The World of International Organizations Explained

Longest U.N. whistleblower case settled

Caroline Hunt-Matthes in front of the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva (ARÊTE/John Heilprin)

GENEVA — The United Nations settled a long-running case of retaliation against a former U.N. investigator, acknowledging it caused her professional and personal hardships.

A joint statement from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the whistleblowing former U.N. investigator, Swiss-based Caroline Hunt-Matthes, said the parties reached “a mutually satisfactory settlement” on June 4 in the 15-year retaliation case.

“For U.N. whistleblower protection to be effective — the U.N. Ethics Office must be truly independent,” Hunt-Matthes said in a separate statement published on June 5 by the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, which litigates whistleblower cases involving international organizations.

“Culture change within all U.N. organizations will only move forward when accountability of its senior staff is enforced, which it was not in this case,” she said. GAP called it the “longest-running U.N. whistleblower case” in history.

Hunt-Matthes won a judgment from the U.N. Dispute Tribunal in 2013 that she was unfairly punished for documenting a woman’s rape case in Sri Lanka a decade earlier. She told The Associated Press in 2013 that the case was “a consummate story of abuse of power” by the U.N.’s oversight unit.

UNHCR appealed the judgment in 2014. It now agrees with Hunt-Matthes that it is in both of their interests to put the matter behind them.

“UNHCR accepts that there were matters which in hindsight could have been better managed in relation to the separation,” said their joint statement. “It is a matter of regret that these issues and the lengthy delays have impacted upon Ms. Hunt-Matthes’ employment and personal life.”

Retaliation for doing her job properly

Twin rulings from then-U.N. Dispute Tribunal Judge Coral Shaw in Nairobi were intensely critical of the U.N.’s accountability system. Among other things, it had taken until 2013 for Hunt-Matthes to have the court hear the complaints she filed against the United Nations going as far back as 2004.

She was consistently well-regarded in her work but still lost her job at UNHCR, and she suffered other damages due to retaliation after she collected evidence in 2003 that a U.N. administrator in UNHCR’s Sri Lanka office had raped a refugee there.

The administrator was reprimanded and left UNCHR after the rape was reported. A U.N. legal team substantiated that a teenager who cleaned the agency’s offices in Sri Lanka was raped and subsequently fired after reporting it.

The tribunal judge wrote that “there can be no doubt about the serious stress and reputational damage caused to” Hunt-Matthes, who “has borne the disappointment of retaliation against her by formerly respected colleagues for identifying and insisting on an investigation into misconduct she genuinely believed was occurring.”

A lawyer by training, Hunt-Matthes considered her career as an investigator to be over and was unable to find work right away. She took up part-time consulting and teaching after leaving the United Nations, and devoted much of her time to her legal case in the interests of bolstering protections for all whistleblowers within the world body.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who was head of UNHCR when Hunt-Matthes was fired, said in February that the United Nations now has a “zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment.”

The statement came after several years in which the United Nations has come under fire for allegations that peacekeepers raped children and committed other crimes of sexual violence in places such as Central African Republic and Congo.

The world of international organizations explained.

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