Aside from the extraordinary information that he revealed about massive yet unsuspected surveillance programs, Edward Snowden has produced several other collateral benefits through his actions in 2013. For example, recently we learned that the DEA’s phone tracking program was cancelled as a direct result of the revelations and the ensuing uproar. Other leakers have started to come forward, apparently inspired by his actions. And as the press has pored over Snowden’s actions, it has become clear that support for government whistleblowers is woefully inadequate — indeed, that they are regarded by the Obama administration pretty much as traitors.
More generally, the debate around Snowden has highlighted the important part that whistleblowers play in sustaining the rule of law and defending democracy. Now a group of whistleblowers has written a letter calling on the United Nations to recognize that role (pdf), and to improve protections within the organization (via Intellectual Property Watch):
As our experience shows, retaliation against whistleblowers affects the entire UN system and goes largely unchecked at all levels, including in the Executive suites. Some UN whistleblowers have been fired or demoted; others have been subject to more subtle forms of abuse like non-renewal of contracts or sudden transfer to duty stations on the other side of the globe; many face plain, simple harassment and intimidation.
The problems they have to deal with are very similar to those encountered by Snowden when he sought to use official channels to raise his concerns:
UN whistleblowers are forced to go through lengthy, and often expensive, internal appeal processes in which the burden of proof, as a practical matter, rests on the whistleblower to demonstrate retaliation (the usual standard in national systems requires the employer to justify their actions were not retaliatory).
As a result, they often end up taking the same route that he did:
Put simply, the UN system of justice fails whistleblowers, and most of us have been forced to leave the UN to save our livelihoods, our health and our reputations.
The letter’s signatories go on to call for the UN to review whistleblower protection at the organization, and they make concrete suggestions on improving the lot of those revealing abuses, including recognizing that:
Whistleblower rights are human rights, which must be promoted and protected within the UN, as well as in affiliated specialized agencies and international organisations with immunity from national laws.
And extending whistleblower protections to:
UN peacekeepers, police officers, contractors, victims and any other person who provides information about misconduct that could undermine the organisation’s mission. The key to receiving protection should be the content of the information disclosed, not the identity of the person disclosing it.
Like much of the letter, that last point is applicable generally. It underlines the fact that a completely new framework for whistleblowers is required at every level, both nationally and internationally. The letter to the UN is part of an important move towards making that happen, in what could prove to be a key aspect of Snowden’s long-term legacy.