Only Systematic Reform Can Save Scandal-Ridden United Nations

By Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Published April 01, 2005, issue of April 01, 2005.
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A report detailing rampant corruption in the United Nations’s oil-for-food program for Iraq was released on Tuesday by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. The misdeeds of Secretary General Kofi Annan’s son detailed in the report are perhaps more egregious than previous transgressions at the U.N. They, however, are only the latest ethical scandal to plague the world body.

There’s the sad story of sexual predators in the U.N. peacekeeping ranks in Africa and the Balkans. There’s the sexual harassment at the headquarters building in New York City. There’s the financial mismanagement run amok, including recent revelations about corrupt weather forecasters at the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. Add the oil-for-food scandal to its overall record of fiscal mismanagement practices, and the incompetence becomes too much to stomach.

Money is unaccounted for, wasted, misspent and lost through miscalculation and graft. At the U.N., funds simply disappear into the bureaucratic abyss. When we connect the dots of its inadequacies, we see a pattern evolving that cannot be ignored: The U.N. is adrift, mired by scandal and mismanagement and lost from its original mission of peace through international cooperation.

As an institution today, the U.N. is far from the lofty and respected international forum envisioned by its founders 60 years ago, a world body at which governments could present their case before their peers and expect a just ruling. In short, the U.N. has lost its way and has lost sight of its missions and goals.

The U.N. is no longer an institution where nations can gather to talk rather than fight. It has become hostage to the political paralysis of the Third World, whose governments believe that the world body is a place to bully the United States and condemn it for not doing more to solve the problems that these countries themselves got into by way of state-sponsored corruption, outdated economic practices and protectionist trade policies.

Consider the slew of anti-Israel resolutions introduced in the U.N. General Assembly each year by the Palestinian delegation, challenging Israel’s policies and its very existence. Consider the absurdity of Cuba, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia — some of the world’s worst serial violators of human rights — serving as duly constituted members of the Human Rights Commission. Any reasonable person knows that this is not what the world envisioned for the international body when it arose out of the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust.

Looking at the scandals that have come to light out of the oil-for-food program, we see the endemic problems the U.N. faces today. The director of the program’s office in the U.N., Benon Sevan, has been found to have solicited bribes of Iraqi oil for a company run by the nephew of a former secretary general of the world body, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Recently, it was disclosed that Sevan was found to have blocked internal U.N. audits of his very own department over ostensible fears of cost, yet only days afterward, he and his department moved into a suite of offices newly renovated at a cost of $3 million.

Contractors at the U.N. were awarded contracts despite submitting higher bids; for rank political reasons, they won the right to police the oil-for-food program. So the corrupt oversee the corrupt.

Who are they kidding? When it came to performing on these contracts, the contractors failed to do their jobs, overcharging the U.N., understaffing their posts and making decisions that went against the very grain of the program they were supposed to be policing.

Yet when internal U.N. audits disclosed these issues, little if any action was ever taken by the world body to rectify them. Moreover, U.N. officials chose to keep the audit reports from the Security Council because they knew that their misdeeds would have caused an uproar that would have ended their cozy arrangements.

These problems are the result of arrogance at the highest levels of the U.N. hierarchy and ignorance, unchecked bureaucratic growth and a complete lack of concern for the reputation of the organization they work for and claim to represent with honor and dignity.

The solution is reform — real, systematic, top-to-bottom reform imposed from the outside. The U.N. will resist, saying that it is capable of cleaning up its own house. But if the U.N. cannot police itself, then it cannot reform itself either. For it to work, the U.N. must become a leaner, less duplicative, transparent and, most importantly, accountable institution. Congress will soon begin work on its version of reform for the U.N.; it cannot happen soon enough.

If we don’t reform the organization, it will drift into oblivion and it will share the same fate as its predecessor, The League of Nations, by being thrown into the dust heap of history. If after almost 60 years of operations the U.N. were to fail, then its failure will be our failure and it will be a failure that will rock the foundations of world peace and governance. That is a risk none of us are or should be prepared to take.






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