Published May 20, 2008
Beset by scandals surrounding the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has decided to tighten the reins on anti-corruption and ethics investigations across his sprawling organization — even while trying to keep those investigation results from the general public.
The decision by Ban marks a major reversal of course from less than a year ago, when he announced that the U.N. Secretariat “does not enjoy the jurisdiction” over protection of whistle-blowers who expose wrongdoing at UNDP, the U.N.’s development arm, or other agencies in the labyrinthine U.N. system.
At the time, a broad spectrum of U.N. reformers complained that Ban had ceded those powers, as well as the management of anti-corruption probes, to UNDP and its sister agencies, turning a unified anti-corruption system into a jumble of potential conflicts of interest and differing standards.
Since then, UNDP has been hit with a variety of other scandals — including a FOX News investigation last month into UNDP’s procurement of $2.3 million worth of airport scanners for the customs service of the radical Chavez government of Venezuela, which the U.S. manufacturer of the equipment said it never shipped.
Yet another important scandal surfaced last week, when a UNDP whistle-blower demanded an investigation by Ban’s Secretariat into UNDP support for a Somali financial company with ties to terrorist organizations on the U.N.’s own sanctions list. The whistle-blower, Ahmed Ismael, claims that he was fired after bringing the issue to UNDP’s attention. (A UNDP spokesman told news agencies, “Clearly UNDP takes all these allegations extremely seriously and we are in fact investigating them thoroughly.)
In the midst of all the controversy, Ban told a meeting of top-level U.N. officials in Switzerland three weeks ago that he has suddenly seen the wisdom of a single set of standards in those sensitive areas, at least when it comes to the U.N. investigating itself.
A copy of Ban’s talking points for the April 28 meeting was obtained by FOX News.
Even while Ban is asking the U.N. to toe the line on investigating itself, he wants fewer outsiders to know the outcome. Among other things, he said, he wanted copies of U.N. system-wide audits to be available to nations that asked for them — but only if governments would keep them confidential. The U.S. mission to the U.N., for one, has in the past put Secretariat audits on its local Web site for public review.
And on the explosive issue of investigating U.N. corruption, Ban let his managers know that “we should be careful to protect individuals whose security and rights may be compromised” — in other words, that investigation results can even be concealed from U.N. member governments.
Nonetheless, the talking points seem to indicate a major turning point for Ban. Only last August, he declared opaquely that his own newly formed Ethics Office “does not fully enjoy the jurisdiction over all the funds and programs of the United Nations.”
Behind that foggy language, it appeared that Ban was signing off on the Balkanization of his sprawling organization, especially over the delicate issue of investigating its own possible wrongdoing.
The main reason Ban blinked was the challenge from UNDP, which had declared that the secretary-general’s newly appointed chief ethics officer had no jurisdiction to investigate retaliation against a UNDP whistle-blower who called attention to major irregularities in UNDP’s relationship with the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.
Among other things, UNDP had allowed North Korean government employees to hold sensitive staff positions in Pyongyang, and had paid those employees in foreign hard currency. Kim’s regime had also used UNDP bank accounts to funnel money to firms linked to the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
After facing down Ban, UNDP subsequently appointed its own ethics officer to investigate the whistle-blower case, and later selected its own so-called “external” panel of experts to weigh the whistle-blower’s accusations. After months of delays, that panel has still not issued its report, now slated to be issued on June 2.
Ban’s latest proposal would apparently restore at least some of the overall ability of the Ethics Office to intervene in whistle-blower retaliation cases, make U.N. audits of its activities available to all member governments (currently, only Ban’s New York-based Secretariat does this), and, as Ban put it at the Swiss meeting, “ensure that the U.N. system, including funds and programs, takes all preventive and corrective actions to combat misconduct, fraud and corruption.”
The U.N. funds and programs include such high-profile agencies as UNDP, UNICEF and the World Food Program, which raise their operating money separately from the U.N. Secretariat’s funding.
It is still not clear where Ban’s latest change of course will lead. His office did not reply to questions posed on the issue last week by FOX News; he left New York today for a tour of Myanmar.
In his talking points, however, Ban invited all the U.N. CEOs to get involved in a “common approach” for the disclosure of internal audit reports, and also “to establish a mechanism to support me” in preparing the report on universal investigation procedures demanded by U.N. members. He hopes to present the result to the U.N. General Assembly in June.
There is still plenty of room, in other words, for the U.N.’s many secretive baronies to try to get their own way, or even engage in a more Byzantine power struggle against countries that have demanded greater U.N. accountability.
But for the moment, at least, Ban appeared to be trying to provide the appearance of a unified system that his own actions had previously conjured away.
George Russell is executive editor of FOX News.