The phrase “born again” is taking on a whole new meaning in a scandal now brewing at a little-known but important United Nations agency based in Switzerland, where an auditor has discovered that the director general, Kamil Idris, has for almost 24 years been using two different birthdates, nine years apart. In recently amending the discrepancy, Idris has changed his current age in U.N. records from 61 to 52.
That would be bizarre in any context, but it is an alarming discovery at the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, a U.N. agency with an annual budget of more than $200 million that is supposed to be one of the world’s great bastions of accurate record-keeping. Based in Geneva, WIPO’s mandate is to promote the global protection of intellectual property rights. Launched as a U.N. agency in 1974 and rooted in more than a century of international treaties, WIPO serves as a registry, database guardian and guide for international copyrights, patents, trademarks and intellectual property law.
Nor is this the only scandal to entangle WIPO and Kamil Idris, a citizen of Sudan who has run WIPO since 1997. Idris is only the second man to serve as WIPO’s director general since it became a U.N. agency, and he has earned a reputation for ruling in a vice-regal style. Plans for a lavish, $50 million renovation of WIPO’s headquarters in Geneva led to concerns about possible bribery. The Swiss criminal investigation launched in 2004 unearthed payments of $3 million to $4 million from WIPO contractors to a Ghanaian businessman, Michael Wilson, who in turn had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Swiss account held by a WIPO assistant director, Khamis Suedi. Wilson, whose case is still open, could not be reached for comment. Suedi, who has denied any wrongdoing, left Switzerland in 2005.
Yet more questions were raised about Idris’ purchase of a villa on the edge of Geneva, where the director of the WIPO buildings division was involved in the installation of a swimming pool, which Idris paid for in cash. The swirl of allegations led to an external review of the organization in 2005 by the consulting firm Ernst & Young. That review -- which Ernst & Young stressed was not an audit -- did not find evidence of fraud, but did find “certain weaknesses in the management” that “might lead to irregularities being committed.” The review raised serious questions about unfair and murky practices in WIPO’s hiring and promotion of staff, and it observed signs of both “frustration” and “fear” among WIPO personnel. Meanwhile, WIPO budgeting, which enjoyed a healthy surplus when Idris took charge in 1997, had developed a deficit. This also drew criticism and demands for outside inspection. Through it all, Idris has denied any wrongdoing.
Idris is not denying, however, the manipulation of his birthdate on official WIPO documents, though he continues to insist he was not in any serious way at fault. But a WIPO internal audit report, completed last November, and obtained by FOX News, shows otherwise. (Click here to read the report.) (pdf) Among other things, it alleges that Idris for more than two decades falsified his date of birth on a slew of official U.N. documents, including a dozen “laissez-passer” authorizations for international travel on U.N. business – which in many countries allow the bearer to skip customs and immigration inspection. In all of them, Idris gave his date of birth as Aug. 26, 1945 -- even though he now says he was actually born on Aug. 26, 1954. Idris has also signed his name to the false birthdate of 1945 on Swiss diplomatic permits and property records, and U.S. visa applications.
Idris has told U.N. investigators that the false birth-dating was due merely to a typographical error made back in 1982, when he first applied for a job a WIPO – where he has worked and risen through the ranks since 1983. Idris also said that for years he had continued to use the false birthdate on some official documents for “consistency.” But according to the audit report, Idris was anything but consistent. At the same times he was signing his name to U.N. “laissez-passer” travel documents and U.S. visa applications showing his birth year as 1945, he held a Sudanese passport and Swiss driver’s license with the 1954 date.
Idris did not reply to repeated queries from FOX News. But a WIPO spokeswoman e-mailed a press communiqué saying that it was Idris himself who initiated a correction in official records last year, and that Idris would not benefit from the change. The statement said he would in fact lose some of his pension benefits as a result of shedding nine years from his official age. The statement added that all allegations that Idris sought to profit from the error are “groundless” and “racist.”
But the WIPO internal report, signed by WIPO’s senior internal auditor, Marco Pautasso, tells a different story. Based on interviews, internal WIPO documents and other documentation from places in Idris’ past, ranging from Khartoum to Ohio, the report concludes that Idris’ change in birthdate “cannot be considered as a mere administrative act.” The 35-page report alleges that Idris broke staff rules meant to safeguard the integrity of WIPO, may have benefited career-wise from using the false birthdate while rising to the top job of WIPO director-general, and might now stand to benefit financially from having corrected the date.
