“The U.N. has been incapable of confronting the gravest issues of our time, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation,” Eric Shawn tells National Review Online. “ It should stand as a beacon of hope and humanity. But instead, that ideal has been perverted by compromise, appeasement, and graft.”
As a correspondent for the Fox News Channel, Shawn covers the United Nations-so you know he never runs out of stories. In his new book on the beat, The U.N. Exposed, he, as the subtitle tells, reveals How the United Nations Sabotages America’s Security and Fails the World. He took some questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez on the tsunami at Turtle Bay, wasted tsunami funds, Iran, and much more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: There will no doubt be a few people reading this who’ve had “ evict the U.N.” bumper stickers on their car for a few decades. What’s new about your book?
Eric Shawn: The U.N. Exposed does just that, exposing the inner workings of the U.N., peeling off the layers of spin and revealing what really goes on behind closed doors through the diplomat’s own words, reports, and actions. I extensively detail how the U.N. has been incapable of confronting the gravest issues of our time, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation. Readers will learn the specifics of how the U.N.’s terrorism efforts are merely “ lip-service, a failure, inadequate”–and those are the words of U.N. diplomats themselves. I reveal how economic interests drive the policies of member states often at the expense of the U.N.’s own founding ideals, a sad reality we see playing out now with Russia and China’s resistance to tough and meaningful action on Iran. I detail what I call the bribery of France, Russia, and China, three permanent members of the Security Council, through the billions in contracts doled out by Saddam Hussein’s regime. I take the reader into Conference Room 7, the site of what I call the real Iraq war that lasted through the ‘90s, as Saddam manipulated the “661 Committee,” which oversaw the infamous Oil-for-Food program. It is also the book’s view that the U.N. deserves much blame for the current Iraq war through the Security Council’s inability to enforce its own mandates, a tragic abdication of responsibility that we are now seeing repeated with the Iranian nuclear crisis. I also detail the specifics of the pampered life of the international diplomatic corps, from their ability to skip out on paying the 60 cents in New York City sales tax on their cheeseburger deluxe, to the multimillion-dollar townhouses that even nations on life support…like Yemen…snap up as official residences. Why does the head of a nonprofit, humanitarian organization that always asks for more money live in one of the most expensive and elegant mansions in Manhattan? Those folks who ride around with “Evict the U.N.” stickers do not know the specifics of the inside deliberations and decisions documented in the book. After reading it, I’m guessing that they would probably change “Evict the U.N.” to “Evict the U.N.–NOW.” I, however, do not share that sentiment. As Rudy Giuliani says in his endorsement of the book, “Eric Shawn makes a persuasive case that the U.N, while founded with noble intention, has drifted dangerously astray and desperately requires meaningful reform.” The challenge is to make the place work because, in this very dangerous international climate, we can’t go at it alone.
Lopez: When was the U.N.’s “fall from grace,” as you put it?
Shawn: The U.N’s fall from grace coincides with its betrayal of its own founding tenets and probably originated with its inability to confront aggressive Communist and totalitarian states. The more blatant and obvious fall from grace culminated in the shocking discovery of the Oil-for-Food scandal, probably one of the greatest grand larcenies in history. I write that the institution has devolved into a global version of a crooked city hall, tainted by what the U.N.’s own investigator, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, branded as “illicit, unethical and corrupt behavior.” The organization has failed to address the most dangerous threats facing the civilized world, refused to condemn terrorist acts, encouraged America’s enemies, and supported some of the world’s most oppressive governments. It should stand as a beacon of hope and humanity. But instead, that ideal has been perverted by compromise, appeasement, and graft. What type of principled organization would elect Iran to the Disarmament Commission, which deals with nuclear proliferation, at the same time that country defies the Security Council and the U.N.’s own nuclear agency, all the while talking about Israel’s annihilation? I rest my case.
Lopez: How is the U.S. “compromised” vis-à-vis the UN?
