As officials from around the world gather in Atlanta for the 10th Conference of State Parties (CoSP) of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) they would do well not to overlook a group who have done so much (and suffered so much) in this fight: whistleblowers. These overlooked and much-abused individuals have long been beacons of truth in the murky waters of corruption, revealing clandestine activities that undermine the principles of transparency and accountability.
Think of Jonathan Taylor, who was instrumental in exposing hundreds of millions of dollars of bribes paid by his employer to secure oil and gas contracts in Angola, Brazil and Equatorial Guinea. His revelations triggered investigations by law enforcement agencies in multiple jurisdictions, leading to the prosecution of senior executives, and hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and settlements.
There’s also Johannes Stefansson, who exposed his employer’s practice of paying bribes to officials in Namibia for illicit access to the country’s fishing resources. Several of these officials are now awaiting trial in Namibia, though no action has been taken by the Icelandic authorities.
But what do these individuals get for their trouble? Well, in Jonathan’s case, he was subjected to a lawsuit in the Netherlands, which threatened to silence and bankrupt him. Worse still, the authorities in Monaco issued an international warrant for his arrest, and he spent a year under house arrest in Croatia, fighting extradition.
Johannes didn’t fare much better. After multiple threats on his life, which Johannes believes came from the Namibian Secret Service and the South African mafia, he was forced to hire bodyguards for his personal safety. He also alleges that he was poisoned, after facing years of unexplained and debilitating health issues.
These stories raise an inevitable question: why would anyone choose to blow the whistle? The answer lies in the fact that many do not actively choose to do so; rather, it is their conviction and principles that prevent them from remaining silent. As Johannes says of his experience, “when the conscience takes over, you just go straight ahead”. As long as corruption persists, there will always be brave yet ordinary individuals willing to risk everything to expose it. The challenge before us is to ensure they receive the protection and support they need.
Further support for anti-corruption whistleblowers
Thankfully, there is something the UK can do. At this year’s UNCAC Conference the Serbian government, in collaboration with members of the Whistlebowing International Network, will put forward a resolution in support of anti-corruption whistleblowers. The resolution will affirm the vital role that whistleblowers play in furthering the objectives of the Convention, as well as commit member states to take action to support them. Though the resolution is expected to pass, the wording is still subject to negotiation, and there is a real risk of it being watered down. It is vital that the resolution contains real and effective measures, not hollow platitudes.
For one, the resolution should commit member states to create whistleblowing protection away from the ‘good faith’ requirement currently contained in UNCAC. This places the emphasis of whistleblowing law on the motivations of the reporter, rather than an objective assessment of the wrongdoing being raised, an issue highlighted in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC’s) own best practice guide. The law should be examining whistleblowers ‘reasonable belief’ in the wrongdoing they are reported, rather than focusing on whether the whistleblower possessed the right motivation.
Further, it is vital that greater research and technical assistance is made available. Corruption is a global issue, and the UNODC reports that whistleblowing has been one of the UNCAC areas where countries have most struggled to effectively implement. Protect supports the proposition that the resolution should commission a new UNODC study on the structures in place for investigating corruption disclosures, as well as provide an emergency fund for vulnerable whistleblowers reporting on international corruption.
Supporting this resolution and pushing for it to include real and substantive proposals on whistleblowing, is an opportunity for the UK to lead by example. The UK was a pioneer in establishing legal protections for whistleblowers when it passed the Public Interest Disclosure Act in 1998, and the need for protection is no less vital today. By actively promoting the expansion of UNCAC’s commitment to whistleblowing, the UK government will not only uphold the principles of justice but also send a resounding message that those who come forward with information crucial to anti-corruption efforts will be safeguarded.