Edward Flaherty at the International Summit for a Future Beyond UNRWA

Edward Flaherty, Senior partner in Swiss law firm of Schwab, Flaherty, & Associés in Geneva, expert on UN investigations and legal proceedings


Full Remarks:

Thank you Hillel, and good morning everyone. 

As Hillel said, I’m an American lawyer. I’ve spent the last 30 years representing international civil servants in labor disputes against the UN and other international organizations. I’ve represented both staff members accused of misconduct by OIOS and those who have reported misconduct to IOIS to hopefully have the perpetrators pursued. 

If I had more time, I would recount a number of my own cases which demonstrate the unsuitability of OIOS to take on the investigation into UNRWA. I’ll just mention a couple. The first arises out of some accusations of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic in 2015-16, both against the French military and also against the UN and UNICEF staff. The allegations against the French military were investigated by an independent commission, and they confirmed a number of the allegations of sexual assault, sexual abuse, (and) questions of genocide. 

Then OIOS took on the allegations against the UN and UNICEF staff. There were 164 specific allegations. Out of those, OIOS was able to confirm none.  The OIOS investigation did result in the suspension of the UN whistleblower who reported the abuse, Anders Kompass, who was also a Swedish diplomat. 


And you ask, why did they fail?


The simple reason is that the guardians cannot investigate themselves. OIOS is neither neutral nor independent. The Under-Secretary-General in charge of OIOS depends on a good evaluation from the Secretary-General for her salary increases. She presumably has a permanent contract, but then her subordinates – many of whom do not have permanent contracts, but fixed-term contracts – also depend upon a good performance evaluation from their boss. And this, in my view, creates an unspoken incentive that OIOS will find what the administration wants them to find, or what they perceive the administration wants them to find.

OIOS, like most of the other internal investigation units in the UN and other international organizations, operate essentially as a secret police for the heads of the organizations, often being told – this is my presumption – “Find me Mr. X, and I’ll find you the crime,” or “Don’t find Ms. Y, and don’t find her crime.”

Even in a case investigated by OIOS for sexual assault involving the former UNHCR High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, brought by my own client Cynthia Brzak – in that case, OIOS did find Lubbers guilty of sexual assault, but they then sent the report to Kofi Annan, who buried it and publicly exonerated Lubbers. Only when the OIOS investigator secretly sent the OIOS report to the press was Lubbers finally forced to resign. 

In my view, because of their lack of independence, their conflict of interest and lack of neutrality – no matter what the outcome, I think if they are mandated to investigate UNRWA, I think it will just discredit the OIOS itself and the UN. 

In addition, OIOS has no mandate to undertake criminal investigations. They can only deal with staff members. UNRWA has already fired twelve of the alleged staff members, so they have no obligation to participate in the investigation. And even if there were criminal charges to arise out of the investigation – which is possible, given if some of the UN managers knew of the staff members’ membership in Hamas or some of their activities before – then there might be criminal claims possible.

In my own experience with OIOS and the other UN organizations, I really have no confidence that an OIOS investigation will result in an objective finding, and I’m skeptical that even based on what Hillel had mentioned too about the former French minister and some of the other organizations that are “participating” in the review – given their public expression of support for UNRWA – I don’t believe that it would be objective.

My hope is that a truly independent and neutral commission will be appointed with subpoena power, and that the immunity of all those involved – the managers of UNRWA and other staff – will be lifted in advance of any investigation, so that, no matter what the outcome of the investigation, if there is criminal culpability, then those responsible can be prosecuted. Only then, I believe, can the UN’s member states properly decide what should be the outcome of the investigation and the future of UNRWA. 

Thank you. 

UN Watch