Shawn: The United States is compromised at the U.N. because we are the large punching bag. The U.N. has become the forum to oppose America and American ideals. In the book, I write extensively about this, quoting ambassadors, including Security Council members, who openly admit that “there’s a lot of anti-Americanism at the U.N.” It is not necessarily expressed in the form of hate-filled harangues, but in the far more subtle and insidious efforts to oppose U.S. policies and proposals at every turn. Are they obligated to agree with us all the time? Of course not. However, there is a knee-jerk oppositional current that permeates much of the dialogue, again admitted by many of the insiders I interviewed. After all: It is easy and maybe even natural to resent to big guy.
Our security efforts are compromised by the agendas (often economic) of other nations: Witness France, Russia and China continually siding with Saddam’s objectives in the 661 Committee meetings throughout the late ‘90s during the Clinton administration, or the division in the Security Council regarding Iran now. Even in the vote to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission, the overwhelming number of members–170–stood against the United States’ position, which was that the new council was inadequate. Human-rights violator Cuba looks like a shoo-in for the May 9th-vote. The current G-77 group of 132 “non-aligned” nations is now systematically picking apart the very reforms that the U.S. has so long championed at the U.N., reforms Kofi Annan hopes will serve as his legacy. The developing nations see the sensible proposals as an American-led takeover of the institution. As I write in the book, “U.N. World’s disposition toward America can be best summed up by a conversation Ambassador Peter Burleigh says he had with the Palestinian observer to the U.N., Yasser Arafat’s nephew, Dr. Nasser Al-Kidwa. ‘I remember him half jokingly but also half seriously saying, ‘Peter, your country may control the world, but we control this territory,’” meaning the eighteen-acre U.N. headquarters and the decisions within.
Lopez: The U.N. funds terrorism?
Shawn: The U.N. has provided funding for Palestinian causes and the refugee camps that spawn terrorists. I write about the U.N. agencies accused of such support, and the implicit acceptance of such hostile goals, such as the U.N. sponsored meeting in which Israel had been removed from a map displayed prominently near Kofi Annan as he spoke. But the chapter “How the U.N. Funds Terrorism” focuses on the 661 Committee’s outrageous malfeasance in controlling the dollars from the Oil-for-Food program. The chapter details how investigators charted Oil-for-Food fund kickbacks flowing from the U.N. operation to Saddam’s regime, which ended up rewarding Palestinian suicide bombers. The Israelis documented how Saddam’s Command Council, the group of officials that oversaw oil revenue, directed funds to terrorist causes. As I write in the book, “It is a matter of record that the American diplomats warned France and Russia, along with other members of the Security Council 661 Committee, that Saddam Hussein was soaking up kickbacks, only to have the warnings dismissed. It is not inconceivable that, if the Security Council had done its duty and turned off the Iraqi spigot, some portion of the financial aid to Palestinian terrorists could have dried up. But instead, 18 months after the council members were alerted by the United States about the illegal diversion of U.N. dollars, the families of…two suicide bombers were rewarded with Iraqi oil money for their carnage.”
Lopez: Is the U.N. doing anything substantive when it comes to Iran?
Shawn: The U.N has given Iran a 21-year head start in its development of nuclear technology….a country whose president now vows to wipe Israel off map. It seems inconceivable, but the U.N.’s own “nuclear watchdog,” the International Atomic Energy Agency, didn’t even know about Iran’s nuclear facilities for 18 years. Then in 2003, after Iran’s program was exposed by Iranian activists and the I.A.E.A. confirmed Iran’s violations, it took another three years for the issue to even reach the Security Council. Russia and China served as Iran’s linebackers on the governing board of the agency, refusing to allow Iran’s infraction to be reported to the Security Council until earlier this year. The latest I.A.E.A. report details Iran’s many violations, such as the existence of uranium metal designs that can only be used for nuclear warheads. Moreover, it also raises many unresolved questions about Iran’s nuclear capabilities as a whole. Despite the crisis, Russia and China–whose economic interests clearly lie in protecting Iran–have already castrated the Security Council by declaring they oppose sanctions, creating the impossibility of full Council backed action. Even a legally binding Chapter 7 resolution would not result in a vote for sanctions, a naval blockade, or other action against Iran. It may require another coalition of the willing to effectively deal with what the Security Council appears to be unable to achieve. As I write in the book, “It was not the U.N.’s efforts that exposed the extensive global black market in nuclear technology peddled by Pakistan’s Dr. A. Q. Khan. No U.N. committee ordered Muammar Qaddafi to surrender his weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. Those successes are among the achievements of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), the brainchild of John Bolton under the Bush administration. Compare PSI’s actual achievements with the U.N.’s failures on the nuclear weapons front.” Iran only has to look at the Security Council’s crippling by Saddam to understand why President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls its resolutions “meaningless.”
