Global Pro Bono Dispute of the Year: Tadonki v. General Secretary of the United Nations
Honoree: Amsterdam & Peroff
For this award we honor Canadian law firm Amsterdam & Peroff for its involvement in an employment tribunal of a truly global nature: representing an employee in a wrongful dismissal case against the United Nations, while lifting the lid on a pot of bureaucratic scheming, institutional intransigence, and political expediency.
The story began in 2008 when development worker George Tadonki became head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Harare. At that time, Zimbabwe was in turmoil, with political violence rife in the run up and aftermath of a March election that was internationally condemned as a sham. Hyper-inflation in that year hit an astronomical 231 million per cent. And yet incumbent veteran president Robert Mugabe clung to power.
Tadonki attempted to do what he could in his post—and succeeded in doubling the money spent on valuable aid. But he had concerns about the way that the UN’s Resident Coordinator, was cosying up to elements of the Mugabe regime, and undermining his efforts as OCHA head. In particular, he worried about the lack of preparedness to stave off an imminent cholera epidemic, and to improve the welfare of Internally Displaced Persons (the existence of whom the Mugabe regime had refused to acknowledge.)
In January 2009, OCHA management in New York told Tadonki that he wouldn’t be renewed and reassigned him to a post in Johannesburg for the last few months of his contract. Tadonki appealed his dismissal to an independent UN tribunal. He was represented by Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian litigator best known for counseling dissident billionaires Thaksin Shinawatra and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The tribunal heard testimony on essentially two points: how the UN had to tread a fine line between maintaining relations with host governments, while remaining critical and impartial – and how that balance was not always kept. And it heard how OCHA had manoeuvred Tadonki out of his job, not for being not good enough, but for being too good.
In its conclusions, the tribunal’s findings were a damning of indictment of the way Tadonki had been treated by his colleagues, both in Harare and New York. The case, it said, “brought to light not only managerial ineptitude and highhanded conduct but also bad faith from the top management of OCHA. This mismanagement and bad faith were compounded by a sheer sense of injustice
against the Applicant who was hounded right from the beginning."
Why, indeed, had Tadonki been dismissed? The tribunal said that when he predicted hat the UN was ill-prepared for an impending humanitarian crisis, “he appeared to have stepped on some big toes.” More damning still, it said that while the mission of the United Nations was phrased in the loftiest ideals, in its treatment of Tadonki and his warnings, “all these humanitarian values were simply ignored.”