U.N. agency may have hit back at N.Korea whistleblower

Patrick Worsnip

The U.N. ethics office found evidence that the United Nations Development Program retaliated against an employee who tried to expose its alleged wrongdoing in North Korea, a letter leaked on Monday said.

The letter sent on Friday by the office to UNDP chief Kemal Dervis is likely to lend fresh ammunition to the United States in a long-running dispute with UNDP over its North Korean operations, centering on claims of financial irregularities.

The agency has denied that it fired Artjon Shkurtaj, a native of Albania with Italian citizenship who was head of UNDP’s operations in North Korea from 2005-2006, because of his criticisms. It says his contract was not renewed.

The case came before the Ethics Office because Shkurtaj applied for U.N. whistleblower status under a two-year-old directive. But the office cannot launch a formal investigation without UNDP’s agreement because, as an agency with its own executive board, UNDP does not come under its jurisdiction.

In his letter, Ethics Office director Robert Benson told Dervis that the evidence it found would have supported a case against the UNDP if jurisdiction had applied.

UNDP has decided against waiving its right not to be investigated by the Ethics Office, but Benson urged the agency to do so, saying: “I believe this would be in the best interests of the United Nations and UNDP.”

His confidential letter first appeared on the Web site of Inner City Press, an independent blog on U.N. affairs.

The United States accuses UNDP of sloppy accounting, handing over cash to North Korean bodies without proper documentation and hiring staff hand-picked by the communist Pyongyang government.


A U.N. audit published on June 1 said rule breaches had occurred but did not find systematic diversion of U.N. funding. UNDP quit North Korea in March after Pyongyang refused to accept changes ordered by its board of directors.

UNDP and U.S. officials have been unable to agree how much money Pyongyang, whose nuclear program has for years been the subject of international concern, received from UNDP.

Some of Washington’s information came from Shkurtaj, who has said publicly that UNDP violated “multiple rules and regulations” and engaged in “criminal conduct” in North Korea.

UNDP spokesman David Morrison told a news conference last month that Shkurtaj had been invited to submit evidence to back up his allegations but had so far not done so.

He admitted that UNDP barred Shkurtaj from entering the U.N. compound in New York after his contract expired in March, even though his U.N. pass was still valid.

Instead of agreeing to be investigated by the Ethics Office, UNDP has opted for an outside review — yet to be set up — that would look simultaneously at Shkurtaj’s allegations and other aspects of UNDP’s North Korea operations.

“UNDP believes that having multiple processes reviewing related or identical issues would not be the most effective way to achieve closure of this matter,” agency spokeswoman Christina LoNigro said.

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “very much concerned about this whole issue,” including the fact that Ethics Office jurisdiction did not cover UNDP, which has no such office of its own.

“There is no doubt that the Secretary-General is going to discuss ways of filling” the gap, she told a news briefing.


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