Lopez: Did the U.N. hurt the U.S.’s effort in Iraq with the waiting and the feckless warnings?
Shawn: The book reveals how Saddam violated 17 Security Council resolutions and the creation of the Oil-for-Food program only served to embolden him. If the council had actually backed up its word with meaningful action, perhaps Saddam would have actually abided by the mandates early on, and there would have been clarity, and not confusion regarding the true state of his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
The U.S. could only go along with the other four permanent members, and the book details the many instances when France, Russia, and China opposed our efforts to clean up the program or stem the suspected corruption. The U.S. permitted oil smuggling in the billions, but when sought to address the problems, only Britain stood by our side. The result was that Saddam was strengthened by the United Nations as his violations were continually ignored. Security Council resolution 687 passed in 1991, prohibited “conventional arms” and all military equipment, including spare parts from being sold to Saddam. Then how did he still manage to spend about $1 billion on everything from bullets to anti-tank missiles? The C.I.A. Iraq Survey Group details how Saddam’s representatives were allegedly meeting with French and Russian weapons companies within merely three weeks of the start of the war in March, 2003. Saddam went on a global weapons shopping spree using Security Council supervised oil dollars. It is my view that he used the U.N.’s oil money to buy three votes in the council, and even Iraqi intelligence memos contend that he was assured an invasion would be vetoed in the Security Council. For a long time it was money well spent.
Lopez: What went wrong when they tried (pretended?) to reform their human-rights body?
Shawn: Not enough changed.
The name changed. The voting structure changed. The number of members changed by six (fewer.) But many of the usual suspects showed up again, candidates such as known human-rights offenders Cuba and Iran, as well as countries with questionable human rights records such as China, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and others. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton cast his vote opposing the new body, saying “We must not let the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world think that UN member states were willing to settle for ‘good enough.’ We must not let history remember us as the architects of a Council that was a ‘compromise’ and merely ‘the best we could do’ rather than one that ensured doing ‘all we could do’ to promote human rights.” But the result, as usual in U.N. world, was a compromise that did not even attain the reform that Secretary General Kofi Annan had first proposed. As is so often, the measures that are passed are reached by consensus and the result is a watered-down version of what the U.N. should have accomplished. As in the management-reform fight, the majority of nations refused to back an American- and Annan- proposed body in large part out of their fear that the Western democracies are trying to muscle in on their turf.
Lopez: Did the U.N. waste tsunami funds?
Shawn: The tsunami disaster offered the U.N. a chance to shine in an area where it does its best work: providing humanitarian relief. Former President Bill Clinton was appointed as the secretary general’s special tsunami envoy. It offered the United Nations an unprecedented opportunity to help, but an investigation by the Financial Times has raised serious questions about the financial side of the U.N.’s operation. The paper’s analysis, as I write in the book, found that “up to one third of the U.N.’s tsunami donations were plowed into the U.N. bureaucracy, and the paper said that several U.N. agencies refused to provide an accounting of their expenditures.” The FT studied the first $590 million of the U.N.’s $1.1 billion appeal and said that up to 35 percent of the funds had been “swallowed up by salaries and administrative overheads. In contrast, Oxfam, a British-based private charity, spent just10 percent of the tsunami aid money it raised on administrative costs.” You do the math. The paper said that 32 percent of the World Health Organization’s funds had gone to “personnel costs, administrative overheads, or associated ‘miscellaneous’ costs.” The World Food Program pegged the amount at 18 percent. Although there have been calls for Congress to step in and investigate the U.N.’s tsunami spending, such an effort has not been pursued.
Lopez: How much money does the U.N. waste a year?
Shawn: Unknown amounts. I titled one chapter of the book “$400,000 in a Desk Drawer” because a review of 58 audits released by the Volcker investigation revealed billions frittered away, from the 400 grand stashed in a U.N. office in Iraq with “unrestricted access” that the staff would dip into for “ loans,” to overpaying Gulf War reparations to Kuwait by $2 billion. A recent internal U.N. investigation found what it called “a culture of impunity” when it comes to U.N. spending. It said peacekeepers spent $10.4 million leasing a helicopter that should have cost $1.6 million. $65 million was spent for fuel in the Sudan and Haiti that wasn’t needed, $2.4 million for hangers in the Congo that were never used, and on and on. In January, one U.N. study found overpayments in the Peacekeeping department amounted to more than $300 million. Christopher Burnham, a former Bush-administration official, has been installed as an undersecretary for management to try to get a handle on the situation. The billion-dollar procurement department, which spends about $1.6 billion a year, has been rocked by a corruption scandal and there are currently more than 200 allegations being investigated there alone.
Lopez: How is it that Kofi Annan is still secretary-general? Oil-for-Food should have done him in by now, right?
Shawn: There is no indication or evidence that Secretary-General Kofi Annan is guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. Although Paul Volcker told me that his lengthy investigation did not “exonerate” Mr. Annan, there is no known investigation of the U.N.’s top man. A federal grand jury in the Southern District of New York continues to investigate the Oil-for-Food program and the U.N.’s procurement department, but no allegations have been logged against Mr. Annan himself. He has been able to blame the Oil-for-Food scandal wrongdoing on the member states, not himself, and he minimizes the U.N.’s complicity as an institution. The Bush administration has publicly stood by him, I imagine, believing that in the cause of diplomacy it is better to support the secretary-general who only has seven months left in this term. Mr. Annan leaves in December, when he will no doubt embark on a career as a professional humanitarian, speaker, and highly paid author. Despite the legitimate criticism in our country, he remains viewed as an icon elsewhere, in a job millions consider “ President of the world.”
Lopez: Speaking of Oil-for-Food: How is France a “pimp”?
Shawn: That reference is to a quote in the book regarding the view that France sells out its moral convictions for trade with notorious dictatorships and uses the veneer of the U.N. to do that. After the Oil-for-Food scandal broke in the media, French officials aggressively denied the allegations that France sold its Security Council vote in exchange for billions from Saddam, but that is not what the evidence shows. A series of Iraqi intelligence memos clearly demonstrate that Iraqi officials pursued a strategy of seducing French politicians in exchange for their promise to veto any resolution that would call for American military action. Iraqi officials called this “Saddam’s Bribery System,” and though denied by French officials, it seemed to have worked. The minutes of the 661 Committee meetings consistently show France objecting to American and British led efforts to clamp down on Saddam’s corruption. Former British Ambassador David Hanney told the Yale U.N. Oral History Archives that “The French and the Russians do have their own national agendas, which relate to the resumption of trade, which relate to the payments of debts, which related to their perception of Iraq as a key player in the region, and that played a role.” Happily France has changed its tune when it comes to the Iranian nuclear crisis, but it remains to be seen if they would be willing to go beyond the confines of the Security Council and adopt trade sanctions similar to the United States. Perhaps Paris realizes it is now reportedly within Tehran’s missile range.
Lopez: Dick Cheney’s harsh words towards Russia the other day must have come as little surprise to you.
Shawn: I am surprised that the vice president’s remarks hadn’t been made sooner. The record is replete with Russian opposition to American efforts at the U.N., and a reading of the 661 Committee minutes only confirms that. Russia continually, and most forcibly, opposed American proposals to get tougher on Saddam throughout the ‘90s. One diplomat dubbed current Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “Show Me the Money” after the character in Jerry McGuire, meaning that, in his view, Lavrov was always motivated by Russian financial interests when it came to U.N. policy. The current Iranian crisis only confirms that Russia stands against U.S. policy, having ruled out any type of punishment of Iran through the Security Council process.
Lopez: Does the U.N. do anything well?
Shawn: Yes, its humanitarian efforts…. But even that statement should be qualified. The World Food Program feeds 103 million people a day, UNICEF provides health services to millions of needy children, agriculture and business efforts as well as sanitary and health services are indispensable in some of the most desperate areas of the world. Having said that, questions about spending haunt the tsunami-relief effort and the Volcker investigation found the gems of the U.N.’s system had operated in Iraq with “little transparency and oversight” amid evidence of “ gross mismanagement.” The American Institute of Philanthropy claims 54 percent of the public’s UNICEF donations go to help children. Compare that to the 91-percent figure attributed to the American Red Cross for its programs. The Institute gave the Red Cross a grade of “A,” while UNICEF only rated a “C.”
Lopez: Is the U.N. reformable? When/will there be a point where the U.S. says it’s time to try something new?
Shawn: Reform is only possible if the member states return to the principles of the U.N.’s founding and that, as of now, appears unlikely. Economic self-interest must stop trumping the upholding of those founding principles. The diplomats voting on reform, are also, let us not forget, vested in maintaining a flawed system that has provided them with a life style that is, to say the least, privileged, and self-indulgent. It is deeply ironic that within an organization pledged to help world hunger, diplomats, even from the poorest nations, live in the lap of luxury, and happily avoid paying even their 60-cents tax on their coffee-shop cheeseburgers.
On a more substantive level, The Security Council remains deeply divided on Iran, leading U.S. Ambassador John Bolton to say that the current crisis is a “test of credibility” for the Council. The Council may tell Iran to stop enriching uranium, but there is no clear manner of agreement on what to do next to ensure that demand. The highly praised reform proposals that Kofi Annan hopes will turn out to be his legacy have, for now, largely been torpedoed by the restive G-77 member states. Human-rights-abusing dictatorships seem certain to remain on the new Human Rights Council, but at least the U.N. was shamed into reducing the long-time $10,000 gift limit to $250, though that limit doesn’t apply to gifts to the secretary-general. That enabled him to snag a $500,000 environmental-prize award that the U.N. says will help fund his proposed foundation in Africa. Then it turned out Annan nominated one of the jurors who voted to give him the money to the top U.N. environmental agency job. The U.N. claimed that was only a coincidence, but many see business as usual in Turtle Bay when it comes to international and internal issues.
Lopez: What’s the most shocking accomplishment of John Bolton as ambassador to the UN?
Shawn: I believe the most shocking accomplishment was the ambassador rejecting the new Human Rights Council. That vote sent a message that, as far as the United States is concerned, it is no longer business as usual at the U.N. He also held up the automatic earmarking of $100 million for “design and preconstruction” costs for the renovation of the U.N. building, deciding that an initial $23 million was more appropriate at the outset. Bolton is challenging the culture at the U.N. and even the secretary-general’s office is behind the U.S. proposed reforms. However, with the 132 nations of the G-77 who are holding up reform, it’s an uphill battle.
Lopez: What’s the most frustrating aspect of covering the UN?
Shawn: The most frustrating aspect of covering the U.N. is the mistaken belief in some quarters that aggressive, critical, and investigative reporting of the world body is the result of some right-wing anti-U.N. conspiracy. Would that be the view regarding city-hall reporters covering problems at city hall, or those in the White House briefing room who regularly ask deservedly probing questions of our government? The U.N. is no longer a partisan issue. It should be held accountable to certain standards, and covered with the same aggressive questioning that other institutions in our country are subject to. The U.N. needs to be scrupulous, ethical, and efficient. I’m just an old New York City Hall and crime reporter who showed up in U.N. World and asked, “what’s going on here?” ‘
And the great irony is that those who would say that writing a book like this hurts the U.N. are missing the point. If by helping to expose some of the problems at the U.N., this book can be, even in a small way, a catalyst for reform, then I’ve accomplished something positive for the U.N. Its survival depends upon its ability to self-correct. Mindlessly singing the praises of an institution that is clearly deeply flawed, merely helps to hasten its irrelevancy and ultimate demise.
Lopez: What about you? Does writing a book like this hurt your ability to report on the U.N.?
Shawn: Quite the contrary. More people at the U.N. were eager to speak to me once they knew I was writing a book. (They would regularly ask me: “Do I have to speak on the record, or can I tell the truth?”) Interestingly, I have been invited to more diplomatic receptions. And I think they know I wrote the truth, even if, for fear of endangering their jobs, they are unable to publicly admit it.