This report is the result of an investigation requested last year by another U.N. oversight arm, the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), after stories appeared in the Swiss press when Idris began amending his birthdate last spring in his U.N. personnel files, in Swiss property records, and on his Swiss diplomatic card . There was speculation at the time -- also dismissed by Idris’ office -- that Idris might stand to gain from the change, The JIU asked Pautasso to investigate in order “to put the issues to rest one way or the other.”
The basic storyline of Idris’ career, which can be distilled from the audit report, is simple enough. Idris was born in Sudan, worked at the foreign ministry there; got law degrees from Cairo University in 1976 and 1977; and a master’s in international law from Ohio University in 1978. He went on to work at the Sudanese Mission to the U.N. in Geneva. In 1982 he applied for a job with WIPO, and he joined the WIPO staff the following year. He has been at the organization ever since, reaching the top job of director general in 1997. He won a second six-year term of office in 2003.
The bottom line on the dual birthdates appears to be that for WIPO and related business, such as travel to the U.S., Idris until last spring used the birthdate of 1945. For matters related to Sudan, such as his Sudanese passport, he was usually listed as born in 1954. But even within that odd framework, there were inconsistencies. For instance, in a letter dated 1994, in support of what was then Idris’ candidacy for the post of WIPO deputy-secretary-general, the then Sudanese ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva referred to the earlier, false birthdate, stating: “Mr. Idris was born in 1945 in Sudan.”
Pautasso’s report sums up, demurely, that the information in Idris’ records of education and employment is “sometimes contradictory.” And sometimes stranger than that. The audit report notes that Idris’ 1982 WIPO job application claimed that from 1967-1970 he had held full- and part-time posts “at the national level” in Sudan. The report notes dryly that “if born in 1954, Mr. Idris was aged 13 to 16 when he filled these posts.”
It also appears that while attending Ohio University, from 1977-78, Idris was recorded as having yet another date of birth. The report says he was listed in the student files there as born neither in 1945 nor 1954, but in 1953. There are also strange overlaps of timing. In the resume Idris submitted as part of his WIPO job application in 1982, for the period in which he was studying at Ohio University he also described himself as working in the Sudanese foreign ministry in Khartoum, as both deputy director of the legal department and assistant director of the research program -- an overlap that he told the WIPO auditor was the result of “short assignments” in Sudan while studying in Ohio.
The report also takes issue with any claim that Idris did not benefit from the change in his age. Based on WIPO internal records, it alleges that Idris in his initial application to work at WIPO may have edged out better qualified competitors by presenting himself as born in 1945, and therefore being 37 years old. This implied a degree of experience he could not then have had, if he was actually born in 1954, and aged 28. Similarly, the report questions whether Idris could have climbed the WIPO ladder as quickly as he did had he not adopted a phony age.
The report further alleges that Idris’ recent change of birthdate in U.N. records could under some scenarios allow him to benefit “considerably” in financial terms. Idris’ contract as director general expires in 2009. In the context of his 1945 birthdate, that expiration would have come well after he had reached the usual WIPO retirement age of 60. But now that Idris is officially nine years younger, he has more room to maneuver. Pautasso outlines, for example, how the suddenly younger Idris, if he leaves the UN in 2009 or possibly before, might under some circumstances qualify for a “termination indemnity” of up to 18 months’ salary, which he would not receive if born in 1945.
There are further oddities, but the allegations in the report from WIPO’s own internal auditor point to problems at WIPO that appear to go much deeper than simply a director-general who for decades has been using two -- or maybe three -- different birthdates, and might have turned the confusion to personal gain.
The big question is how Idris’s shifting identity went uncorrected -- and uninvestigated -- for so long. That question of too-little inspection, carried out too late, has dogged all U.N. scandals in recent years, from Oil For Food to the recent issues of United Nations Development Program funding in North Korea. So has the possibility that the discovery of conscious wrongdoing may never lead to any other corrective action.
Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.