Politics & Policy

Ban the Old Ways

U.N. ethics test.

We are about to learn the meaning of “ethics” in the United Nations administration of Ban Ki-moon. Eight months after Secretary-General Ban took office, promising to “restore trust,” he has been presented with a simple test, via the case of a former employee of the U.N. Development Program, Artjon Shkurtaj.

So far, amid a welter of U.N. delays, denials, evasions, and broken promises, it looks like Ban is about to flunk.

UNETHICAL ACTIVITIES

Who is Artjon Shkurtaj? Thirty-six years old, Albanian born, but fluent in English, he goes by “ Tony.” He is a U.N. whistleblower caught up in the scandal over the U.N. Development Program — flagship agency of the U.N. — funneling hard cash to the regime of Kim Jong Il in North Korea. Shkurtaj worked for years for the UNDP, and from 2004-2006 served as the UNDP’s chief of operations and security in North Korea. From there, witnessing one UNDP outrage after another, he tried to do his part to restore trust, by prodding his bosses at the UNDP to behave with integrity and follow their own rules. They told him not to make trouble.

Shkurtaj finally blew the whistle outside the UNDP, one of a number of voices calling attention earlier this year to such UNDP abuses as the funneling of hard cash to the rogue regime of Kim Jong Il. He also called attention to the UNDP’s curious habit of keeping $3,500 in unreported counterfeit U.S. banknotes for years inside its office safe in Pyongyang. This March, the UNDP fired him.

Shkurtaj protested that he had been sacked in retaliation for his whistle-blowing. UNDP officials denied this, saying Shkurtaj was on a short-term contract that had simply expired.

Fortunately, or so one might have supposed, the U.N. has made provision for such situations. Annan, during his scandal-driven departing bout of reform last year, set up a U.N. Ethics Office, housed in the Secretariat and reporting to the secretary-general. Among other things, the Ethics Office was tasked to protect whistleblowers from such retaliation as being shoved from their jobs.

So, Shkurtaj took his case to the U.N. Ethics Office. There, the ethics director, Robert Benson, a Canadian, took several weeks longer than expected, but on Friday finally produced a confidential memo addressed to the head of the UNDP, Administrator Kemal Dervis, and copied to Ban and a number of others. That memo leaked almost immediately to the press. In it, Benson backed Shkurtaj. Benson mentioned “independent and corroborative information” for this finding. He saw grounds that “a prima facie case had been established” that the UNDP was punishing Shkurtaj for his whistle blowing.

But it also turns out that the UNDP, which has no ethics office of its own, is refusing to recognize the “jurisdiction” of the U.N. Secretariat’s Ethics Office. Benson discussed this in his memo, urging the UNDP’s Kemal Dervis to reverse course and abide by the advice of the Ethics Office, and allow a U.N. investigation to go forward into whether Shkurtaj was sacked — wrongly — for following U.N. ethics guidelines promulgated on Dec. 19, 2005, which state that it is the “duty” of staff members to report any breach of U.N. rules, and that any staffer who does so in good faith has “the right to be protected against retaliation.”

The UNDP won’t play ball. A UNDP official says the agency is making its own arrangements for a “complementary external review,” that would cover both its North Korea operations and Shkurtaj’s allegations, and that there will be a board meeting to discuss the matter this Thursday, August 23. That’s not much comfort. This is the same board that is not allowed by UNDP management to see the UNDP’s own internal audits, and whose 36 members include not only the U.S. (which has been trying to clean up the UNDP), but such ethics-challenged governments as those of China, Russia, Belarus, Algeria, Kazakhstan, and North Korea itself.

At the U.N. Secretariat, this intra-U.N. stand-off led to a bizarre series of exchanges at Monday’s noon press briefing, in which reporters tried to find out what Ban plans to do about the UNDP’s rejection of the “jurisdiction” of the U.N. Secretariat’s Ethics Office. According to U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas, this turf problem was news to Ban himself, and he is now “examining” the Ethics memo.

Of course, U.N. legalities are an odd concept for an institution that operates outside any normal system of law. A panel of legal experts, including respected U.K. Queens Counsel Geoffrey Robertson, hired by the staff union to examine the U.N.’s internal “judicial” system, reported last year that the U.N. is in violation of its own human-rights standards. One could go on to debate the endless niceties of what now appears to be a system of ethical — or unethical — U.N. apartheid, in which whistleblowers at the UNDP are evidently not entitled to the kind of protection now promised to those in the Secretariat.

But that way lie the dark realms of the classic U.N. cover-up, in which delay, denial, and bureaucratic buzz finally bore to death any normal person who might otherwise spot the real problem and be outraged enough to demand real remedies. So let’s talk about what’s actually going on here.

SOVERIGN STATE WITHIN THE U.N.

Quite simply, the UNDP is, for most practical purposes, morphing from a development agency into a species of highly privileged rogue state — operating, it seems, outside any jurisdiction. In theory the UNDP reports to the General Assembly, but to suggest that any actual oversight takes place is a joke. The General Assembly is a sprawling 192 member-state committee. Last year its members scrapped a package of U.N. management-reform proposals rather than jeopardize via even a slight increase in transparency and accountability their vast lattice of politicized U.N. berths, boondoggles, and special interests. You’d get better results reassigning the UNDP to report to a random group of shoppers at your local supermarket.

