While all eyes are on the circus surrounding the trip by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, a quiet but important showdown over misconduct is shaping up at high levels of a major United Nations agency in Geneva. In this case, one of the whistleblowers is none other than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
That is the story sketched in a United States State Department “priority action” cable obtained by this reporter, indicating that the agency is the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, which is the global registry and guide for international copyrights, patents, and intellectual-property law. The fracas centers on the behavior of a Sudanese national who has run WIPO since 1997 and worked there since 1982, Director-General Kamil Idris.
Early last year Idris had his own U.N. personnel file amended to drop nine years from his age — thus allegedly acquiring a new lease on U.N.-related opportunities and benefits, possibly including a payout of more than $500,000 from WIPO when his current term as director-general expires in 2009. Following his age change, Idris is now officially 53 years old, instead of 62. According to the State Department cable, which was sent out in June over the name of Rice to dozens of U.S. embassies worldwide, that’s just one piece of a disturbing picture.
Secretary Rice’s cable states that WIPO under Idris “has experienced multiple scandals in recent years,” the most recent — involving his age change — emerging in a 2006 WIPO internal audit report that, according to the Rice cable, concluded Idris “had violated WIPO staff rules and ethical standards by using two different dates of birth (DOB) at WIPO for personal gain.” The cable noted that “Idris has been involved in previous dubious activities at WIPO, including questionable use of WIPO resources for personal items such as construction of a swimming pool at his residence.”
Other alleged abuses include Idris providing false information about his birth date to the U.S. State Department. The Rice cable says he used his previous and apparently false birth year — 1945 instead of the currently preferred 1954 — not only for purposes of WIPO records and the United Nations pension system, but also “with the Swiss government and on visa applications to many countries, including the United States, without indicating it was incorrect or attempting to correct it.”
In the cable, under the caption “demarche request,” Rice asks State Department officials abroad to seek support of their host countries to hold Idris accountable for conduct which according to her sources “broke the rules” and has “seriously damaged morale and emboldened him to pursue personal retaliation and preferential treatment at WIPO.”
Idris, via a WIPO spokeswoman, earlier this year denied all wrongdoing; said he did not stand to benefit from the age change; and claimed that all allegations against him are part of a “racist harassment campaign.” WIPO’s press office did not respond to queries sent by e-mail early this past week.
Idris’s age change first came to public attention with stories in early 2006 in the Swiss French-language press. A U.N. internal oversight arm known as the Joint Inspection Unit asked WIPO’s lone internal auditor at the time, Marco Pautasso, to investigate. Pautasso, who has since been transferred to another U.N. job, produced a 35-page report, dated November 29, 2006. It was marked “Confidential.” By early 2007, however, copies of the WIPO internal audit report on Idris had leaked to the press, and despite WIPO efforts to suppress it, the document has been circulating publicly for months.
The report, cited in Rice’s cable, notes that Idris signed on to the apparently false, earlier birth date multiple times on a variety of official documents over the course of almost 24 years. The report further suggests that had Idris applied for his initial job at WIPO as a candidate aged 28 (which he apparently was), instead of 37 (which his revised record now shows he wasn’t), “he would not have fulfilled the general requirement of 10 years professional experience for the post,” and at later junctures might not have risen as quickly through the ranks.
In trying to determine whether all this was sheer accident, the auditor detailed a long list of inconsistencies in the document trail that accompanied Idris from his birth in Sudan, to his student years in Cairo, to Ohio State University in the U.S. (where the auditor reported finding a student record showing yet another birth date, of 1953), followed by a stint at the Sudanese Mission to the U.N. in Geneva; and his hiring at WIPO in the early 1980s. For instance, the auditor reported such inconsistencies as Idris, while working at WIPO, representing himself on U.N. laissez-passer travel documents and U.S. visa applications as having been born in 1945, while simultaneously holding a Swiss driver’s license and Sudanese passport describing him as born in 1954.
These matters have yet to reach the official purview of WIPO’s governing bodies, consisting of scores of member states that convene Monday for their annual meetings in Geneva. According to documents seen by this reporter, it was only after a heated exchange of letters during the past month between the American mission in Geneva and top management at WIPO that Idris finally agreed earlier this month to American demands to include the audit report on the draft agenda for debate by WIPO’s governing member states.
Last month the U.S. Mission’s legal counsel sent WIPO a request that the audit report about Idris’s age be placed on the provisional agenda. WIPO’s legal counsel sent back a letter refusing the request, saying “the legality of the report has been challenged by several, including some WIPO member states,” and adding that “the said report is confidential and needs to remain so… .” The American ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Warren W. Tichenor, then wrote to Idris himself, repeating the request and stating that according to WIPO’s rules, “You as Director General are obliged to comply with our request and therefore it is the expectation of the United States Government that this item appear on the draft agenda.”
Idris wrote back to say that he was under no such obligation, but that the report had now been added to the draft agenda. He noted, however, that “it is up to the Member States of WIPO to adopt the agenda on the first day of the Assemblies.”
Given the highly politicized voting blocks at the U.N., replicated in the assemblies of agencies such as WIPO, there is no guarantee that when the votes are cast, the audit report — and Idris’s conduct — will make it on to the officially adopted agenda. This past Thursday, a Geneva-based news outlet, Intellectual Property Watch, reported that Idris recently held a retreat with Geneva-based ambassadors of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a powerful lobbying bloc at the U.N., which may try to derail the American bid to address such questions as Idris’s age change.
A Geneva-based American lawyer, Edward Flaherty, who specializes in defending U.N. whistleblowers, says the difficulty of achieving any forward motion on such matters “goes to the fundamental issue concerning the abuse of international organizational immunity.” He adds that too often U.N. officials feel free to do whatever they want, “comfortable in the knowledge that no matter what they do, they are beyond the reach of national law, and unlikely to suffer any consequences from their true keepers, the member states.”
A few years ago, allegations of fraud surfaced in connection with WIPO’s renovation of one Geneva building and plans to construct another, as well as Idris’s purchase for personal use of a villa on the outskirts of Geneva, where he involved the director of the WIPO buildings division in constructing a swimming pool on the grounds (the villa is currently listed on a Swiss real-estate website as for sale at a price of 16 million francs, or $13.6 million).
That flap led to an external review of WIPO, delivered two years ago by Ernst & Young with the caveat that its findings might be incomplete and that new facts might emerge in a criminal investigation that was opened by Swiss authorities. The Ernst & Young report did not find fraud (and Idris has denied any wrongdoing). But Ernst & Young did report finding management “weaknesses” at WIPO “which might lead to irregularities being committed.” The report noted items such as a growing number of short-term and consultancy contracts not in compliance with U.N. guidelines, “abnormally high” rental payments made on “unusual” terms for a building, and signs of “frustration” and “fear” among the WIPO staff.
Bringing reform to WIPO is difficult even by United Nations standards, because unlike most United Nations operations, it is largely self-financing. According to WIPO documents, about 90 percent of its roughly $200 million annual budget is funded by fees charged for its services to persons who entrust to the agency the handling of their intellectual-property rights.
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.