Whistleblowers around the world can play a powerful role in challenging corruption, transnational crime, and environmental destruction. In 2003, the crucial role of whistleblowers, and the need for whistleblower protection, was recognized as a part of international law when the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Corruption. This Convention was signed by 140 nations and formally ratified, accepted, approved, or acceded by 137 nations, including the United States.
Support for whistleblower protection in international law can also be seen in the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption and the Organization of American States Inter-American Convention against Corruption. International organizations have also been influential in pushing for greater international adoption of whistleblower laws and best practices, including the Group of Twenty (G20), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
At the national level, there has been a growing global interest in establishing whistleblower laws. Whistleblower protections have been enacted in at least 59 countries. Without adequate protections and rewards, however, many laws still fall short of supporting effective whistleblowing.
Environmental Law Institute (2019) Environmental Rule of Law: First Global Report
Current International Whistleblower Protections
Whistleblowers are one of the best tools for detecting crime, but these individuals are often subjected to retaliation for their actions. That’s why whistleblower protections are so vital. According to a 2016 OECD report, “Whistleblower protection is the ultimate line of defense for safeguarding the public interest.”
Across international whistleblower laws, the scope of protection can vary widely. Whistleblower laws in some countries, such as India, only protect public employees. In other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, both public and private employees are protected.
Countries also differ on who can qualify as public or private sector whistleblower. In some countries, only government employees may qualify as public sector whistleblowers, while in countries, such as Mexico, Portugal and Norway, a wide range of individuals, including former employees, contractors, or suppliers, can qualify as public sector whistleblowers.
Historically, more laws existed to protect public sector employees, but laws that protect both public and private employees have become increasingly common. Early whistleblower protection laws in many countries existed as sections of existing laws, but dedicated whistleblower protection laws have also become increasingly common.
OECD (2016) Committing to Effective Whistleblower Protection. The figure shows the adoption of dedicated whistleblowers laws before and after the 2009 adoption of OECD Anti-Bribery Recommendation on public and private whistleblowers.
Whistleblower protections can also take a wide range of forms. These include sanctions against perpetrators of retaliation, the right to refuse to participate in wrongdoing, and, in some cases, physical protection for whistleblowers and affected family members. In 2014, the OECD found that the countries with the most comprehensive whistleblower laws were the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
One of the most important protections for whistleblowers is the ability to protect their identity by reporting confidentially or anonymously. Most countries with whistleblower laws include provisions for confidentiality and some countries, such as Slovakia and Australia, provide avenues for anonymous whistleblowing. “Breaking the Silence,” a 2015 report by BluePrint for Free Speech, evaluated confidentiality protections in G20 countries. The report found strong confidentiality protections for public employees in India, Canada, and Australia and strong confidentiality protections for both public and private employees in the U.S. and South Korea.
While many countries have made progress in adding new protections, studies continue to show major weaknesses in whistleblower protection. “Breaking the Silence” noted that whistleblower programs in many G20 countries suffered from “the lack of protected external disclosure channels, a lack of protection for anonymity, and a lack of dedicated oversight to receive and investigate disclosures.”
In 2018, a BluePrint for Free Speech report also evaluated whistleblower laws in the European Union. The report found that “most laws are poorly and erratically enforced” and that “without dedicated agencies to advise, support, and protect whistleblowers, the laws could not succeed in protecting whistleblowers.” A 2019 report by the International Labour Organization similarly found that, although many countries have made strides in creating or expanding whistleblower laws, major gaps and challenges remain in implementation.
International Whistleblower Reward Laws
Reward laws are the most powerful tool for incentivizing whistleblowers to report. In 2015, the National Whistleblower Center published a report on the topic, Whistleblower Reward Programs: An International Framework for the Detection of Corruption and Fraud. The report identified that U.S. whistleblower reward laws are highly effective at incentivizing whistleblowers, including whistleblower in countries around the world, to report fraud, waste, and abuse. The report outlines a model for similar whistleblower laws around the world.
While many countries have passed whistleblower laws in the past several years, only a few have included whistleblower reward programs. The United States has the longest history of whistleblower reward laws, having introduced the first reward law, the False Claims Act, in 1986. U.S. whistleblower reward laws have been tremendously successful since then. Between 1986 and 2018, whistleblower cases under the FCA have brought in $42.5 billion to the U.S. Treasury. Of that amount, whistleblowers received $6.4 billion in rewards. Other U.S. reward laws have been similarly successful. Since the Dodd-Frank SEC whistleblower program was created in 2011, enforcement actions from whistleblower tips have resulted in more than $2 billion in financial remedies and more than $500 million has been awarded to whistleblowers.
Whistleblower reward laws have been enacted more recently in South Korea, Ghana, Slovakia, and Canada. While these reward programs remain limited, initial successes show the potential power for global whistleblower reward laws to combat corruption.
In South Korea, the National Tax Service maintains two reward programs which allow individuals with significant information on tax law violations to report. Since 2012, the number of cases has increased each year and whistleblowers have been awarded $44 million dollars.
In 2014, the Canadian Revenue Association introduced a reward program for whistleblowers to report tax fraud. In the year following the introduction of the law, previously unreported offshore income and assets doubled. In 2015, Ontario became the first Canadian province to introduce a whistleblower reward law for reporting securities fraud. The law allows whistleblowers who report securities fraud to the Ontario Securities Commission to receive 5% to 15% of the total monetary sanctions. As of 2020, the program has received more than 200 tips and three recent awards totaled $7.5 million.
The Ghanaian Whistleblower Act was the first to introduce whistleblower rewards in Africa. In 2020, Ghana also introduced new incentives for whistleblowers, leading to an increase in the number of reports by whistleblowers. However, Ghana’s whistleblower program has also been undermined by retaliation against whistleblowers.
More countries around the world have continued to implement whistleblower laws, especially after the European Union Directive in April 2019. In an effort to support these endeavors, the National Whistleblower Center has sent letters to member countries providing guidance on whistleblower laws and protections. If you would like to read these letters, you can find them here.