Whistleblowers: Meeting Power Head On

Truth-bearers have always suffered the wrath of those in power, the latest UN’s senior official’s harassment case tells the harrowing tale of unchecked power, gaslighting and more, writes Sabin Muzaffar.

While it is almost biblical that Truth sets us free, coming out and exposing damning information has never been easy – be it about the government, an organization or a perpetrator of criminal activity. What it entails is taking the bull by the horn! Thrust reluctantly into the limelight, this is exactly what whistleblowers come face to face.

The risks and challenges are numerous, from the onslaught of online and offline harassment to smear campaigns and on numerous occasions; even death threats to real fatalities. The life of a whistleblower not only becomes public property but is vulnerable to lifelong persecution.

From the likes of Karen Silkwood, Edward Snowden to the more recent names from the #METOO campaign, the road has always been painfully treacherous, especially when a highly respected organization is concerned.

Over the past several years, much hue and cry had been raised about how different human rights organizations including the United Nations manages internal crises when it comes to allegations and accusation of harassment. With reputations at stake, these organizations are seen grappling. That said, it is nothing compared to the heartache, mental anguish and physical distress suffered by those who actually come forward to unravel the truth.

Case in point is the recently concluded investigation of a high-profile, senior United Nations advisor Ravi Karkara who was accused of sexual misconduct against his younger male subordinates. Karkara was found guilty and dismissed – ‘the strongest disciplinary measure available within the Staff Regulations and Rules of the United Nations…’ according to the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka,

Human Rights Advocate, Mandy Sanghera.

The investigation, which took more than 15 months to conclude was a long and arduous process – sadly for the victims and the whistleblowers who supported them. Talking to Ananke, eminent Human Rights advocate Mandy Sanghera – one of the key whistleblowers – explains: “This has been a difficult 18 months especially because the UN is seen as the ultimate organization. For me, doing nothing wasn’t an option. It was about safeguarding and protecting the youth. Sadly, I have been the focus of anger and blame for many months when Ravi came to learn about the facts. He continued to gaslight, bully or defame me; trying to discredit me and my work. It is very difficult to prove facts especially when it came to Ravi as so many people didn’t want to burn their bridges with him.”

Talking about how she dealt with the onslaught of harassment, Mandy added: “For me, I had to focus on the truth and support the victim; remove myself from the situation. It was the only way to deal with the hate campaigns and bullying.”

Agreeing with Mandy, another whistleblower who played a pivotal role in bringing the perpetrator to justice, Kerry Gibson – President of EcoCentury Technologies and a UN Women Planet 5050 Champion – reveals: “We were the recipients of perpetual attacks on our character, our ethics (and) our bodies of work. Not just from the accused but also from many individuals who called themselves humanitarians, victim advocates and human rights advocates. However, I have always found that if you stand for the right things and speak for the right reasons – you will be vindicated in the end. I have great amount of support. Mandy and others have given me the moral strength to persevere despite attacks.”

In this day and age of fake news and sifting through piles and piles of information and fluff, our parallel realities – virtual and real – have become a playing field for powerful perpetrators to thrive. Easily paving way to more victim blame and shame, vilification of truth bearers as well as glorification of half-truths and blatant lies.

Kerry Gibson – President of EcoCentury Technologies and a UN Women Planet 5050 Champion.

Kerry notes: “The term whistleblower has long since carried a great amount of stigma. Negative connotations must be removed from this terminology or to create new terminology. Truth-telling should never be condemned. Change sometimes is radical.”

Acknowledging the high stakes of truth telling especially when a respected agency is in the mix, Kerry believes, “a humanitarian organization should serve a humanitarian purpose, not just to those outside its purview…” Narrating her own experience, she adds: “I had filed a professional complaint against the accused after he had repeatedly thwarted collaborative efforts the UN Women had requested that I initiate. I was very transparent in how I addressed his bizarre behaviors and he was aware of the complaint. This led him to attempting to delete my email from his superior’s computer which publicized the issue across the entire department. That alerted the first victim who then came to me and told his story of years of manipulation, grooming and abuse at the hands of Ravi Karkara and we decided to coordinate our complaints with the UNDP.”

In this day and age of fake news and sifting through piles and piles of information and fluff, our parallel realities – virtual and real – have become a playing field for powerful perpetrators to thrive. Easily paving way to more victim blame and shame, vilification of truth bearers as well as glorification of half-truths and blatant lies.

Agreeing with Kerry, Mandy recollects the long wait for justice regardless of the pain and misery caused by the perpetrator and his inner circle of friends. “They even tried to stop organizations working with me and intimidated members of my family. I couldn’t have done it without the support of Kerry M. Gibson. We both have been under immense stress and emotional distress. For me, it was always about doing the right thing. I am of Indian descent but it was never about race. I have been accused of being a racist because I wouldn’t stand with wrongdoing.”

Taking stock of the chain of events occurred, the process and end result, former organizing partner of U.N. Major Group for Children and Youth (the formal engagements mechanism for young people at the UN), Aashish Khullar adds: “Even one incident and even one incident overlooked is one too many. He (Ravi) may be the worst but there are more like him in the system along with their silent enablers and accomplices. The changes that are needed are clear, it’s about making them happen.”

With the conclusion of the investigation, the big message is not just that the human rights sector needs more transparency, checks and balances especially when it comes to power. It needs accountability every step of the way. The sector needs to refocus and re-align its vision that embraces expeditious investigative and disciplinary measures for justice to prevail, for truth to see the light of day and most importantly to protect and shield truth-bearers instead of the other way around. Question is, have we finally learnt our lesson yet?

 

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