In these days of corporate scandal, the U.N. should be grateful that it is not incorporated. If the United Nations were a company, and its secretary general its CEO, both would be in trouble and their investors would be angry. Fortunately for Kofi Annan and the U.N., there are no complicated corporate filings to fret over. Unfortunately for them though, their biggest investor, the United States, has lost its patience with its scandal-ridden performance.
Let us examine the tally sheet: First there’s the Oil-for-Food scandal. Add to that the awful story of sexual predators in the U.N. peacekeeping ranks in Africa and perhaps elsewhere. Sexual harassment at the main headquarters building seems to have gone unchecked. Finally, financial mismanagement in the U.N. is rife, including the recent revelations about corrupt weather forecasters at the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization in Geneva. Add this scandal to its overall record of fiscal-management practices and the rank incompetence is obvious. Money goes unaccounted for, is wasted, misspent, lost through miscalculation, and is otherwise lost in the bureaucratic morass that is the U.N. When we assemble these stories, we see a pattern evolving: The U.N. is adrift, mired by scandal and mismanagement.
The United Nations is a far cry from the institution its founders envisioned. It’s fallen hostage to the pettiness of a third world that sees the U.N. as a place to bully the United States and to politically complicate matters for us and our allies. One needs to look no further to find this than with the same 21 resolutions introduced by the Palestinian delegation, each and every year against Israel, challenging Israel’s policies and her very right to exist. Moreover, where else but at the U.N. could Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Saudi Arabia be recognized as members of a human-rights committee? Is this what the world envisioned for the international body as the world arose out of the ashes of World War II? Not at all.
Look at the scandals that have come to light out of the Oil-for-Food program. It’s director, Benon Sevan, has been found to have solicited bribes of Iraqi oil for a company run by the nephew of a former secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Moreover, the bribes were facilitated through Boutros-Ghali’s son-in-law. Only days ago it was disclosed that Sevan was found to have blocked internal U.N. audits of his very own department over supposed fears of cost, yet only days afterward, he and his department moved into a suite of offices newly renovated at the cost of $3,000,000. Contractors at the U.N. were chosen, despite their submission of higher bids, for rank political reasons. When it came to performing on their contracts, these same contractors failed to do their jobs, overcharging the U.N., understaffing their posts, and taking unilateral decisions that violated the program rules. Yet, when internal U.N. audits disclosed these issues, little if any action was ever taken by the U.N. to rectify them.
These problems are the result of management drift and ignorance, unchecked self-perpetuating bureaucratic growth, and a general lack of concern for follow-up. One former U.N. official has expressed his shock to congressional investigators at being told by fellow U.N. workers that “no one will ever find out” about their mistakes. The solution, if there is a full-proof one, is reform, real systematic reform imposed from the outside. The U.N. will resist saying that it is capable of repairing itself. Yet, 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. and it cannot happen soon enough. Neither the U.N. nor U.S. foreign policy will be served well by the continuance of these ever-widening scandals at the U.N. As the body prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, the U.N. faces an uncertain future. If not repaired soon, it will fade into the dust heap of other failed international institutions. Reforming the United Nations is necessary for its survival and is long overdue. The time to reform the United Nations is now.