9 December 2018

Talking to Ukrlife.TV NAKO Co-Chair James Wasserstrom shared his atri-corruption experience and his assessment of the situation in Ukraine. In 2002-2007 he was the founder and the Head of the Public Utilities Oversight Department in Kosovo. Wasserstrom provided details of investigating corruption schemes in public procurement that involved members of Kosovo government and senior UN representatives.

Anchorwoman Liudmyla Nemyria: You are among those people who know really well how the war and corruption are interconnected. Could you please share  your experience with us?

James Wasserstrom: Usually a war is a good business, especially for those who can make profit of war. For example, those involved in some form of trafficking, narcotics, people or weapons, among other issues. So individuals who profit from the war and who find themselves fighting for one side or another, or even leading it, they are not really much interested in ending the war, they want the war to continue, and to continue their ill-gotten incomes, and when some kind of solution finally is achieved, usually due to the involvement of the international community, the international community often allows to take these soldiers, or the liberation army, or whatever the title may be, and allows them to take over as polititcians. So they transfer the corruption from the war into the government structures that they occupy. I would like to add that international community that are often brokers of these kinds of deals, they are well aware of corruption risks that these individuals are engaged in. But they make a deliberate decision that peace is more important than corruption. So they allow this to take place.

When you decided to be in litigation with the United Nations, did someone tell you that you were insane? Something like “What are you doing?”

People told me something like that, of course. But I didn’t have any choice. The corruption that I alleged was taking place in UN was in my domain, in the area that I was in charge of. I was in charge of oversight of that domain. So I could either turn my head, blind eye to the corruption, or I had to address it. So I felt to have no choice. I had no idea of how vicious the UN as the organization could be to those people who try to helpfully point out that there was corruption within its own organization. Instead of following up to the corruption that I was reporting, they turned it around and said that I was the corrupt individual, and as I was trying to leave the country for a weekend with my family living in Greece, they arrested me illegally, they violated my immunity, they escorted me with a police guard back to my apartment, they did illegal search and seizure of my property, they put police tape across my office door, and they leaked this entire story to the media, and the headline in Kosovo and in other countries was corrupt UN official caught while attempting to flee. All this was because I got in the way of public procurement for 5 billion dollars, in which there was a kickback allegedly of 5 hundred million dollars to Kosovo government officials to some of my senior UN colleagues. And five hundred million dollars in hands of a very small number of politicians in a place like Kosovo could have boght supposedly free and fair elections, democratic elections just by paying to population. And the state would have been captured for decades by that kind of wealth in one political party hands. If one vote costs 30 euros, and you need one hundred thousand votes to sway elections, we are talking a very very small amount of money.

How did you win?

No, unfortunately I filed the case into UN’s own justice system, which had never put into the test, none of the accountability institutions for whistleblowers which were recently established have been put to the test by whistleblowers. I won over and over again at the lower level, everything was substantiated, and the judge agreed, and then the UN appealed the judgement to the court of last resort, the higher level court. And they overturned the judgement in my favour because they said that I hadnot followed the correct procedure in filing the case seven years earlier. They didnt question the facts. But there was a three judge panel, where one judge wrote a disagreeing opinion, he disagreed with the other two. She said that in her view the procedure the UN referred to was introduced after my case had been filed. So the UN was wrongly applying rules and regulations that were not in effect when I filed my case, and would never be allowed in a normal legal system, which shown the corruption in the UN justice system. But I didn’t stop with that judgement. I went to then Secretary of State John Kerry, which I announced in press-conference in Manhatten, just across the street where UN is and was very widely covered around the world. And I said that UN’s institutions to protect whistleblowers had failed, and US as the largest single contributor to UN and thus the most influential one should raise this and try to fix this for future whitsleblowers, not for me. Secretary Kerry didn’t do anything, but Congress took very serious reaction, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate through bipartisan and democratic legislation. They have a provision that all international organizations must adhere to best practices implementing the protection of whistleblowers or they risk having a 50-per-cent cut in US contribution to their organization. And this was signed by President Obama, and it is still in place.

As a person who fought against corruption, including corruption in the war time, you are currently the Member of the Independent Defence Anti-Corruption Committee. How would you assess the corruption in defence sector?

It seems to be very deep and very serious. It seems to me that it’s a serious factor undermining military readiness of the country which is in war. And I am very sorry for men and women who ar fighting there without appropriate and high-quality material they need to succeed.

Do you think that Ukraine can fight corruption while being in war with Russia?

Undoubtedly. In every country where I worked, immediately post-conflict or in conflict, there has been corruption, massive corruption, but there have also been very successful reforms that have done some changes to the environment and reducing corruption. It takes political commitment at the highest levels in the executive branch and legislative branch.