Monday, January 25, 2010

Corruption at the UN: Who is watching the watchdog?


By RASNA WARAHPosted Sunday, January 24 2010 at 18:06

WE, THE PEOPLE OF THE world, would like to believe that the money we contribute to the United Nations is used to promote peace and development in poor or strife-torn regions, and to provide humanitarian relief to countries in crisis.

But a recent review of corruption and fraud at the UN by the Associated Press (AP) has found that theft of UN funds is rampant in the neediest countries, and that the organisation is unwilling or unable to bring the culprits to book.

The review, whose findings were published two weeks ago, shows that investigations into cases involving massive fraud, theft and corruption in the UN’s various offices around the world have either been stalled, halted or closed by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which is tasked with the job of looking into such cases and recommending disciplinary action.

At least five major cases in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa are among the inquiries that have either been shelved or not investigated further.

For instance, the review found that no action had been taken following a taskforce report completed in December 2008 that found $1 million a day being siphoned off from a UN safe in Kabul – funds that were part of an $850 million rebuilding project in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, no action has been taken on a finding that about half of the $350,000 UN funds intended for the launch of a radio station for women in Baghdad was used to pay off personal loans, a mortgage and credit cards.

Another investigation into bid-rigging involving a transport company in Africa found that contracts were being deliberately steered to just one company.

According to the AP review, over the past year, “not a single significant fraud or corruption case has been completed”, and dozens of cases are still languishing un-investigated. The review comes at a time when the UN is losing credibility as an effective watchdog against corruption worldwide.

The UN Convention Against Corruption, which came into force in December 2005, has neither reduced corruption nor resulted in significant asset-recovery in UN member states.

The convention not only introduces a comprehensive set of standards, measures and rules that all countries can apply in order to strengthen their anti-corruption legal and regulatory regimes, but also requires member states to return assets obtained through corruption to the country from which they were stolen.

AT THE TIME OF ITS ADOPTION, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described corruption as “an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies” noting that the convention “will warn the corrupt that betrayal of public trust will no longer be tolerated”.

It is ironic that a world body that categorically endorses core values such as honesty, integrity, accountability and transparency, has been unable to root out corruption within its own corridors.

This is partly due to the fact that its oversight bodies, including OIOS, the Ethics Office and the Ombudsman’s Office, are manned by people who are themselves employees of the UN. This creates a conflict of interest.

A senior lawyer at a Washington-based watchdog organisation told me that by virtue of being UN employees, OIOS investigators are often under pressure to keep a lid on cases involving fraud or corruption, especially if these cases have the potential to severely mar the reputation of the UN.

Quite often, she added, and especially now when the UN is cutting back on funds for its oversight activities, the OIOS operates like a public relations firm whose job is to put a positive spin on a negative story or to cover up cases of fraud or malpractice.

The revelations highlighted in the AP review may suffer a similar fate. However, it is becoming clear that the halo surrounding the UN has suffered a serious dent in recent years.

In October 2008, One World Trust, a UK-based think tank, published a paper that showed that despite a 2005 whistleblower protection policy, the UN routinely fails to protect them against retaliation, and that the organisation’s self-policing mechanisms remain ineffective.

Watchdog organisations believe that the oversight capabilities of the UN are severely compromised by the fact that investigators lack security of tenure, and are appointed through UN administrative bodies, which may not be too keen to have themselves investigated.

The sad reality is that the world’s taxpayers, who contribute funds to the UN through their governments, remain largely unaware of the fact that millions of dollars are being lost to corruption and fraud by UN officials, instead of being used to promote human rights and development in the world’s poorest nations.

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