[Rishi Gulati practices as a barrister in Melbourne. The author has not had any involvement with the Kompass case; and this post should not be construed as legal advice in any form whatsoever.]
Highlighting Mr Anders Kompass’s suspension from duties as a senior official at the UN, the Guardian recently reported that Mr Anders Kompass, a senior UN staff member:
“leaked an internal UN report on the alleged sexual abuse of children by French troops in Central African Republic to French prosecutors last summer. The French immediately mounted an investigation and revealed…they were investigating up to 14 soldiers for alleged abuse. The French authorities wrote to thank Kompass for passing on the internal report detailing the abuse”.
Notably, the UN suspended Mr Kompass from his job at the UN, arguing that Mr Kompass engaged in misconduct warranting his suspension from duties. It is apparent that the “misconduct” in question concerns allegations that Mr Kompass breached confidentiality by sharing with French authorities “confidential un-redacted preliminary investigative notes” about allegations of sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic.
As is reported in the article in the Guardian cited above:
The confidential internal report leaked by Kompass contained interviews by a UN official and a member of Unicef with a number of children, aged between eight and 15, who say they were sexually abused at a camp for internally displaced people in Bangui, the capital of CAR, by French troops last year. The interim report identified about 10 children effected but the UN said it was possible many more children had been abused.
A procedural background to Mr Kompass’s suspension
The key facts are contained at paragraphs 1-12 of the judgment of the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) in Kompass v Secretary General of the United Nations, Order on an Application for Suspension of Action, 5 May 2015. In summary (footnotes omitted):
- Mr Kompass is employed at the Director level at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Geneva,
- In July 2014, another senior OHCHR official provided Mr Kompass a copy of a report containing serious allegations of paedophilia allegedly committed in the Central African Republic by French military. Mr Kompas says that “he brought the content of the report to the attention of the Deputy Ambassador of France”. Mr Kompass states that “he informed the Deputy High Commissioner (his supervisor at the OHCHR) that he had seen the report and had discussed the allegations with the Deputy Ambassador of France.
- Mr Kompass said that in response to a request from the French Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva, he shared the report with the Permanent Mission. Mr Kompass said that he shared this information with his supervisor at the OHCHR, the Deputy High Commissioner (a disputed fact).
- On 6 March 2015, the High Commissioner for Human Rights (High Commissioner) became aware that Mr Kompass allegedly leaked confidential investigative notes concerning allegations of sexual abuse.
- It is uncontested that on 12 March 2015 Mr Kompass was asked to resign by the Deputy High Commissioner who was ultimately relaying the request of the Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Mr Kompass refused to resign.
- Upon a request by the High Commissioner, the body at the UN that conducts investigations of internal staff misconduct, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) was then asked to conduct an investigation into Mr Kompass’s actions.
- Whilst the OIOS investigation was on foot, on 17 April 2015, Mr Kompass, under the internal rules of the UN, was placed on administrative leave with pay (ALWP).
ALWP, as the name suggest disallows the affected staff member from continuing in his or her duties. Being placed on ALWP obviously can cause professional and reputational damage, leaving aside the emotional distress it may cause to a staff member.
On 29 April 2015, Mr Kompass accessed the UNDT requesting relief that the ALWP be suspended, meaning that if Mr Kompass succeeded in his application, then he could return to his duties. To obtain relief, Mr Komposs amongst other things, needed to show that the decision to place him on ALWP was prima facie unlawful, and the decision would cause Mr Kompass irreparable damage.
Why did Mr Kompass have to access the UNDT as opposed to a domestic employment tribunal?
As the UN enjoys immunities before domestic courts, an aggrieved UN staff member cannot approach a domestic court. Employment disputes between the UN and its staff are heard by a tribunal set up by the UN, the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT), and an appeals tribunal, known as the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (UNAT). These tribunals apply a specialised body of law known as international administrative law (IAL). IAL governs the employment relationship between the UN and its staff. IAL is a specialised body of law that includes aspects of administrative, contract and international law. It is based on both, the common and civil law traditions. While links are discernible, strictly speaking, IAL should be distinguished from the broader notion of Global Administrative Law (GAL), which is an emerging body of law focusing on the “increasing use of administrative law-type mechanisms, in particular those related to transparency, participation, accountability and review, within the regulatory institutions of global governance.” See here for information on the GAL movement.
It is worth noting that in the past, serious criticisms have been levelled at the UN concerning the deficiencies in its internal justice system where cases often took years to resolve. In 2009, after decades of effort, the UN comprehensively redesigned its internal justice system, creating the UNDT and the UNAT. For a discussion, see an earlier article by the author here.
So, is the redesigned system working? The Kompass case is a prime example that while much more needs to be done, progress has been made.
What did the UNDT decide in the Kompass case?
Bearing in mind that the merits of the case have not yet been determined, on the issue of prima facie unlawfulness, the UNDT concluded at para 34 that the UN official who placed Mr Kompass on ALWP did not have the authority to do so; and critically, the decision did not comply with the internal rules of the UN:
39. The Tribunal finds that neither the interest of the Organization, nor the avoidance of any interference with the investigation are reasons in the exhaustive list …of the respective administrative instruction. Therefore, as such, they cannot be accepted as valid reasons for placing the Applicant on administrative leave.
On the issue of irreparable damage, the UNDT said:
49. Therefore, and since the Applicant is currently being prevented from carrying out his functions as a result of being on administrative leave, which is of public knowledge, the Tribunal finds that if the suspension is not granted, the harm done to the Applicant’s reputation will be irreparable and could not be adequately compensated at a later stage.
Mr Kompass has now been reinstated to his position. This decision of the UNDT is undoubtedly a decision consistent with the maintenance of UN accountability to its very own staff members: ensuring that UN management acts within the purview of its internal rules and procedures. This is especially critical as UN staff cannot approach domestic courts for remedies for breach of their terms of employment. Most critically, the fact that Ms Kompass could seek justice within a few days of being placed on ALWP is a testament to the initial success of the new internal justice system. Undoubtedly significant issues with whistle-blower protection exist at the UN, but the Kompass case provides an example that there is reason for cautious optimism regarding access to justice for aggrieved UN staff members.
It bears noting that as per the information in the UNDT’s judgment, Mr Kompass’s appointment at the UN expires on 8 July 2015. It can only be hoped that any renewal of Mr Kompass’s employment does not attract retaliatory action. This case could yet be subject to several more twists, and it is crucial to maintain a close watch.