From bribery to corruption, fraud to human rights violations, whistleblowers have helped fight against impunity by disclosing wrongdoings in both the public and private sector. Protecting individuals who contribute to the public debate by disclosing information helps improve democratic accountability, governance, and the protection of human rights. So starts the draft resolution put forth to the Council of Europe encouraging states to develop legal frameworks and implement proper channels to receive and follow-up disclosures by whistleblowers, strengthen protection against retaliation for individuals who make public interest disclosures and foster an environment where individuals feel less threatened when disclosing wrongdoings.
This month, as part of the “Stand Up for Truth” tour, a group prominent whistleblowers – Daniel Ellsberg, Thomas Drake, Coleen Rowley and Jesselyn Raddack shared their stories at a roundtable in the Swedish Parliament calling for the strengthening protection of whistleblowers. The tour took the group through London, Oslo, Berlin and Stockholm and brought to the fore the need to stand up for a free press, individual privacy, governmental and corporate transparency, due process and rule of law as individuals seek to reveal official information that the public has a right to know. The group also raised the problem of pernicious governmental, corporate and other top-down secrecy involved in globalization that enables large-scale wrongdoing and keeps citizens in the dark, making effective solutions and real democracy, and even collective security, impossible.
These issues are especially relevant for the United Nations as details emerge regarding the world organisation’s poor showing with respect to protecting UN whistleblowers. While policies are in place to protect whistleblowers in the UN and its specialized agencies, unfortunately, implementation in many instances is weak and the policies themselves may lag behind best practice standards. A new report from the UN Whistleblower Coalition, to be presented at the UN General Assembly in October, describes some of the shortcomings in the UN’s whistleblower policy.
In January 2014 the U.S. Congress passed legislation prohibiting the allocation of 15 percent of its contribution to the United Nations Secretariat or any UN agency until the organization implements best practices for whistleblower protection including: “(i) protection against retaliation for internal and lawful public disclosures; (ii) legal burdens of proof; (iii) statutes of limitation for reporting retaliation; (iv) access to independent adjudicative bodies, including external arbitration; and (v) results that eliminate the effects of proven retaliation.” The report claims that the UN is failing to meet these key standards.
Ultimately, whistleblower rights are human rights and whistleblowers should be protected by the principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, especially when they work for organizations charged with upholding those conventions. While efforts are underway to ensure that those who blow the whistle are protected from retaliation, much more needs to be done. Democracy, after all, depends on such truth-tellers.
Daniel Ellsberg, called both “America’s most dangerous man” by Henry Kissinger and a hero by others, helped haste the end of the Vietnam War by leaking top secret Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and other newspapers in 1971. He risked decades in prison on espionage and other felony charges, although the case was later dismissed because of egregious misconduct by the Nixon administration.
Thomas Drake, is a former senior executive at the National Security Agency where he blew the whistle on massive multi-billion dollar fraud, waste and the widespread violations of the rights of citizens through secret mass surveillance programs after 9/11. As retaliation and reprisal, in 2010 Drake was indicted as the first whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg charged with espionage and faced 35 years in prison, turning him into an Enemy of the State for his oath to defend the Constitution. In 2011, the government’s case against him collapsed and he went free in a plea deal.
As director of the leading U.S. whistleblower organization, National Security & Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project (GAP), Jesselyn Radack focuses specifically on secrecy, surveillance, torture and discrimination. She has been at the forefront of defending against the government’s unprecedented “war on whistleblowers,” which has also implicated journalists. Among her clients, she represents seven national security and intelligence community employees who have been investigated, charged or prosecuted under the Espionage Act for allegedly mishandling classified information, including Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, and John Kiriakou.
Coleen Rowley is an attorney and former FBI special agent and division counsel whose May 2002 memo to the FBI Director exposed some of the agency’s pre-9/11 failures, was one of three whistleblowers named as Time magazine’s “Persons of the Year” in 2002.