July 21, 2010 | Commentary on United Nations, Transparency and Accountability

U.N. Insider: ‘There Is No Transparency’

It’s often tempting, after the latest scandal, to think that the United Nations’ reputation for shoddy oversight and lack of transparency can’t sink any lower. And yet it keeps doing so.

The latest charges of mismanagement, corruption, and fraud come from the organization’s own bureaucracy. An internal memo by Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a Swedish auditor whose non-renewable five-year term as undersecretary-general of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) ended last week, charged U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and his associates of undermining efforts to combat corruption in the organization.

This has long been obvious to observers of the U.N. Efforts to improve accountability, transparency, and oversight are often attacked from within. Many member states become angry if their citizens are fingered for corruption, and U.N. officials seem fearful that any report of problems will damage the organization’s reputation. Thus the decision to eliminate the Procurement Task Force — the only truly independent investigatory and oversight body the U.N. has ever had — in December 2008 was a frustrating but not surprising example of how effective and independent oversight is discouraged and attacked in Turtle Bay.

This also explains why scandals keep occurring. A few notable ones include:

the Iraqi Oil-for-Food scandal that Saddam Hussein used to generate some $10 billion in illegal revenue, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office;

a huge corruption scandal in which more than 40 percent of U.N. procurement for peacekeeping was revealed to be tainted by fraud, leading to three U.N. officials’ being charged in American courts;

widespread incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel in Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Guinea, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.

Only rarely, however, are the efforts of those seeking to impede U.N. oversight reported by the media or otherwise brought to light. But now, we have first-person testimony from a U.N. official about just how effective the efforts to hamstring U.N. oversight have been. Among the harsh assessments relayed by Ahlenius to Ban in the summary of her end-of-assignment report, according to Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blog, is this:

There is no transparency, there is lack of accountability. Rather than supporting the internal oversight which is the sign of strong leadership and good governance, you have strived to control it which is to undermine its position. I do not see any signs of reform in the Organization.

I regret to say that the [U.N.] Secretariat now is in a process of decay. It is not only falling apart into silos — the secretariat is drifting, to use the words of one of my senior colleagues. It is drifting into irrelevance.

Additional comments attributed to Ahlenius in the Foreign Policy post placed the blame squarely on Secretary-General Ban:

Your actions are not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible. No UN Secretary-General before you has questioned the authority delegated to the [undersecretary-general of OIOS] to appoint the staff in OIOS. Your action is without precedent and in my opinion seriously embarrassing for yourself.

Ban’s defense, offered by his chef de cabinet Vijay Nambiar, essentially denies responsibility, changes the subject, and questions Ahlenius’s version of events. A choice quote:

This secretary-general, like his recent predecessors, has had to strike a balance between acting as a chief administrative officer of the United Nations on the one hand, and providing truly global leadership on the other. A look at his record shows that Secretary-General Ban has provided genuine visionary leadership on important issues from climate change to development to women’s empowerment. He has promoted the cause of gender balance in general as well within the organization. He has led from the front on important political issues from Gaza to Haiti to Sudan. And today, he is in Afghanistan.

Well, as long as the gender balance in the U.N. is being addressed, the secretary-general must be doing his job, right?

 His visionary leadership didn’t prevent indecision and divisions in Copenhagen (for which we can be thankful, considering his goals). We’re still waiting for the results of his leadership to appear in Gaza and Sudan.

And Ban’s denial of impeding transparency and oversight of the U.N. is greatly undermined by his refusal to allow Ahlenius’s full 50-page report to be made public. This response serves only to confirm the lack of leadership and effective management at the U.N., exactly the failings Ahlenius focused on.

While Ban and his associates richly deserve this criticism, Ahlenius is wrong to ignore (at least in the summary of her report) the role that member states have played in preventing U.N. transparency, accountability, and oversight. Indeed, the primary pressure to eliminate the Procurement Task Force came from the Russian and Singaporean missions to the U.N. They were upset that the Task Force had charged and provided evidence that their nationals had been involved in corrupt actions. Russia even sought to prevent staff from the Procurement Task Force from being transferred to or hired by OIOS.

Regardless of whether Ban deserves most of the blame or only part of it, the assessment by Ahlenius should alarm the U.S. Congress, since the OIOS is one of the few oversight bodies in the U.N. If it remains hamstrung, there will be virtually no oversight of U.N. activities — or of the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars going to Turtle Bay each year.

Congress should also closely question U.S. officials in New York, especially U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, about why the U.S. allowed Secretary-General Ban to run roughshod over Ahlenius. The interference in OIOS has been widely known. As reported in Foreign Policy, “The U.N. has failed to fill dozens of vacancies, including the chief of the U.N.’s investigations division, which has been vacant since 2006, leaving a void in the U.N.’s ability to police itself, according to U.N. diplomats.”

The unfortunate reality is that few countries are interested in making sure that the U.N. has adequate oversight and accountability. Most pay the U.N. a pittance and, therefore, have nothing at stake. If the U.S. doesn’t press this issue, no other nation is likely to step forward.

As it represents the largest financier of the U.N., the U.S. mission should be the best friend of U.N. auditors and whistleblowers. Without them, we would have little chance of keeping the organization honest and accountable. So why has the U.S. mission been so silent and seemingly indifferent?

The U.S. should demand the public release of Ahlenius’s full report. It should also argue for a fully independent U.N. oversight body modeled after the Procurement Task Force. There is a vital need to hire a competent, qualified replacement at OIOS for Ahlenius. Someone who has a record of independence. Moreover, American policymakers should make certain that the many open slots in OIOS to be filled by qualified individuals as soon as possible.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in National Review Online