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UN Whistle Blowers Fired for Challenging Risky Investment Policies of the Pension Fund

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 5 2024 (IPS) - The UN Ethics Office, established in 2006, has promoted an organizational culture in the world body, including integrity, professionalism, respect for diversity and protection for whistle-blowers.

But the UN Pension Fund, whose assets amount to a staggering $88.3 billion, is accused of firing four of its staffers, including senior investment officers, for challenging the wisdom of the Fund’s investment policies.

The firings have been criticized by two Staff Unions representing over 60,000 UN staffers worldwide.

In a letter to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the President of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations, (CCISUA) Nathalie Meynet says the Unions are alarmed to learn about the recent dismissal of four senior investment officers, “with indications that more staff may be terminated.”

“As you know, during the tenure of the previous Representative of the Secretary-General (in the Pension Fund), a group of senior investment managers decided to blow the whistle on what the Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) later found to be a “toxic work environment”. They first raised their concerns with their direct management.”

Feeling that the matter was not given the level of attention required, they also met with the Staff Union. Some, but not all, of those who are being dismissed, met with the US and Japan’s Permanent Missions.

This undoubtedly, the letter said, had an impact in terms of changing the leadership of The Office of Investment Management (OIM).

Subsequently these staff members were investigated, and their emails and WhatsApp messages scrutinized by OIOS, on the following charges:

    • Meeting with the US and Japan’s missions, or being aware that some of the staff in the group were meeting with those missions, and that sensitive information would be disclosed.

    • Raising concerns with the Staff Union and disclosing sensitive information.

“We are dismayed that staff should be formally disciplined for having raised alarm with their staff representatives. We are also very concerned that the Organisation has failed to uphold the Secretary-General’s Bulletin 2017/2/Rev.1 on Protection against retaliation for reporting misconduct and for cooperating with duly authorized audits or investigations,” the letter pointed out.

Under Section 4, such actions are permitted when the use of internal mechanisms is not possible because of either inaction, fear of retaliation or concealing of evidence. “We are further worried that your actions, in firing so many OIM staff at once and in preventing staff from raising genuine concerns, creates an unacceptable risk to the management of Pension Fund assets”.

The UN Principles for Responsible Investment states: “Effective whistleblowing mechanisms are a key feature of good governance and anti-corruption systems, as well as being reflective of a healthy corporate culture. They can help support companies to mitigate the risks associated with unethical or illegal conduct, which if left unchallenged can lead to significant corporate failures and loss of value.”

“We therefore ask that you reconsider your decision to terminate the Pension Fund’s senior investment officers on grounds of whistleblowing. “

At the time of going to press, the Pension Fund did not respond to our request for comments.

Meanwhile, in a letter to colleagues, Laura Johnson, Executive Secretary and Pablo Gonzalez Silva, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Staff Union of the UN Office at Geneva, share their concerns “regarding the recent firings of senior investment officers in the Pension Fund’s Office of Investment Management”.

As spelled in the letter sent by the staff union federation, CCISUA, to the Secretary-General, “these staff were fired for blowing the whistle. Their performance as investment managers is not in question”, the letter pointed out.

“We believe that these firings: go against the UN’s policy on whistleblower protection; lead to the loss of significant accumulated experience; and create a climate of fear among the pension fund’s investment managers that prevents them from voicing their own perspective on how investment policy is implemented.”

“The last point is especially important. The fund’s experienced investment managers must be able to voice their opinion, particularly when these contradict those of the head of the Office of Investment Management, a political appointment, known as the Representative of the Secretary-General. We strongly support this letter and will be discussing with other staff unions what further steps we can take.”

According to the Code of Conduct, the UN’s protection against retaliation policy is to ensure that the Organization functions in an open, transparent and fair manner and enhances protection for those who report misconduct (any violation of the Organization’s rules and regulations by staff members), wrongdoing (by any person that is harmful to the interests, operation or governance of the United Nations), or cooperate with duly authorized audits and investigations.

The reports and cooperation are considered “protected activities” under the policy. “In order to receive protection, any report should be made as soon as possible, in good faith and not later than six years since you became aware of the original misconduct.”

To be considered a protected activity, a report of misconduct must include information or evidence to support a reasonable belief that misconduct occurred. Under very specific and limited conditions, protection against retaliation may be extended to individuals who report misconduct through external mechanisms.

“Retaliation means any direct or indirect detrimental action that adversely affects your employment or working conditions, where such action has been recommended, threatened or taken for the purpose of punishing, intimidating or injuring you because you engaged in a protected activity. You must submit a request for protection to the Ethics Office within six months of becoming aware of the retaliation”.

Meanwhile, the Representative of the Secretary-General for the investment of the assets of the Fund (RSG), Pedro Guazo, reported on the progress made by the Office of Investment Management (OIM).

He informed the Board that as of 31 December 2023, the portfolio was valued at USD 88.18 billion, compared to USD 77.92 billion as of 31 December 2022. The Fund has been performing well with a real rate of return of 4.8 per cent over the 15-year long-term period ending December 31, 2023, and 5.2 per cent as of January 31, 2024, which is above the required minimum of real rate of return 3.5 per cent, according to the Pension Fund.

“It has also exceeded the market benchmark for the short-term (3 years) by 50 basis points as of December 31, 2023, and by 30 basis points as of January 31, 2024. In addition, the Fund demonstrated a 5-year return (2018-2022) of 4.2 per cent, outperforming both the global median of 3.3 per cent and the peer median of 2.7 per cent. The Fund’s assets-to-liabilities ratio, also known as the funding ratio, is greater than 110 per cent, indicating strong financial health,” the Fund said.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


  
 
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