The new secretary-general debuts on the world stage this week with a globe trotting trip similar to those taken by his predecessors. But in addition to the expected diplomatic stopovers in the salons of Brussels, Paris and Nairobi, Ban Ki-moon has decided to make more than a symbolic gesture to highlight one of the most important missions of his organization.
He has decided to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where he will confront the best and the worst of the organization he now leads.
The official line is that he wants to “meet peacekeepers, and express [his] personal gratitude for contributions they are making under difficult and often dangerous conditions.” But he could have perhaps achieved the same goal by visiting any number of the seventeen other peacekeeping missions.
The encampment in Haiti is only three hours away from New York and has also suffered losses. But by showing up amid the U.N. forces in Kisangani, Ban is correctly accentuating a U.N. success while bravely demonstrating an unflinching recognition that the wrongdoings of the United Nations must no longer be ignored, dismissed, or belittled.
The fact that he chose the DRC speaks well for the man and for our hopes. He will visit the site of the most publicized U.N. peacekeeper sex scandal. By doing so, Ban is demonstrating that he is not running away from the U.N. scandals, as his predecessor, Kofi Annan, did when he expressed doubt that the Oil for Food catastrophe was actually a scandal, or that if it were a scandal, the U.N. was even responsible for it.
Annan’s successor has already proven himself more worthy. Within hours of a new potential embarrassment, the alleged diversion of perhaps up to $100 million in United Nations Development Program money by North Korea, the new secretary-general stepped right up and faced the problem directly. He ordered an immediate investigation of all U.N. funding around the world. The announcement represents a massive and unprecedented undertaking that starkly contrasts with the largely laggard, see-no-evil philosophy that seemed to mark so many of the Annan years.
Only after the allegations from the Oil for Food program exploded publicly, and amid much outrage, did Annan’s administration ring up Paul Volcker to look into that one program. Perhaps U.N. investigators will soon turn up evidence of where U.N. funds have elsewhere flowed into the hands of the evil, as unaccountable amounts most surely have.
The order to examine the books also came just days after U.S. prosecutors finally criminally charged the one U.N. official who came to represent the face of U.N. scandal: Benon Sevan, Annan’s hand-picked undersecretary-general who ran the Oil for Food program. The white-haired 40-year U.N. veteran was indicted in Federal court for bribery, along with former U.N. secretary-general Boutrous-Boutrous Ghali’s brother-in-law. The $160,000 Sevan claimed was carried in bundles of $50,000, $45,000, $35,000 and $30,000 to New York by his elderly pensioner aunt was really a reward, say prosecutors, from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Sevan’s defense has denied all, and claimed Sevan’s aunt would bring the money into the United States “to help defray the expenses of her annual stay with (him) and his family in New York.”
Where were the Sevans putting her up — the Waldorf?
“Mr. Sevan never took a penny,” boasted his attorney, Eric Lewis, who in his defense of his client also said, “Mr. Sevan accounted for every penny of the $64 billion under his control” in the Oil for Food program.
Let us hope Mr. Ban’s order that the U.N. account for every penny goes beyond any such endeavor instituted during the Annan years, and with more realistic results.
As his staff begins the process of engaging the promised outside auditors, their boss will physically walk, front forward, right into one of the worst reminders of U.N. failures. It was in the DRC where the sickening U.N. peacekeeping sex scandal exploded the most prominently.
There have been at least 300 allegations around the world of the blue helmeted guardians preying on the helpless souls they are supposed to protect, despite the U.N.’s much heralded “zero tolerance” policy. In the DRC, U.N. peacekeepers are said to have bribed girls as young as 12 years old with bananas, bread and candy in exchange for sex.
One senior U.N. official was accused of taping pornographic videos of the innocents, allegedly as part of an Internet pedophile sex ring. Ban is not only wading into the most lurid reminder of U.N. scandal, but what’s more, he is taking members of the U.N. press corps with him, including this reporter.
Ban’s appearance in the DRC also serves to highlight a U.N. success story. The nation has shown promise after enduring a six-year civil war that killed upwards of four million people. The U.N. has served a vital role in helping establish the newly elected government — the first there in forty years. U.N. peacekeepers have not hesitated to back up the government with firepower, including deploying attack helicopters, in their battle with rebel leader Larent Nkunda. The U.N. claims roughly 5,000 rebels have surrendered and joined the U.N. backed measures to restore peace and stability. More than 18,000 peacekeepers, the largest and most expensive deployment in U.N. history, are helping to move the country into a democratic future. President Joseph Kabila was inaugurated last month and will meet with Ban during the visit.
The DRC has also cost the U.N. its own blood. Ninety-eight U.N. peacekeepers have been killed there since the operation began in 1999 — eight from Guatemala died during fighting with rebels this time last year. But perhaps the most notable loss in U.N. history in its attempts at bring peace to the nation occurred September 18, 1961. On that day, Dag Hammarskjold, considered the finest Secretary General so far, was killed when his DC-6 crashed after departing the Congolese capital.
Like Ban, he was on a mission of peace. In Hammarskjold’s case it was to try and stop the clashes between the troops of the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga and the U.N. forces. Some consider that mission a dark chapter for the U.N. for another reason — Katanga’s pro-American and anti-Communist President Moise Tshombe declared that Katanga would secede from Soviet-dominated Congo. For that, he had the U.N. guns turned against him.
Critics charged the U.N’s role in Katanga was “to snuff out the candle of freedom and force it back into the despotic communist rule of the Congo.” But now, the U.N. troops reinforce democratic principles instead of being used as a cold war pawn against freedom.
Kofi Annan also visited the DRC — his final trip occurred in the last year of his term. By choosing the DRC during his first official overseas trip, Ban Ki-moon is signaling that he is embracing U.N. achievements, while not shying away from its deficiencies.
Now, let the 38th floor start vigorously looking for those outside, independent auditors to scrutinize every penny of the U.N.’s billions, as promised. And, as Ban takes his bow abroad with the blue helmets, let the new undersecretary for Management, Alicia Barcena Ibarra, also start conscripting a new U.N. army of accountants with green eyeshades.
Eric Shawn, a New York based senior correspondent for FOX News Channel, and the author of The U.N. Exposed: How the United Nations Sabotages America's Security and Fails the World. You can read his complete bio here.