(CNSNews.com) – United Nations staffers have held an unusual protest in Geneva, calling for the resignation of the head of a small but influential U.N. agency dogged by controversy for years. Among other things, he was accused of transferring sensitive U.S.-made computer equipment to North Korea and Iran.
More than 100 staffers from various U.N. organizations braved near freezing temperatures Wednesday to demand the ousting of Francis Gurry, the Australian director-general of the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and in a show of solidarity with WIPO employees.
Their main focus was Gurry’s alleged attempt to replace an elected WIPO staff council with a new one beholden to him.
But the allegations of misconduct run deeper and go back years, and the Federation of International Civil Servants Association, which organized the lunchtime demonstration, compared Gurry’s leadership of WIPO to “totalitarian rule.”
Gurry has been accused of transferring high-end computer equipment to North Korea and Iran, regimes subject to U.S. and U.N. Security Council sanctions related to their nuclear activities.
A former senior WIPO staffer who reported the matter to U.S. authorities took part in Wednesday’s protest rally.
Miranda Brown, former WIPO strategic advisor, told the small gathering she had “uncovered that the organization had been shipping American computers to North Korea and Iran, definitely in violation of U.S. sanctions, but also without the approval of member states.”
Brown said that after reporting the matter to member states, “I was forced to leave the organization.”
President Trump is considering possible funding cuts for U.N. agencies, and it’s reported that among potential targets are agencies that have circumvented sanctions against North Korea or Iran.
WIPO under Gurry’s leadership could fit squarely in that category.
In distinction to most U.N. agencies, however, WIPO’s funding comes largely not from member-states contributions but from fees levied by WIPO for registering trademarks, patents and industrial designs. (The U.S. accounts for more of those fees than any of the other 188 WIPO members.)
Still, a small proportion of WIPO’s budget does come from its member states. The Obama administration requested $1.169 million for WIPO in its fiscal year 2017 request, a small increase over FY 2016.
WIPO has already lost some U.S. funding: In 2015, 15 percent of its U.S. contribution was withheld, in line with U.S. law, after the State Department could not certify that it was implementing best-practice whistleblower protections.
Apart from the North Korea/Iran allegations, Gurry has also been accused of intervening in a procurement process to ensure a friend won a contract – boosting the cost an extra $30,000.
And he stands accused of a campaign of bullying and intimidation of employees and whistleblowers who questioned or exposed his conduct. That behavior allegedly included the illegal collection of senior staff members’ DNA in an attempt to identify the author of anonymous letters accusing him of wrongdoing.
Despite the controversies, Gurry was re-elected in 2014 for a second six-year term. The Obama administration did not intervene, despite the urging of a group of U.S. lawmakers for then-Secretary of State John Kerry not to support his re-election.
In their letter to Kerry, the five lawmakers wrote that WIPO’s actions “would have put any U.S. citizen behind bars, but when caught in the act, Gurry did not stop or even apologize. Instead he claimed that U.S. law was of no concern to him or WIPO.”
At a congressional hearing in February last year, Gurry’s former number two testified about how the director-general reacted when confronted about the shipments to North Korea.
James Pooley, an American, said he discovered in 2012 that WIPO was sending U.S. computer equipment, including a server and firewall software, to the Kim regime – “dual-use technology that could not go to North Korea without an export permit.”
He also worried that the firewall technology would likely help the Stalinist regime’s efforts to prevent citizens from accessing the Internet.
“I went to Mr. Gurry and I asked him to reconsider. I explained to him that in the U.S. – where you can go to prison for quite a number of years for doing what we had done here – that it would be seen as unacceptable for a U.N. agency to be doing the same thing,” Pooley told the lawmakers.
“He told me that he didn’t care what the U.S. thought, because WIPO didn’t have to obey U.S. laws,” he added.
Brown also testified, and reported a similar exchange with Gurry.
“He said that North Korea is a WIPO member-state like any other and it deserves technical cooperation,” she recalled. “He also said that WIPO is not bound by U.S. domestic or U.N. Security Council sanctions.”
Brown turned whistleblower, reporting the North Korean shipment to the U.S. Mission in Geneva and later providing it with documentation.
She said she later heard from other WIPO staffers that North Korean had asked for the computer equipment “in exchange for supporting Mr. Gurry’s election” to a first term as DG in 2007.
Gurry survives investigation
Allegations against Gurry eventually led to an investigation by the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). The North Korea transfer was not part of the inquiry, which focused on the alleged improper procurement case and the DNA sample claims.
According to a leaked report, OIOS found that Gurry had not complied with WIPO’s procurement instructions but found no evidence that he gained financial or personal benefit from his actions.
On the illicit DNA collection charge, the findings were inconclusive. The report said there were strong indications Gurry had a direct interest in the outcome of the DNA testing, but there was no evidence he had been involved.
The report concluded that his conduct “may be inconsistent with the standards expected of a staff member,” and recommended that the chair of the WIPO general assembly – comprising ambassadors of the member-states – “consider taking appropriate action against” him.
Instead, a WIPO statement last October said the general assembly chairs “decided to close with no further action all investigations regarding alleged misconduct.”
It said Gurry welcomed “the renewed confidence reposed in him by WIPO’s member states.”