Politics & Policy

Closet Case

The U.N.'s worldwide inventory problem.

Talk about skeletons in the closet. The United Nations weapons inspectors once tasked with tracking Saddam Hussein’s arsenal have just discovered that for more than a decade they’ve been storing vials containing one of Iraq’s chemical-weapons concoctions — phosgene — in a cabinet in their own New York office. Removed from Iraq’s Al Muthanna chemical-weapons facility in 1996, the phosgene apparently sat unnoticed in the UNMOVIC office until last week.

#ad#This discovery was presented by the U.N. at a press briefing Thursday as the sort of mistake anyone could make, even if — as one of the U.N. weapons experts explained — opening the containers would mean “a couple of people would be dead.” Phosgene is an irritant, widely used as a weapon in World War I, which causes people to choke to death.

Officials from the U.N.’s Iraq weapons-inspections office, known as the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), explained that it was an “accident” that the phosgene had ever been brought from Iraq to New York. “This kind of material should certainly not have come here,” said UNMOVIC spokesman, Ewen Buchanan.

UNMOVIC officials said the quantities found were small, with all the vials able to fit inside a container the size of a Coca-Cola can. As soon as the substance had been tentatively identified, the vials were further sealed and isolated. The U.N. then invited agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to come remove them from UNMOVIC’s offices, which are across the street from the main U.N. headquarters building in midtown Manhattan.

Thursday afternoon, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office issued a statement that UNMOVIC believes “There is no immediate risk or danger to the public” and that a sweep of the office “revealed no further potentially dangerous materials.”

Glad that’s settled. But phosgene sitting unnoticed for years in a U.N. office in midtown Manhattan is just the latest symptom of a growing danger that one might politely call the U.N.’s worldwide inventory problem. In some cases the reason is sheer sloppiness, in others it can be deliberate, involving fraud, theft, or worse. But whatever the local specifics, the U.N., with its diplomatic immunity, secrecy, slipshod internal controls, inadequate auditing, buck-passing, and $20 billion-per-year system moving people, money, and goods around the globe, has become a cauldron of threats to the global security it is supposed to promote.

Take, for example, the problems for U.S. security posed by something that sounds on the face of it a lot less alarming than phosgene: U.N. stationery. This summer, U.S. federal agents arrested a Russian official working at the United Nations in New York, Vyacheslav Manokhin, who is alleged in the federal complaint to have been part of a scheme misusing the U.N. and UNDP letterhead to help “numerous non-United States citizens” fraudulently enter the U.S. At least some of these letters were signed in the names of U.N. officials who did not exist. A pretext for entry to the U.S. was to attend conferences, many of them at the U.N. in Manhattan. (Manokhin has pled not guilty).

Also in New York, federal investigations into corruption in the U.N. procurement department have led to a guilty plea and two jury-trial convictions over the past two years from U.N. officials — including the conviction this March of the former head of the U.N. budget oversight committee, Vladimir Kuznetsov, for conspiring to launder kickbacks on procurement deals. Some of those funds were moved through a bank branch located for the convenience of United Nations staff inside the U.N. headquarters complex.

And this March, we learned that the U.N. Development Program, without alerting U.S. authorities, had been keeping a stack of counterfeit $100 bills for more than a decade in its North Korea office safe (having tried without success to return them to the North Korea state bank from which they were obtained, according to a UNDP spokesman). This news emerged as part of a still-spreading scandal in which U.S. officials have alleged, based on confidential U.N. documents, that the UNDP had been funneling hard cash, and possibly weapons-related goods, to the rogue, nuclear-bomb-building North Korean government of Kim Jong Il.

Then there was the mother of all U.N. inventory fiascoes, the 1996-2003 Oil-for-Food program for Iraq, in which abysmally deficient U.N. oversight provided cover that was exploited by U.N.-sanctioned Saddam — under the noses of U.N. inspectors and authenticators and overseers and monitors and managers — to bust sanctions, bank billions, and buy weapons via a worldwide network of smuggling and corrupt deals.

In the U.S., Oil-for-Food has by now led to a series of guilty pleas, one jury-trial conviction, and nine pending cases. But however hard U.S. prosecutors might labor to mop up the U.N. mess, the U.N. is a global operation, sprawling far beyond U.S. jurisdiction. Scores of U.N. member states — including such major players as Russia and China — have done nothing to pursue leads unearthed in a slew of investigations. The former head of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, who ran Oil-for-Food for six years out of U.N. headquarters in New York, and was indicted in New York federal court this past January, has had no trouble retiring to a perch safely beyond reach of U.S. extradition, on his native Cyprus (he says he is innocent).

On a perhaps lighter note, it seems the U.N. can’t even keep track of paperwork done in the name of the top boss. The organization has never disclosed what became of any U.N. documentation that should have been generated when Kofi Annan’s son, Kojo Annan, availed himself of the help of the UNDP office in Ghana to import a Mercedes duty-free in 1998 under false use of the senior Annan’s name and U.N. diplomatic perquisites. The UNDP seal was on the import documents finally released in 2006 by Kojo’s lawyer. Either at the U.N. or UNDP, there should have been some U.N. record. Was it lost? Perhaps misfiled, somewhere near the wayward phosgene in the UNMOVIC office?

We must at least credit UNMOVIC officials who, having discovered the phosgene, came forward swiftly and in public to disclose that they had botched their inventory control (perhaps it concentrates the mind to discover chemical-weapons samples on the premises). But there are a lot of questions still unanswered. Who brought the phosgene to New York? And how? And why over the course of more than a decade did UNMOVIC never get around to a full stock-taking in its own office?

Anyone unfamiliar with the U.N. bureaucracy might also wonder why, four years after the overthrow of Saddam, UNMOVIC still exists at all. Actually, the real surprise is that UNMOVIC is finally in the process of closing its doors — thanks to an absurdly delayed decision by the Security Council, which finally voted this June to shut down the operation. It was in the course of archiving material, in preparation for shutting down, that UNMOVIC staff came across the phosgene.

If shutting down a U.N. operation is what it takes to provoke a full housecleaning, there’s a great case by now for closing down the entire U.N. system, immediately. There’s no chance of that. But back in January, when the North Korea Cash-for-Kim scandal first broke, Ban Ki-moon, in a statement released by his office, promised “an urgent, system wide and external inquiry into all activities done around the globe by the U.N. funds and programmes.” It never happened. While the FBI busies itself in Manhattan hauling away UNMOVIC’s lethal office trash, and U.S. prosecutors toil to stop the U.N.-related fraud, bribery, money-laundering, and other escapades that have become such a staple of the U.N. landscape, the least Ban could do is redeem his broken promise and deliver a full, independent inquiry into whatever the U.N.’s global empire might still have stashed in its nooks, crannies, safes, cabinets, and closets.

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

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