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ANALYSIS: Ethics and Accountability at the United Nations

Does the United Nations accept the rule of law?

That question has been hanging over the world organization for nearly a year, ever since the U.N.’s first ethics commissioner, Robert Benson, tried to take up the case of a whistleblower who drew attention to the rule-breaking practices of the United Nations Development Program.

Among other things, the whistleblower charged that UNDP had funneled millions in hard-currency to the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and allowed North Korean government employees to run key aspects of its development program there. Then, he claimed, UNDP retaliated by firing him.

Now the same issue confronts the U.N. again. This time, the question is whether UNDP would pay restitution for the harm done to the same whistleblower who brought the organization’s misbehavior to light, and whose reputation was blackened by UNDP’s hand-picked investigators when they issued a weighty report earlier this month that confirmed most of the whistleblower accusations, and added a few more.

Judging from events of the past week, the answer to the question is still very far from clear. UNDP’s top managers have told FOX News through a spokesman that “no decision has been made” on the restitution issue.

Restitution for character-blackening is the initiative of chief U.N. ethics officer Benson, the man who is supposed to foster a “culture of ethics, transparency and accountability” across the entire U.N. system, and give the world — and thousands of U.N. employees worldwide — confidence that the organization is following its own rules. Benson had been mandated by UNDP itself to review the investigative report on North Korea for violations of whistleblower protection. Benson’s role was a compromise engineered in part by diplomatic pressure from the Bush Administration.

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A refusal to follow the recommendation would be a direct slap at the U.N.’s top ethics official — and it would again expose the world organization to charges of double standards that were exposed — in part by FOX News — in the multi-billion-dollar Oil for Food scandal and a broad swath of procurement corruption cases.

Moreover, it would be a highly public blow to Benson’s boss, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is standing behind his ethics chief. Ban’s spokesman told reporters yesterday that “the report of Mr. Benson stands as the position of the Secretariat.”

At the same time, the spokesman said the Secretary General was going to wait and see how UNDP reacted to the recommendation and would offer no other opinion on it.

The latest crisis point marks a second lease on life for Benson in the whistleblower case, which involves revelations brought forward by a former UNDP employee in North Korea, Artjon Shkurtaj. It is also a second chance for Ban, whose failure to back Benson strongly in the past sapped the unity of the U.N. system.

The case of the whistleblower, a former UNDP operations manager, was Benson’s initial major test in the ethics job last August — a job created in the wake of the Oil for Food and procurement scandals as a cornerstone of the U.N.’s ability to police itself and protect employees who brought wrong-doing to the attention of their superiors.

But Benson was slapped down by UNDP, which said the matter lay outside his jurisdiction and refused to let him investigate what Benson called a “prima facie case” of retaliation.

Suddenly, to the dismay of the Bush Administration and other governments,the sprawling U.N. system of some two dozen independent funds, programs and agencies around the world seemed to have the legal right to design on their own how they treated the disclosure of improper or illegal activity.

In UNDP’s case, a vivid insight into the potential for abuse was provided by the North Korean investigative report, which was made public in early June. UNDP immediately hailed the 353-page report as vindication — even though the document reiterated at great length that UNDP had systematically violated its own rules in hiring North Korean government employees to fill key UNDP jobs in the country, illegally handed over millions in hard currency to the government of Kim Jong Il, and ignored the laws of the U.S. and other countries in handing on sensitive “dual use” civilian-military technology to the Kim regime, even as North Korea was building and testing a nuclear weapon.

The report, however, took great care to avoid assigning any blame for the lapses to any specific individuals in UNDP, and blamed many of them on vague “lack of communication.”

So far as whistleblower Shkurtaj went, however, the report declared that there had been no retaliation against him, even as it offered evidence that the North Korean regime had pressured UNDP to get rid of him. (Initially offered a full-time position, Shkurtaj, a contract employee, had the offer rescinded a month later on procedural grounds, including a preference that a woman should get the job; another man was later hired instead.)

The panel report also lengthily attacked Shkurtaj’s character and credibility, without offering him the opportunity to respond.

In reviewing those results, Benson still insisted that Shkurtaj had whistleblower status — an important designation, since it offers protection for employees who bring U.N. wrongdoing to light.

But he offered UNDP a victory when he agreed that no retaliation had taken place. As the investigators did, Benson based his reasoning largely on the fact that the UNDP human resources officer who withdrew Shkurtaj’s job offer offered “unequivocal” testimony that she was unaware of any North Korean pressure to get rid of the nettlesome employee. (Neither Benson nor the investigating panel found contradictory the fact that the job was ostensibly earmarked for a woman, but later filled by a man.)

Then Benson threw a curve ball: the neglect of the panelists to let Shkurtaj respond to their concerns about his credibility was, in Benson’s nuanced phrase, a “due process failure,” which violated a U.N. employees right to respond to such findings in an investigation.

The right to such a response is deeply embedded in customary U.N. procedure for internal investigations. Benson, however, cited as the basis for his own conclusion about the lack of due process the example set by the U.N.’s $35 million investigation of the Oil for Food scandal, presumably because it was also carried out by outside investigators.

The “failure,” Benson noted, was on the part of the investigative panel, and not UNDP itself — a fact also underlined by UNDP spokesmen. But since the damage was done, Benson noted “there is no means by which to address this matter other than by means of restitution,” and recommended UNDP pay Shkurtaj 14 months’ salary to salve the damage.

Benson’s effort was clearly a compromise aimed at preserving unified standards of fairness across the U.N. system to employees who dare to testify to their organization’s lapses. And Ban’s current support for his ethics chief — though still equivocal — showed a desire to undo some of the damage done by his earlier flinching at UNDP intransigence. (Ban first signaled his new resolve to unify ethical standards at a confidential meeting of U.N. top managers in May, in Switzerland; copies of his talking points at the session were obtained by FOX News.)

But if UNDP does not accept the ethics officer’s ruling, what then? Neither Ban, nor anyone else, seemed inclined to answer — at least not yet.

George Russell is executive editor of FOX News.