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Protecting whistleblowers

A staff member had been working for an international organisation until 2002 when his organisation no longer liked him. Why did his organisation stop liking him? Simply because he had revealed a scandal, indeed the corruption scandal.

But this is not a sole case. Many other dedicated staff members have gotten fired for exposing criminal acts. These individuals were punished because they had done the right things.

They had disclosed criminal acts and some organisations and influential individuals – being more concerned with keeping reputations than upholding integrity – could not tolerate such disclosures. In other words, these former staff members were punished because they had blown the whistle.

The above examples vividly tell us that protecting whistleblowers isn’t an easy job and requires stringent commitments from everyone, both in the domestic and the international arena. Even at places where there is in place a firm policy for protecting whistleblowers, courageous employees may have been fired simply because they were trying to do what they honestly and reasonably believed to be the right thing to do.

When we look at this issue more closely, we’ll find that a simple though inconvenient truth just cannot hide: Nobody likes to be exposed as having committed, or wanting to commit, improper conduct.

Consequently, the above-mentioned examples clearly reinforce the idea that whistleblowing requires an undeterred courage of individuals in coming forward with the information and, at the same time, must be supported and protected by a mechanism that is impartial, safe, confidential and speedy. Impartiality dictates that those entrusted with protecting whistleblowers must not have any improper interest in the disclosure.

Safety plainly means a strong and effective guarantee against any attempts of retaliation in any conceivable form. A confidential mechanism must protect the identity of the whistleblower at every stage of the process to the furthest extent possible.

Finally, the whole process must be speedy enough to ensure that this stressful undertaking on the part of the whistleblower can be done away with as fast as possible. In all the examples cited above, the application of these four principles seemed sad and faulty. Against this background, the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) is aimed at addressing this complex issue by imposing clear obligations upon signatory states.

As a member of the UNCAC, Cambodia has an obligation to, among other things, adopt legislation to protect whistleblowers. In encouraging news, the Anti-Corruption Unit recently declared that it would form a committee in November to begin works on drafting such legislation with a broad mandate to protect whistleblowers for criminal offenses, not only for corruption-related offenses.

The president of the ACU was widely quoted as saying that this committee would consist of partners from the government, independent bodies, civil society and the private sector. If such promise is materialised, and we hope that it will be, we should reasonably expect a wholly transparent and inclusive drafting process that will accept and thoroughly consider contributions from all such partners, unlike the regretful drafting processes for some recent disastrous laws which continue to lack public support.

With a promise publicly made by the ACU, there will be no room for complacency for any partner, however. Contributions should be made ready in time to support the ACU-led pluralist committee from next month.

As the parliament has already proved itself to be insensitive to the need for public consultation come what may, we now strongly hope that the pluralist committee promised by the ACU will make up for any shortage of ideas.

If the four principles mentioned above are truly taken into consideration and if this law can ensure effective enforcement, Cambodia might as well be able to set good examples for others to follow. I really wish that next month was yesterday.

Preap Kol is Executive Director of Transparency International Cambodia.

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