, but in reality, the organisation itself behaves like a tin pot dictatorship. I have it in writing from no less a figure than a Deputy Secretary General that the UN considers that freedom of speech is subject to “reasonable restrictions” - like the UN Staff Regulations and Rules.

 So Julian Assange is hailed as a hero whose human rights are to be protected despite the fact he ran away and hid rather than allow himself to be interviewed when accused of rape – but the UN staff member who IS raped (or who points out the corruption in OIOS) can say nothing and is not protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because the UN Staff Rules take precedence?

 Any legal system that protects the offender and disregards the rights of the victim is effectively useless.

 Q: Are you not biased because you were fired by the UN ?

 No, I wasn’t. OIOS was certainly desperate to get rid of me, I am the investigator who was apparently guilty of the unforgivable sin of asking questions to satisfy my curiosity.  I let my contract expire and was not interested in renewing it.  I told them that for two years!  The reason for that, as  I have said before and will say again, is that it was made very clear to me that there is no more justice in the UN “justice system” than there are actual fairies in fairy cakes.

 All that the UN ever had to do to shut me up was tell me what I was supposed to have done wrong. Thats should have been easy enough but they wouldn’t do it.

 Q: Why should an investigator not ask questions to satisfy their curiosity?

 That is a very good question. I get asked that a lot, and the reason I fell out with OIOS in the first place was simply because they would not and could not answer that question.

 Draw your own conclusions.

 Q: Who is backing you financially?

 Nobody. We haven’t asked for a penny from anyone so far, we are entirely self-funded, pay our own expenses and don’t draw a salary. We are litigants, not mendicants.

 Q: Will this recent statement about immunity for child sex offences make any difference in the way the UN investigates sex crimes?

 Oddly enough, I am going to say no it will not. The UN will carry on as they always have done, but more importantly, nothing will make any difference as long as victims are too scared to come forward to report what has happened.  The law is a powerful, but it still needs someone to start the process rolling! Within the UN system, everything still relies on a staff member being willing to bring the facts to the attention of someone who can do something about it.

 Unfortunately, two things are increasingly obvious; one is that the UN itself is institutionally incapable of dealing with sexual offences, and the other is that the UN is patently unwilling to protect ‘whistleblowers.’  The response is always to do what Oxfam did, and try to protect the reputation of the Organization. The UN unashamedly does that all the time, at the expense of any staff member who actually does what they are required to do and report breaches of the rules....

 What is changing in the world, however, is that the UN is no longer able to shield itself from external criticism in the way it has done in the past. The political pressure in the member states is building and there are demands for accountability. If Antonio Guterres insists on making the same mistakes as his predecessors, that will be his funeral.

 The UN does still command some awe and respect in the world – it would be wrong to deny that – but what is sadly true is that it no longer commands that respect from the independent observers who have experienced it first hand.    

 Q: Do you really think that it will be Secretary-Guterres’ funeral?

 Yes, I do, or at least I think it could be.  The UN lurches from one scandal to the next on almost a weekly basis and nothing ever changes. If Guterres seriously thinks he can solve a problem using the same practices and with the same “brains” as have been unable to make a difference for 20 years, he is condemning himself to make the same mistakes as were made in the past and his reputation will go down the same drain.

 If he wants to make a difference, he could wash his hands of the whole problem and ask the Member States to set up a completely independent investigative body to assume responsibility for criminal and disciplinary matters across the whole Organization – that is certainly the solution I have recommended, but such radical initiative is alien to the UN thought process. There is a comfort in tradition, even if it is manifestly ineffective.


Peter Gallo.