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Nor is the UNDP some trim little outfit that confines itself to sending bednets to the impoverished. It operates in 166 of the U.N.’s 192 member states, in cahoots at high levels with a roster of thug governments from Syria to Iran to China to Zimbabwe. Until public scandal forced the closure of its Pyongyang office this March, the UNDP had a weirdly cozy (and cash-based) relationship with the totalitarian government of North Korea. That is part of what Shkurtaj was trying to call attention to when he lost his job.

For its own programs and on behalf of other U.N. agencies, the UNDP dishes out more than $5 billion per year, worldwide — more than twice the core budget of the Secretariat. This means that about one-quarter of all money spent every year by the entire U.N. system flows through the ethics-rejecting UNDP. In scores of countries, UNDP offices shovel millions into projects that according to some U.N. staff get a no more than a cursory glance at the UNDP’s executive board meetings. Most are approved in big batches, often without any inquiry into details, budgets, or what the projects are really doing under such labels as “governance,” “empowerment,” and “capacity building.”

Nor does the UNDP’s river of funding come from a neatly disclosed and easily monitored stream of contributions. It comes from a vast array of sources, including not only the “regular” and “co-financing” contributions of assorted U.N. member states, but also from hundreds of murky trust funds, some financed with public money, some private; some for specific projects, some not. Under a policy known as “National Execution,” or NEX, the UNDP lends itself as a secretive and diplomatically immune vehicle for transferring funds around the globe, or cycling them from local governments to local contractors, via the UNDP labyrinth, and under the U.N. seal — a setup that invites crony corruption and abuse.

In sum, the UNDP, soaked in money and running a global empire, is more opaque and less accountable than even the problematic U.N. Secretariat. Anyone on the outside looking for a full roster of UNDP projects is left to sift through scores of disparate UNDP country office websites, most with desperately incomplete information, long on self-laudatory policy promises and short on meaningful budget details. It’s not clear that Ban himself could figure out what’s really going on with the UNDP’s billions, assuming he wished to try.

This financial black box that we know as the UNDP is a bequest of Kofi Annan and Annan’s former deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, who has now moved on to cabinet rank in the U.K. Malloch Brown took charge of a faltering money-starved UNDP in 1999, and by the time Annan promoted him to the U.N. executive suite in 2005, Malloch Brown had devised ways to double the UNDP’s intake of lucre, and vastly expand its activities. What he did not do was make it transparent and accountable, or provide protection for whistleblowers. Neither have his successors, the management team of Kemal Dervis and Dervis’s deputy, Ad Melkert.

NORTH KOREA RULES

That set the stage for scandal. Last fall the U.S. Mission to the U.N. began trying to pry information from the UNDP about its strange and secretive doings in North Korea. When damning details surfaced in January, Ban promised a system-wide audit of the U.N., and an audit within three months of the UNDP in North Korea. Ban then reneged. The system-wide audit was postponed — apparently forever. In March, with the North Korean government refusing to accept stricter practices for UNDP operations in the country, the UNDP closed its office in Pyongyang. But instead of shipping all its records immediately out of the country, the UNDP stored some at the Pyongyang offices of the U.N. World Food Program.

And though the U.N. appears to have no problem rushing emergency teams into North Korea in response to Kim’s latest demands for flood aid, the U.N. has been strangely incapable of getting auditors into the country. Meanwhile, the UNDP — while trumpeting claims of transparency — has been invoking the half-baked audit as an excuse not to divulge its Pyongyang records to the public. If there’s nothing to hide, would it really be so hard for the UNDP to produce, for example, the records of its Pyongyang office checkbook — showing who got paid for what — and post them in full on its website?

All we’ve seen from the U.N. to date is a much-delayed “preliminary” audit of the North Korea offices of a few agencies, including the UNDP. That’s been accompanied by nothing more informative than a lot of talk by U.N. officials about the delicacy and complexity of U.N. procedure (which didn’t seem to interest anyone at the UNDP when Shkurtaj first began questioning the integrity of storing counterfeit $100 bills in the office safe) — and of course, the firing of Tony Shkurtaj.

At the U.N. noon briefing Monday, spokeswoman Montas was asked why Ban had made no visible move to try to quash the UNDP’s rejection of the conclusions reached by the U.N.’s own Ethics Office. She told the reporter that the “The secretary-general’s strength — you should know it by now — is one of diplomacy, of quiet diplomacy.”

Perhaps. But there is a fine line at the U.N. between quiet diplomacy and what sounds by now like the deep hush of a cover-up. There is plenty Ban could do, starting with a public demand that North Korea allow auditors complete access before there is any discussion of a penny more in U.N. aid, and proceeding to throwing his support publicly behind Shkurtaj as a whistleblower whose fate will send a big message to the rest of the U.N. staff.

If that’s too crude for the intricacies of U.N. etiquette, Ban could borrow a trick from Kofi Annan, who after decades in the U.N. system knew some astounding ways to bend and mold the rules. Annan liked to appoint special advisers and liaisons by the score. That’s how Annan brought back into the U.N. fold his disgraced former chief of staff Iqbal Riza, after Riza resigned when it emerged that he had shredded piles of executive office files during the Oil-for-Food investigations.

Why not turn Annan’s bad precedents to good use? If the UNDP is now rising like Frankenstein’s monster to challenge the power of the Secretariat at the U.N., there’s no reason Ban can’t create the post of special liaison between the secretary-general and the UNDP. Or perhaps a special investigator, tasked to explore the finer points of intra-U.N. ethics and jurisdiction — maybe even someone who knows where to look for that UNDP-North Korea checkbook. There’s an obvious candidate to fill such a post; someone who knows plenty about the inner workings of the UNDP, and right now — as luck would have it — he needs a job: Tony Shkurtaj.

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

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