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United States turns up the heat on Kofi Annan and UN

Staff Reports

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has described 2004 as a “horrible year,” but 2005 may be worse. In the United States, there has been growing criticism of UN management, particularly of the Oil for Food Program.And the world-wide UN staff are not happy either. Earlier in 2004, the UN published an independent integrity perception survey conducted by Deloitte & Touche that concluded that UN staff perceive a lack of integrity particularly at the higher levels of their organization.According to the survey, there was a general perception that breaches of integrity and ethical conduct are insufficiently addressed. At the same time, staff voiced concern about the consequences of “whistle-blowing” or reporting on misconduct, and uncertainty about the mechanisms for such reporting.This report was followed by official disciplinary investigations of complaints against two senior officials. They were subsequently cleared of misconduct by Kofi Annan. And, last month the UN Staff Union took the unprecedented step of voting on a resolution that they decided “that the senior management no longer displays the level of integrity expected of all employees of the organization.”Staff Union President Rosemarie Waters said that the vote wasn’t directed at Secretary-General Kofi Annan who is “in a very difficult job under very difficult circumstances, but we continue to have hope that he is doing his best. We only want his senior managers to exhibit the transparency and accountability that he has prescribed for the organization.”But, a number of politicians in this country are expressing no such confidence in Kofi Annan. Senator Norm Coleman, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and sixty Members of Congress have called for him to stand down. They include nine members of the House Appropriations Committee, which provides 22 percent of the UN’s annual budget. Senator Coleman’s call has recently been supported by a hard-hitting Heritage Foundation article “The White House Should Call on Kofi Annan to Resign”, and by influential New York Times columnist William Saffire, Fox News, the National Review and other media. President Bush has demanded a “full and open disclosure of all that took place with the Oil for Food program.”These calls for resignation, however, are premature. In this country we have a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and the jury is still out. Currently numerous investigations of the Oil for Food Program are being pursued, including one by the UN Independent Inquiry Committee headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve. An interim report by Volcker is expected in January 2005 and should provide interesting reading.The Volcker investigation is apparently “following the money trail,” but is hampered by the existence of a multitude of “ghost” companies, set up to prevent such an investigation by effectively hiding the flow of funds. While many companies and individuals have been identified as having benefited from “vouchers” entitling them to purchase Iraqi oil at below-market prices, it has so far been difficult to prove that any favors were returned in the form of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein.Of particular interest to readers of the Volcker report will be coverage of allegations against Benon Sevan, appointed by Kofi Annan to head the $60 billion Oil for Food Program. Documents found in the Iraqi oil ministry since Saddam’s fall suggest that Mr Sevan secretly received vouchers to sell 14.3 million barrels of oil, which would have yielded an illicit profit of around $2 million. But Mr Sevan has denied any wrongdoing and said that the documents could well be forged.Even if these allegations were to be proved, would Sevan or any other senior UN official have to pay a price? The UN has a history of allowing senior officials accused of misconduct to resign, and Sevan is due to retire in June 2005. His UN Pension cannot be touched even if allegations of wrongdoing were to be proved, and he enjoys diplomatic immunity against prosecution unless the Secretary-General agrees to the withdrawal of the immunity.However, what is more important than allegations against individuals or companies is that confidence be restored in the UN’s ability to police itself. The key problem is a UN culture of secrecy and lack of transparency. This is summed up by Merrill Cassell, a former budget director of UNICEF, who has commented: “It is sad to see the UN labeled as a corrupt institutionThere is a culture of walls when what we need is a culture of windowsIf some of the things that happen at the UN took place in a big corporation, people would have been fired.”What is needed to restore public confidence in the UN is prompt corrective action by the Secretary-General after he receives the interim Volcker report. Otherwise, he can expect a growing chorus for his resignation in 2005. VTPeter Leslie is a former CFO of the United Nations Development Program, now living in Vail. His comments on UN issues are on the web site of the Foreign Policy Association and his column appears periodically in the Vail Trail.


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