19 April 2018

Sometimes sparks can fly in the crossroads between creativity and conflict. For this reason, the United Nations has an Ombudsman, who helps guide friction into productive solutions.

"When talented and diverse groups function together they produce rich and creative ideas. Yet, the same process can also result in conflict and tension,” said John Barkat, who has served as Ombudsman for the last 10 years.

His belief is that “when handled productively,” conflict is a necessary and useful part of life.

As neutral and independent parties, the dedicated staff of the Office  of the UN Ombudsman and Mediation Services, known in-house as UNOMS, assist employees in addressing their work-related concerns and help to resolve conflict through informal means – confidentially and off the record.

Mr. Barkat, who is finishing his tenure with the Organization, described his job to UN News as “a designated neutral who works to help resolve issues involving any staff member in the UN System if they are facing a conflict, a bureaucratic challenge, or administrative problem.”

Using “the cloak of confidentiality,” he and his staff provide services to all staff, including former UN employees and retirees – regardless of their location or the type of contract they hold.

The Office does this through conflict coaching, giving feedback to UN offices, tracking the root causes of difficulties, and proposing changes to minimize future disputes and create a more harmonious workplace.

There are some 30 people, working with national and international staff in eight locations – Bangkok, Beirut, Entebbe, Geneva, Goma, Nairobi, New York and Vienna – under the guidance of Mr. Barkat.

When talented and diverse groups function together they produce rich and creative ideas.

The Office works on three fundamental pillars, according to Mr. Barkat: “Helping to resolve issues; identifying systemic issues that cause the problems; and assisting in building skills with staff.”

“On the systemic issues,” he said, “with each case we ask the question: ‘If you take away the people who are involved in a conflict or a problem, what in the system would allow this situation to resurface in the future?’”

After classifying whether a policy or procedural change would remedy the situation, he explained, the Office provides feedback to the Organization so it can address the issue and possibly avoid it recurrence.  

The Ombudsman noted that early systemic issues included redundancies in decisions made at Headquarters and in the field, which put people in limbo as they could not get clearances and kept some from being hired.

He recalled one mission in which there were 70 cases of people who were in limbo anywhere from a few months to over a year. “We were able to take those cases, identify the problems, work with colleagues in New York and in the field, and clear up those cases,” he said.

Turning to the UN’s strategy to tackle sexual harassment, Mr. Barkat clarified that it not only affects the victims but also the accused and the bystanders.

He maintained that when sexual harassment involves UN staff, the Organization takes decisive action.

“The challenge is when it involves peacekeepers, and that is another issue of concern that the Organization has been addressing on various levels,” he said, adding that there’s been “good movement.”

He underscored that when sexual harassment allegations arise, every victim has a right to be heard in an appropriate forum; not all cases are the same; and everyone deserves due process.

“If we keep those in mind, then we will do well in moving forward in how we respond to these issues,” he said.

Working as an ombudsman has been a dream come true for Mr. Barkat, who said he wanted to be “a peacemaker, to bring people together who might not be able to do that on their own.”

He has certainly had a multitude of opportunities as UNOMS processes over 2,500 cases a year in addition to numerous mediations.

Speaking about one mission where people felt they were unimportant and not being heard, Mr. Barkat expressed his deep fulfilment in resolving their conflicts – and reaffirming their importance as part of the UN family.