Thursday, January 15, 2009

Key Questions for Susan E. Rice, Nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

WebMemo #2221

On January 20, 2009, the incoming Administration will confront a multitude of international issues. The primary challenge facing the new representative of the United States of America to the United Nations is a U.N. suffering from confused purposes and competing interests among member states. Consequently, the organization has become an unreliable means to address threats to international peace and security, an ineffective advocate for development and economic growth, and an uneven and unfair arbiter of human rights. The U.N. has, with distressing frequency, also proven to be susceptible to corruption, mismanagement, and abuse. Yet the organization, due to intransigence on the part of a number of member states benefiting from the status quo, remains resistant to key reforms.

It is time to rethink and reshape our engagement with the United Nations so that it better serves U.S. interests and protects U.S. sovereignty while also increasing the U.N.'s ability to meet the organization's own stated purposes. The United States must continue to lead the international community in working through the U.N. when it can be effective, but it must also lead in establishing alternative mechanisms, coalitions, partnerships, alliances, and organizations to act when the U.N. proves unable or unwilling.

In order to determine where the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations stands on these crucial issues, the following questions should be put to the nominee during her confirmation hearing on January 15:

Question #3: Increasing Transparency, Accountability, and Effectiveness at the U.N.

The U.N. is charged with many serious responsibilities and tasks. Yet, as evidenced by the well-publicized scandals involving the Iraq Oil-for-Food program and recent revelations of corruption in U.N. procurement, the U.N. has all too often proven vulnerable to corruption and fraud, unaccountable in its activities, lacking in transparency and oversight, and duplicative and inefficient in its allocation of resources. What specifically would you do to address these problems?

Answer: The U.S. must continue its efforts to implement these reforms and to work with nations that are committed to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the U.N. through reformed management, human resources, budgetary, and oversight practices.[6] The U.N. General Assembly agreed in the 2005 Outcome Document to adopt a number of reforms to improve oversight, accountability, transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness.[7] While the reforms outlined in the Outcome Document are hardly sufficient, they represent a starting point.

Unfortunately--and regardless of the fact that they voted in favor of the Outcome Document containing these reforms--most member states are not interested in addressing the U.N.'s waste, inefficiency, mismanagement, lack of accountability, or opacity. Despite support by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the General Assembly has failed to fully implement or enforce such measures as a review of U.N. mandates, enhanced oversight, and outsourcing to reduce costs.

For instance, a critical part of the U.N. reform process is the mandate review effort designed to examine all activities of the organization for relevance, effectiveness, and duplication. Review of U.N. mandates (over 9,000 in total with some dating to the 1940s) is necessary for ensuring that the organization's financial resources are allocated in the most effective and efficient manner. Unfortunately, opposition by a number of member states has stalled the mandate review, and over three years after the Outcome Document was passed, minimal progress has been made.[8]

Worse, the member states and other parts of the U.N. are undermining existing means for holding the organization to account. In budget discussions this past fall, a number of member states refused to continue to maintain the Procurement Task Force as an independent investigatory entity, despite its success in uncovering hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud, waste, and mismanagement in U.N. procurement and other activities.[9] Russia even sought to prevent PTF staff from being transferred to the U.N.'s own investigatory unit (the Office of Internal Oversight Services).[10] Meanwhile, UNDP rejected the authority of the U.N. Ethics Office to cover its employees undermining system wide standards for protecting whistleblowers.

With only one vote out of 192 at the U.N., the U.S. needs to use its financial leverage if it wishes to advance U.N. reform. Past reforms have been aided by such incentives.[11] Without the threat of withholding, other nations feel little need to heed U.S. concerns on budgetary matters as was demonstrated last year when, over objections by the United States, the U.N. passed the largest budget increase in its history while simultaneously failing to adopt key reforms. The decision to overrule the U.S.--which is by far the largest contributor to the U.N. regular budget--was met with a standing ovation by the other member states and broke a 20-year tradition of consensus-based budget decisions.[12]

Question #4: The United Nations Development Program

Information provided by UNDP whistleblowers to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in 2006 led the U.S. to investigate the practices and activities of UNDP in North Korea. U.N. and independent audits concluded that these activities directly violated U.N. and UNDP standard operating procedures and basic "best practices."[13] UNDP has also resisted U.S. efforts to investigate their activities. Current law requires the U.S. to withhold 20 percent of U.S. contributions to the UNDP unless the secretary of state certifies the following measures have been taken: UNDP has given the U.S. adequate access to information on its programs and activities, is conducting appropriate oversight of UNDP programs and activities globally, and is implementing a whistleblower protection policy equivalent to that of the U.N. Ethics Office. Would you agree that such a certification is not merited at this time?

Answer: Despite the fact that the U.S. sits on UNDP's Executive Board and provides millions of dollars to the organization annually, the UNDP has systematically refused to grant the U.S. and other member states full and complete access to audits, reports, and other information on its activities, projects, and financial transactions. Such access is critical to proper oversight and good governance as demonstrated by a number of problematic UNDP practices revealed in recent years. Specifically:

  • Pressure to conduct development activities in impoverished North Korea led UNDP to accede to that government's demands to staff the UNDP office with North Korean nationals chosen by the North Korean regime, permitting the government to skim salary payments to those office workers and obtain convertible currencies such as the dollar and the euro.[14]
  • In Burma, UNDP was accused by local NGOs of allowing the regime to use its funds to further its political agenda and undermine the rights of its citizens.[15]
  • More recently, UNDP allowed the Burmese regime to reap millions in profits from aid intended to benefit victims of Cyclone Nargis by forcing UNDP to pay an overvalued exchange rate.[16]

In these cases, and a number of others, UNDP has resisted U.S. efforts to investigate UNDP activities and practices. Worse, UNDP has led an effort to reopen its offices in North Korea. The organization has also rejected standard U.N. rules and protections for whistleblowers and has retaliated against staff who sought to inform member states about activities of the organization that were not in the best interest of UNDP, the donors, or the people in recipient nations. Based on these actions, the waiver is not merited. Indeed, all U.S. contributions to the UNDP should be suspended until it adopts international accounting standards and legitimate transparency and ethics reforms.

The Need to Press for Critical Reforms

Noble intentions do not excuse the many failings of the United Nations. The unintended consequences of failing to reform the U.N. undermine U.S. interests and the very lives of those depending on the U.N. for protection and assistance. It is time to rethink and reshape the United States' engagement with the United Nations, including using financial leverage to press for critical reforms, so that it better serves both U.S. interests and the organization's own stated purposes.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs, and Steven Groves is Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow, in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

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