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EXCLUSIVE: The ethical failure – Why I resigned from the UN

Anders Kompass on the UN’s failure to uphold its principles

Anders Kompass Violaine Martin/UN Geneva

By the time I reported the sexual abuse of children by peacekeepers in Central African Republic in 2014, I had worked for the UN for nearly 20 years.

There is no hierarchy in the horror and brutality I witnessed during those two decades – massacres, torture, killings, the displacement of populations – but an eight-year-old boy describing in detail his sexual abuse by the peacekeepers meant to protect him is the kind of account I wish I’d never had to read.

I’d also seen a lot of the UN’s dysfunction over the years, but I wasn’t prepared for how the organisation would deal with these events, with the ensuing scandal – and with me. 

Cholera in Haiti, corruption in Kosovo, murder in Rwanda, cover-up of war crimes in Darfur: on too many occasions the UN is failing to uphold the principles and standards set out in its Charter, rules and regulations. Sadly, we seem to be witnessing more and more UN staff less concerned with abiding by the ethical standards of the international civil service than with doing whatever is most convenient – or least likely to cause problems – for themselves or for member states.


Principally, because the cost to the individual of behaving ethically is perceived as too great. Put another way, the benefit to the individual of not behaving ethically is perceived as greater than the cost of taking an ethical stance.

See: Top UN whistleblower resigns, citing impunity and lack of accountability

Fear and a feeling of worthlessness

Staff are afraid. This fear is based on widespread experience. Many staff members have been the victims of retaliation or have witnessed retaliation against those who have taken unpopular ethical stances (including reporting on internal unethical conducts), in the form of sidelining, harassment, sudden transfers, poor evaluations, and non-renewal of contracts. They are convinced that the system does not protect them.

"The UN rarely holds employees to account for unethical actions, particularly those in positions of power."

What has happened to me has greatly strengthened this conviction. I acted ethically when I reported the child sex abuse in CAR to external law enforcement authorities. I provided them with the details they needed, in the midst of a civil war, to quickly find and protect the victims; stop the perpetrators; and get information from UN investigators. And yet I was asked to resign, I was suspended from my job following my refusal to do so, and I was publicly pilloried by UN senior officials and their spokespersons over a period of months while being investigated for improperly disclosing confidential information.

In spite of this, more staff would brave this fear if taking the risk led to serious follow-up, including investigations and punishment. But, from the top down, the UN leadership fails to take principled stands, particularly when there might be political ramifications. A clear recent example was the secretary-general’s decision to remove Saudi Arabia from a list of parties that kill or maim children because of threats to withdraw funding.

"The UN’s accountability system is broken. It simply doesn’t work."

The UN rarely holds employees to account for unethical actions, particularly those in positions of power. Even when it does, meaningful punishment seldom follows. The UN’s accountability system is broken. It simply doesn’t work.

The UN claimed the internal system of justice worked in my case. This is preposterous. Under sustained pressure by member states, the secretary-general was forced to appoint an external panel to independently investigate the issue. It found that the chief of the very UN entity that should, by mandate, have investigated the case abdicated the body’s independence and abused her authority. But neither she nor many others who abused their authority to varying degrees, including by ignoring the horrific reports of children sexual abuse, were punished.

The inevitable result of cases such as this is that the staff members experiencing or witnessing this impunity lose their faith in the system – I know I did.

In my country, Sweden, ministers quit over allegations of misappropriating the equivalent of $10 of public money. In contrast, at the UN, staff found to have concealed the sexual abuse of children, or to have displayed questionable conduct, do not feel it necessary to resign; nor does the organisation seek their dismissal. 

To make matters worse, those who take an ethical but unpopular stance, including by reporting the misconduct of others, have learned that the pain of disclosure and retaliation far exceeds any benefit: the system is cumbersome, the process is protracted, structural changes to address the issues highlighted do not necessarily ensue and compensation is often minimal.

"Ethical standards within the UN will not improve until those responsible... are personally made to suffer for their actions."

After months of agonising wait, I was exonerated by both the external and internal entities that investigated my case. This means that having been portrayed as guilty by the UN – over what felt like a very long period of time – and then having been recognised as innocent, there was a reasonable expectation that the principles of justice that the organisation preaches to member states would have been applied. However, to my knowledge and up to this date, the UN has neither taken any initiative to address the systemic issues of internal accountability raised by the behaviour of UN officials towards me, nor initiated any process of redress for the “very real negative consequences” suffered by me and my family and recognised by the external panel.

I could have applied to the United Nations Dispute Tribunal for redress, but, if granted, this would have consisted almost exclusively of monetary compensation, with the money coming from the UN budget – generously provided by taxpayers all over the world – rather than from the salary of those who actually committed offences.

Ethical standards within the UN will not improve until those responsible for misconduct, rather than the organisation, are personally made to suffer for their actions.

So if going through the UN system is ineffectual or even harmful to oneself, what do staff who feel strongly about unaddressed ethical issues do? Well… they leak.

Leaking as last resort

Leaks force the UN to act upon ethically compelling issues that are purposefully ignored or hidden by those internally responsible. A leaker uses the leverage of public opinion. This means that UN staff entrust the defence of ethics to the public outside rather than to the managers inside the organisation. 

This is how bad it is.

Had a number of indignant staff members not leaked information about my case to NGOs and the press, I would likely have been fired in 2015 or resigned out of desperation and humiliation, with my – and my family’s – moral strength sapped. Were it not for those organisations, press outlets, and unknown individuals, the truth would have been buried inside the UN. I am enormously grateful to all of them – but equally sad that their intervention was necessary.

"If I cannot be useful and continue to fight for what I have always believed in, then it is my time to go."

Human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, corruption and exploitation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ongoing abuses by peacekeepers in a number of peace missions – the world only knows about them because someone broke the silence and leaked. This is quickly becoming a systemic response to the UN’s ethical failure.

And yet the organisation reacts to these scandals by punishing those who try to hold an ethical stance, hiding the truth to the extent possible, and striving to tighten its control over information. Instead of creating a culture that welcomes whistleblowing as an opportunity to strengthen organisational values and standards, the UN promotes an atmosphere of fear and marginalises individuals seen as not toeing the line.

Even after all the dust had settled on my case, I was never made to feel that I was fully accepted back on board as a valuable staff member. Indeed, it became impossible for me to meaningfully contribute any longer. And, if I cannot be useful and continue to fight for what I have always believed in, then it is my time to go.

That is why, after 21 years of service, I have resigned from the United Nations.

I still believe in the defence of human rights. I still believe that a universal organisation is needed to improve the chances of world peace and progress. But I also believe that without great changes aimed at resurrecting ethical behaviour within the UN, the organisation will not be able to successfully address the challenges of today and of tomorrow.

And, on that last point, my experience has unfortunately left me sceptical.

Anders Kompass recently resigned from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, where he ended a 17-year career as the director of field operations. Formerly a Swedish diplomat, he had also previously served as the UN’s representative in El Salvador.

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