Wednesday, October 28, 2009

At U.N., contractor's case again raises questions about nepotism

Internal investigation will examine whether official abused authority


By Colum Lynch
Washington post staff writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

UNITED NATIONS -- Nicola Baroncini, a U.N. contract employee from Italy, was doing a routine review of his boss's correspondence in the summer when he stumbled upon an e-mail that would seal his fate.

Baroncini's supervisor had received a message from the United Nations' top envoy in Congo asking her to bend U.N. rules so that his daughter could be hired -- for the very position that Baroncini was holding temporarily and was hoping to keep.

What followed was not pretty. After learning that he had been passed over for the job, Baroncini lost his temper and bit the forearm of a security officer who had been called in to remove him from the building, according to U.N. officials. Baroncini says he bit the guard in self-defense after being attacked, beaten and maced.

The incident, while unusual, highlighted a phenomenon that Baroncini and others say is common at the United Nations: nepotism. "This way of doing business can't go on," said Baroncini, whose case has triggered an internal U.N. probe into whether a senior official was trying to manipulate a hiring process.

There are no hard figures on nepotism and favoritism at the United Nations, but the ranks of the U.N. Secretariat and U.N. agencies include scores of children and grandchildren of the organization's luminaries and foreign diplomats. Many top U.N. jobs in peacekeeping, political affairs and other areas are reserved for politically connected officials from powerful governments, including the United States.

The U.N. Charter requires that the organization's civil servants be independent of their governments, and the organization's rules restrict the hiring of the relatives of U.N. employees. But the rules have long been breached. In his 2003 book "Peacemonger," Marrack Goulding, a former British diplomat who once led the U.N. peacekeeping department, said he strove to show his independence after the British government nominated him.

"A senior U.N. official nominated by his or her own government was . . . assumed to be in the [U.N.] secretariat to do that government's bidding," he wrote.

The United Nations' largest employee union says it frequently hears allegations of nepotism. But the group also says it fears that today's top U.N. officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the recently departed president of the General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, are ill-suited to initiate reform. D'Escoto hired his American nephew, Michael Clark, as an adviser, and his niece, Sophia Clark, as his deputy chief of staff. Ban's daughter Hyun Hee-ban and son-in-law Siddarth Chatterjee also are employed by the United Nations.

"There is something that doesn't look quite right," said Thomas Ginivan, vice president of the U.N. Staff Union. "He's the chief executive officer, and it's ultimately his responsibility to ensure all regulations are followed. It's hard for him to stand up on the podium and criticize when he's not wearing a spotless suit."

Differing perspectives

U.N. officials say the organization has been scrupulous in avoiding favoritism. But not everyone agrees. Several months after Ban ascended to the top post, his son-in-law was promoted by Staffan de Mistura -- then the United Nations' top Iraq envoy -- to a high-profile post as the organization's chief of staff in Iraq.

Some U.N. officials felt that Chatterjee, a former Indian special forces officer with extensive experience in security, lacked the political and diplomatic skills for the job. In May, he was promoted again, to become regional director of the U.N. Office for Project Services in Copenhagen -- only this time he competed against more than 120 other candidates.

De Mistura, a Swedish national, said he hired Chatterjee because he "needed a military guy" who could oversee the organization's expansion in Iraq, not because he was Ban's son-in-law. Chatterjee had overseen security for de Mistura in Iraq in the 1990s, before he had met Ban's daughter.

"For two years, we succeeded in not having one staff member wounded, not one killed," de Mistura said. "The chief of staff was my right hand in handling priority number one, priority number two and priority number three: security."

Chatterjee said that working in an institution where his father-in-law is the boss has been less of a blessing than a burden and that he recently turned down a job offer as the top U.N. official in Namibia because that would mean serving directly under Ban.

"Till now I've been a quiet worker being recognized for the merit of my work rather than for whom I was related to," he said. "When these questions come up about nepotism and favoritism, it breaks my heart."

Similarly, U.N. officials deny that nepotism played any role in the hiring of Ban's daughter, Hyun Hee-ban. She applied for a U.N. job in March 2003 through a program that invites foreign governments to fund their nationals' employment. Officials said that, without her father's intervention, she finished first among 180 South Korean candidates vying for five U.N. posts.

Carol Bellamy, a former director of UNICEF, is among those at the United Nations who say the allegations of nepotism are unfair. The real problem, she said, is the organization's system of political patronage.

"What bugs me is not the hiring of family members, but how often former U.N. ambassadors get appointed" to run complex peacekeeping and humanitarian field operations, Bellamy said.

'Didn't do anything wrong'

In Baroncini's case, the allegations of nepotism stem from the e-mail his boss, a senior official at the U.N. Development Program, received from Alan Doss, the top U.N. envoy in Congo. Doss, who was winding up his career with UNDP, asked for his daughter to be hired even though his employment would overlap with hers, according to the e-mail, which was first reported by a blogger at Inner City Press.

If found by a U.N. investigation to have abused his authority, Doss could face censure, according to an official familiar with the probe. The investigation is expected to conclude within the next month.

Baroncini, meanwhile, will appear Wednesday in a New York court, where he faces third-degree assault charges for the biting incident. He said he wants to take the case to trial.

"I didn't do anything wrong," he said. "I was the victim of nepotism, retaliation, assault and imprisonment."

No comments: