Politics & Policy

The Unreality of U.N. Reform

What If "Later" Never Comes?

Writing in the June 12 Financial Times, Annan reminds us that the U.S. has been threatening to block U.N. spending unless the organization shows serious progress toward reform. So, declares Annan, “The U.N. faces a moment of truth.”

Passing the Buck to Us

But don’t get your hopes up. The rest of Annan’s article, like most of his record during his more than nine years as secretary-general, suggests that when it comes to U.N. failings he wouldn’t recognize the truth if it drove up in Kojo’s green Mercedes and offered him a ride. Noting that “A minor storm broke out last week when Mark Malloch Brown, my deputy, made a speech,” Annan goes on to reprise Malloch Brown’s argument that the U.N.’s failure to reform is not really the fault of the General Assembly, nor of the U.N. top management, and certainly it has nothing do with Kofi Annan.

Nope. The culprit according to Kofi and Malloch Brown is — you guessed it — the United States.

And why is that? Annan is of the opinion that in asking for reform as a condition for more cash, the U.S. and its handful of cohorts who bankroll most of the U.N. budget are antagonizing the “developing countries” who fill most of the seats. Annan assures us that these developing countries would actually love to reform the U.N., but they are stoutly resisting that impulse in “reaction” to U.S. efforts to “use the power of the purse.”

Presumably the U.S. could resolve this impasse by closing its purse entirely, and unfettering these sensitive developing nations, together with Annan and Malloch Brown, to reform the U.N. to their heart’s content. But that is not what Annan has in mind. Apparently, America’s power of the purse is quite acceptable if it entails forking out money with no reforms required. If the U.S. will only sign on to that program, says Annan, everyone — presumably including Annan himself — can “turn down their rhetoric” and “engage in serious negotiations” which will be used “as a basis for more fundamental change,” which will happen “later.”

For Kofi Annan, of course, there’s not a lot of “later” left. He is due to retire at the end of this year, and one might have hoped he’d choose to depart on a less oleaginous note. The most stunning legacy of his U.N. leadership to date is in fact the Iraq Oil-for-Food program, which under his administration, and despite $1.4 billion in funding meant to help him monitor its integrity, ballooned into the biggest swindle in the history of humanitarian aid and a major boon to the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein. Last year, the general hope, and Annan’s promise, was that the exposure of Oil-for-Food corruption, and a host of other U.N. scandals — procurement graft, peacekeeper rape, auditing inadequacies, high-level conflicts of interest, nepotism, and so forth — would lead to genuine U.N. reform. The scandals are still with us. But there has been no major reform. What we instead have is Annan touting such innovations as a toothless ethics office, and a new U.N. Human Rights Council, which — much like the tyrant-packed old Human Rights Commission — already includes such repressive states as Cuba, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

Look Who’s Talking

Nor does the U.N. look all that much more attractive from the inside. If you want a real moment of truth, tune in Tuesday to the expected release of a report commissioned by the 30,000-member U.N. staff union from a group called the Commission of Experts on Reforming Internal Justice at the United Nations. This commission, chaired by widely respected British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, Q.C., currently a judge for one of the U.N.’s war-crime tribunals, has found that the U.N. in the unjust way it treats its own staff is in breach of its own human-rights standards. For anyone looking to the U.N. as a guardian of global justice, this sets an unfortunate precedent. According to Robertson, interviewed today by phone, “In a surprisingly large number of cases the U.N. ignores the decision of its tribunals if they favor staff or reveal managerial errors.” Robertson urges the U.N., “Physician, heal thyself.”

So far, Annan and his entourage would rather attack others. Malloch Brown, in his by-now famous speech in New York last week blamed the U.S. for the U.N.’s failings and advised his audience to “stand up” against the U.N.’s “domestic critics” or risk losing the U.N. altogether. Malloch Brown went on to deride the preferences of many in Middle America, lamenting that when it comes to U.N. engagement with the U.S., “much of the public discourse that reaches the American heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.” (In the interest of disclosure, I must add that I do some part-time consulting for Fox News and have written articles for foxnews.com).

Malloch Brown later compounded the insult by explaining, “This was not a speech addressed to America at large,” but “a speech addressed to foreign policy makers and political leaders” (in fact, an audience composed largely of Bush-hating Democrats). It was a classic display of U.N. arrogance, coming from a civil servant whose U.N. chauffeur-driven car and subsidies toward his $10,000 monthly rent on the suburban tree-lined estate of billionaire George Soros are paid in significant part by U.S. taxpayers. And, in an apparent violation of the U.N. charter, which forbids meddling in matters under the domestic jurisdiction of member states, Malloch Brown used his speech to pitch a U.N. plank for America’s 2008 presidential election.

Move On?

Ambassador John Bolton, a rare voice of integrity at Turtle Bay, called Malloch Brown’s performance “a very, very grave mistake” and demanded that Annan repudiate the speech. Annan responded last Friday by suggesting everyone “move on.” By Monday, Annan himself had moved on, to the view expressed in his “Moment of Truth” op-ed, that Malloch Brown’s message (which included a description of Kofi Annan as “arguably the U.N.’s best-ever secretary-general”) was “absolutely right.”

The joys of back-scratching notwithstanding, if Annan and Malloch Brown really care about keeping the U.N. in operation, they might do better to stop reviling their critics and abusing the U.S., and instead come up with the kind of concrete reform proposals that even Limbaugh and Fox-crazed denizens of the American heartland might applaud They could start, for instance, by drafting a clear and itemized plan to cut, say, even a modest ten percent of the U.N. system’s labyrinthine $20 billion-or-so annual budget. That alone could salvage almost $2 billion to help fund all those critical missions U.N. top officials keep talking about.

At the very least, such savings could pay for the much-debated renovation of U.N. headquarters –even if the U.N. sticks with its overblown price tag of $1.8 billion or so. Or such found money could more than cover the amount the U.S. is threatening to withhold, which is a mere fraction of the $420 million in U.S. dues assessed by the U.N. this year for the Secretariat’s “core” budget of $1.9 billion (which is only about one-tenth of the overall U.N. system budget, to which the U.S. pays billions more in “voluntary” contributions). Annan might protest that the rest of the U.N. system is to varying degrees outside his direct supervision, and splintered into all sorts of separate budgets. But he does have the direct influence of nominating or appointing most of the senior U.N. officials who run the rest of the show. Under the U.N. charter he is, after all, chief administrative officer. Why not try out a few proposals that instead of expanding the empire simply reduce the waste?

Annan could start, for instance, by asking for cuts at the U.N. Environment Program in Nairobi, where he presumably has a good working relationship with the German he named as UNEP director this spring, Achim Steiner — who when Annan tapped him for the job this spring had just finished serving along with two senior members of Annan’s staff on the jury that awarded Annan a personal cash prize of $500,000, given by the ruler of Dubai. (In the wake of press stories questioning the ethics of a U.N. secretary-general accepting this prize, Annan three months later announced he would turn the money over to U.N. relief in Sudan; he never did get around to conceding, however, that it is a conflict-of-interest for a U.N. secretary-general to accept a large cash prize from a member state).

How About Trying Reform?

As for the argument that the secretary-general needs more authority over staff before he can command true reform, that greatly underestimates the skills Annan has developed after almost 44 years of working inside the U.N. system — holding posts such as controller, head of personnel, and head of peacekeeping. For a sample of what Annan can do when he wants to, marvel if you will at the case of his former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza. When Riza was discovered in late 2004 to have shredded reams of U.N. executive-office documents possibly pertaining to the Oil-for-Food investigation, there was no great fuss. Riza simply retired. And then — presto! — Annan the following year approved a special initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations, which quietly drummed up a couple of million dollars from a handful of member states to pay for this “Alliance” via a U.N. trust fund, and brought back Riza to run it, with the rank of under-secretary-general. This doesn’t exactly qualify as reform, but it does suggest a certain ability to navigate the system.

If Annan wants to argue that the General Assembly voted down his last reform package and simply won’t let him cut costs, there is an antidote to that, too. He could start by releasing to the public not the U.N.’s usual confusing and generically uninformative accounts, but genuine and full information. He could provide transparency on staffing arrangements, expense accounts, procurement contracts (past and current), and financial disclosure forms for top U.N. officials and their sons, cousins, and wives (including his own). He might even rethink the current U.N. information strategy in which the U.N. Secretariat spends $85 million per year on public relations, but less than half that on its understaffed and struggling internal-audit division.

If Annan wants to show serious good faith in pursuit of reform, he could also give up his current practice of telling trusting audiences that U.N. graft under Oil-for-Food came down to one staff member “found to maybe have taken $150,000” (that particular staff member, Benon Sevan, was the man appointed by Annan to run the entire program). Annan could instead admit that Paul Volcker’s U.N.-authorized probe reported signs of rampant corruption among some of the budget-padding U.N. agencies; that one of Annan’s own former special advisers, French diplomat Jean-Bernard Merimee, has admitted to taking money from Saddam’s oil deals while working for Annan; that Volcker found Annan’s performance as a manager substandard and irresponsible; and that Volcker further found that Annan knew about sanctions-busting graft within Oil-for-Food at least three years before the program came to an end, but did not report it, as he should have, to the Security Council. Annan might even bestow upon us the real story of why he appears so very unbothered that his former handpicked director of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, managed during the investigation of the program to slip out of New York and back to his native Cyprus, beyond reach of U.S. extradition, and on full U.N. pension.

All of the above is of course what Malloch Brown in his speech last week referred to as “unchecked U.N.-bashing.” Except he’s wrong in his labeling — it’s not unchecked, but double-checked. As for the “bashing” — which has become U.N. jargon for dismissing all criticisms — that’s misleading too. It would be U.N.-bashing were the U.N.’s critics to write without any basis in fact that Kofi Annan knew about the graft under Oil-for-Food, but said nothing; or that Mark Malloch Brown advised Annan to accept the $500,000 personal prize from the ruler of Dubai, or that Annan has never yet deigned to explain what happened to any U.N. follow-up records of the green Mercedes SUV that his son, Kojo Annan, imported into Africa in 1998 under false use of the U.N. seal and Kofi Annan’s name and diplomatic duty-free status.

But all these things are sourced and documented, in some cases by Annan-appointed investigators. The U.N.’s real problem today is not that it has been hit with unfounded accusations, but that one after another, allegations of U.N. misconduct, mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and corruption have turned out to be true.

What happens next with the U.N. is now up for grabs. There is no law of nature that says corrupt institutions are by definition doomed to quick extinction, or that they will necessarily reform. Some collapse, some make mischief for many lifetimes. The real question, as Annan and Malloch Brown denigrate U.S. demands for reform, while holding their hands out for American tax money, is whether in this age of fascist movements, terror tactics, and weapons of mass murder, we can afford the indulgence of coddling as our leading global institution this sorry excuse for what was meant to be an honest forum for free and peace-loving nations.

 – Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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