The Deceptive Paper Rules
Melissa Fleming, the Head of Communications and Public Information who also doubles as the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, challenged us to find responses to our concerns in a 50-page Code of Conduct. We didn't bother to ask what the UN Agency is paying her for, we got reading. We found how worthless the Codes are... What good are rules that are never enforced?
“Since the war began in Syria, thousands of refugees have made the precarious journey through Turkey into Europe in search of safety. We follow the lives of two refugee families as they encounter people-smugglers, border guards and shocking conditions. They find themselves torn apart – not by the war back home – but by a new enemy: ‘Fortress Europe’.” That’s how UK Guardian journalists John Domokos and Alex Rees summarised their twenty-one minute report.
The powers-that-be at the UNHCR found the report so compelling that it now forms part of the Agency’s ‘1family torn apart by war is too many’ campaign which not only spreads awareness of the work of the UN body, but ingeniously links to the Agency’s platform including a page calling for donations to ‘keep up the good work’.
What one would however not get from the pages are the facts about those families torn apart by questionable acts of impunity and arrogance perpetrated by the UNHCR’s own staff members. Melissa Fleming is the head of Communications and Public Information, but we struggled to get straight responses from her. For whatever reasons, we were simply slapped with a decade-old 50-page document in some sort of dare game: ‘Find the responses to your concerns if you can’. And we surely did.
Here’s what we discovered in the last paragraph of the ‘Introduction’ page: “This Code of Conduct is intended to serve as an illustrative guide for staff to make ethical decisions in their professional lives, and at times in their private lives. It is a moral code that does not have the force of law. It is designed to assist staff to better understand the obligations placed upon their conduct by the Charter of the United Nations and the Staff Regulations and Rules, which remain the only legal instruments that determine acceptable conduct in UNHCR.”
“This Code of Conduct is intended to serve as an illustrative guide for staff to make ethical decisions in their professional lives, and at times in their private lives..."
The core values promoted within this voluntary Code of Conduct encourage the Agency’s staff to adhere to “respect for fundamental human rights, social justice and human dignity, and respect for equal rights of men and women…”
Of great interest to Jacky’s case is the ‘Commitment’ required to be made by all staff members, as documented under the second Item: ‘…upholding the integrity of UNHCR, by ensuring that my personal and professional conduct is, and is seen to be, of the highest standard.’
Highest standards! Before we could wonder how high, the document that must be signed and accepted by every individual agreeing to engage with the Agency goes on to stipulate: “I will observe local laws, will meet all my private legal and financial obligations, and will not seek to take personal advantage of any privileges or immunities that have been conferred on me in the interest of the UN. I will do my utmost to ensure that the conduct of members of my household does not reflect unfavourably on the integrity of UNHCR.”
In the case of Jacky, our investigation has revealed the contravention of numerous local laws – including having her shipped into the country under suspected false pretences, making her work without pay, exposing her to hunger and forcing her to be employed without a work permit. But of particular significance is found within the seventh commitment expected to be upheld by the UNHCR staff.
“…I will never engage in any exploitative relationships – sexual, emotional, financial or employment-related – with refugees or other persons of concerns… …I will act responsibly when hiring or otherwise engaging refugees or other persons of concern for private services. I will report in writing on the nature and conditions of this employment to my supervisor.”
“I will neither support nor take part in any form of illegal, exploitative or abusive activities, including, for example, child labour, and trafficking of human beings and commodities.”
Jacky’s situation is clearly governed by the eighth item: “I will neither support nor take part in any form of illegal, exploitative or abusive activities, including, for example, child labour, and trafficking of human beings and commodities.”
Whatever exemption the UNHCR may have accorded any of their individual staff members, we have proof that Jacky was at least exploited and abused, and at worst actually enslaved, by an individual who is not some run-of-the-mill staffer, but a highly-qualified high-ranking lawyer.
Hence our fresh request of the office of the High Commissioner António Guterres to disclose, in the spirit of transparency and openness, the exact number of cases of possible misconducts and violation of fundamental human values by UNHCR staff currently under investigations by the Office of the Inspector General. We would also like to have the numbers of all such cases since the Code of Conduct was published in June 2004. It must be noted that we are not asking for the identities of individual staff members, but only the numbers and if possible the regions where the alleged violations occurred. It should not just be dining as usual...