By BENNY AVNI | March 31, 2008
There are troubling signs that two ongoing U.N. investigations may be less thorough and independent than advertised.
The events the two U.N. teams are examining could hardly be more different. One was a vicious terrorist bombing in Algiers that targeted the United Nations as a symbol hated by jihadists and resulted in allegations of U.N. and Algerian security lapses. The other surrounds reports that the main development arm of the United Nations violated its own rules by cozying up to the North Korean regime and its leader, Kim Jong-Il.
The U.N. Development Program’s cooperation with the government of a country known at Turtle Bay as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seemed so cozy, in fact, that detractors begun calling the joint operation “UNDPRK.” As more and more articles appeared in the press on the UNDP-North Korea relationship, which the Wall Street Journal dubbed “Cash for Kim,” Secretary-General Ban, the UNDP administrator, Kemal Dervis, and the UNDP board of directors launched a full investigation.
In September, the “Independent Investigative Review of UNDP Operations in DPRK” was established, headed by a former Hungarian prime minister, Miklós Németh. The team was supposed to submit its report “if at all possible before the end of 2007.” It quickly dropped this ambitious deadline, however, and earlier this year promised to deliver its results by the end of March. But as the investigators pored over the documents and data, they realized they needed another postponement. The target date is now “before the end of May.”
Is procrastination or thoroughness to blame for the delays? Let’s hope it’s the latter. Privately, however, some are raising questions about at least two team members who may have UNDP ties. Agency officials have dismissed those ties as “tenuous,” saying they don’t violate the team’s mandate.
That mandate says team members should “not seek nor accept supervision or guidance” from anyone at the UNDP or the United Nations, and should “at all times avoid any conflict of interest or appearance of conflict with UNDP or its officials or personnel.” By definition, they should have no U.N. ties.
The team’s chief of staff, Ji Mi Choi, has never worked directly with UNDP or the United Nations, the agency’s spokeswoman, Christina LoNigro, said. But Ms. Choi did serve as chief of staff at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and was top assistant to the institute’s director, Jeffrey Sachs. A prolific writer on development issues, Mr. Sachs has advised a former U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, and has worked with Mr. Annan’s deputy and former UNDP administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, on such cornerstone UNDP projects as the U.N. Millennium Project.
Another member of the independent team investigating the North Korea program, Mary Ann Wyrsch, is chairwoman of the UNDP’s Audit Advisory Committee, created in 2006. Did the body Ms. Wyrsch heads do a good job overseeing and advising the UNDP on its North Korea program? Ms. Wyrsch may face that question during the team’s investigation.
In the aftermath of the December 11, 2007, suicide attack on the U.N. headquarters in Algiers, Mr. Ban appointed a retired Algerian-born U.N. official, Lakhdar Brahimi, to lead an “independent panel on the safety and security of United Nations staff worldwide.” Skeptics wondered whether Mr. Brahimi, known to be loyal to his former bosses both at the United Nations and in the Algerian government, could ever find fault with either. But he may not need to: His mandate, carefully arranged between Turtle Bay and Algiers, might be too broad to investigate the specifics of the December attack.
“Without accountability, there is impunity,” the president of the U.N. Staff Union, Stephen Kisambira, told Mr. Ban in a letter expressing U.N. staffers’ dissatisfaction with the makeup of the Algiers investigative team. “We ask that you not be complicit in a cover-up,” he added. “The staff is sick and tired of the impunity extended by the office of the Secretary-General to senior managers for their failings.”
To allay such concerns, the two investigative teams will have to show that their efforts have not added up to a cover-up, as usual. Despite the worrisome signs, let’s wait for the outcome of both.