Published April 10, 2012
A battle waged by the U.N.’s top internal watchdog against fraud, waste and abuse, backed by the U.S., to bring more daylight to the world organization’s internal operations has wound down -- and the U.S. is the loser.
The idea, to put the reports of the agency on a public U.N. website, has been mired for months in the quicksand of U.N. procedures by a coalition of developing-world countries, including Cuba and Nicaragua, with the behind-the-scenes backing of China and Iran.
On April 2, as the U.N.’s powerful fifth Committee on finances ended its session, supporters of the reform acknowledged that they had lost the campaign, at least for now -- though they vowed to renew fighting in the near future.
“We are very disappointed, but we are not going away or giving up on this issue. In the long run, this is where the world is moving, and the U.N. should move with it,” declared Joseph Torsella, the Ambassador for Management and Reform for the U.S. mission to the U.N., who has spearheaded the fight. “We want to convey our determination, along with lots of other allies, to continue this fight.”
This amounts to a second setback for Torsella, who launched an agenda of change at the U.N. in January that stressed fiscal stringency and management accountability. Since then, Torsella has lost one other significant fight: to get the U.N. to rescind a cost of living increase for New York staff -- the bulk of the Secretariat -- while U.S. civil servants suffered a pay freeze.
Torsella claimed some measure of victory, on the other hand, when the U.N. agreed to make a small cut in its current budget -- admittedly a historic occasion after years of spectacular budget increases. The U.S. pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget, plus 27 percent of its multibillion-dollar peacekeeping efforts.
At issue this time are the reports of a U.N. internal body known as the Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS, which is charged, among other things, with detecting waste, fraud and abuse at the U.N. Secretariat, as well as examining U.N. programs in terms of their effectiveness -- overall, a very tall order. While financed by the U.N. Secretariat, OIOS’ top official -- currently, a Canadian native named Carmen Lapointe -- reports to the U.N. General Assembly, a measure which ostensibly guarantees her office its independence.
With a biennial budget of $39 million for 2012-2013 and a staff of about 120, OIOS oversees the sprawling U.N. Secretariat, which plans to spend nearly $18 billion over the same period and has a staff of more than 24,800, according to U.N. budget figures. OIOS also performs the same functions for a number of other U.N. agencies, thus spreading itself even thinner.
Atop that is the U.N.’s notorious “culture of impunity”and lack of internal accountability, a state of affairs that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has claimed that he intends to change, but so far not to much discernable effect.
The initiative by OIOS chief Lapointe was an effort to change that climate of inertia. At the moment, OIOS reports are considered to be internal “management tools,” and thus confidential, although available to U.N. member states on request. During the Bush administration, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. made a point of putting significant numbers of OIOS reports on the USUN website; the Obama administration first halted, then renewed that practice, though the array of published documents can be delayed, incomplete and selective.
Nonetheless, when they have come to light, the OIOS documents have occasionally been revelatory. They have documented, to name but a few things, major anomalies in the U.N. payroll system, Ban’s mishandling of the installation of a $315 million computerized system to improve U.N. management, and the sloppy handling of funds by the multibillion-dollar Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
How much reform those revelations have spurred is another issue. One big question is whether Ban himself appreciates the attention OIOS reports have gotten in the past, and would gain under any mandated system of publication. On the record, Ban is firmly behind the plan. But in the past, he has not always been so supportive of the watchdog organization. Ban’s previous OIOS chief, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, upon stepping down at the end of her five-year term, charged the Secretary General with “undermining” her organization and exhibiting a "lack of responsibility, not only for OIOS, but for the [U.N.] as a whole."
This time around, U.N. diplomats noted that Ban was conspicuously silent on the publication issue, though some attributed that to his concentration on other agenda items. The issue could come up again later this spring, but given the momentum lost in the latest rebuff, it could be a lot later than that.