In June, we commented on the extraordinary book Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, which was co-authored by three veterans of U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian missions: Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson. The book presents the authors accounts of the mismanagement, misconduct and corruption that they witnessed in some of the U.N.s most important peacekeeping and humanitarian missions over the last decade. At the time the book was released, Cain had already left the U.N., but Postlewait, an administrator, and Thomson, a physician, remained. This week, in an outrageous display of heavy-handed revenge, the U.N. began to purge the remaining authors, notifying Thomson that his contract would not be renewed.
With Thomsons firing, the world body has once again demonstrated its attitude toward those who are courageous enough to speak out about the U.N.s many failures. Just as important, the world body has sent a clear message to the handful of committed and principled employees who remain behind: speak out and youll lose your job.
Thomsons firing also confirms what many U.N. employees already knew. According to a Deloitte Consulting survey of U.N. staffers, a majority believed they would face retribution or dismissal if they spoke out about corruption at the organization.
Meanwhile, Secretary General Kofi Annan is supposedly encouraging his employees to be forthcoming with information about the Oil-for-Food scandal. Many have long suspected that Annan was talking out of both sides of his mouth ― saying publicly that he wanted U.N. employees to speak up while sending a private message to clam up instead. Thomsons firing suggests that those suspicions may be understated.
In an interview with the National Post of Canada, Thomson agreed. "The message the U.N. wants to send is that its professional suicide to challenge the party line. If they can succeed in terminating my employment and ending my U.N. career on the 31st, then theyll have succeeded in silencing everyone else ― including those who may be thinking about coming forward for the oil-for-food scandal, or the sex-for-food scandal in Congo."
Thomson also lamented the future of his colleague and friend, Postlewait, who has 18 months remaining on her current contract. "Theyre coming for Heidi, too. It will just take a little more time with her," he said.
While the United Nations officially denies that the book had anything to do with Thomsons dismissal, the Los Angeles Times reports that, according to U.N. sources, after Miramax TV optioned the book for a potential television show, Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette sent Thomsons and Postlewaits files to the U.N. personnel department and attached a note demanding swift action.
Its clear from their book and their years of commitment to their humanitarian efforts that Thomson and his co-authors are good people strongly motivated to help others. Its equally clear from their book and the reaction to it that the U.N. is no longer a place for such people ― if it ever was.
But in a perverse way, through Thomsons firing, the U.N.s incompetence is now being turned on itself. Thomsons departure from the world body wont reduce the attention thats focused on the problems he and his colleagues have recounted. Indeed, the U.N.s move to oust Thomson will only increase the scrutiny on the world body and its seemingly bottomless cesspool of misdeeds. And perhaps some good will be the result after all.December 15, 2004