While I am not normally on the UN beat, I guess I sorta am on the corruption beat (actually, truth be told, my real mission is to revive critical thinking, a skill that has atrophied badly in America). I received an e-mail from a former UN staffer highlighting that, as typically is the case, when the papers start uncovering dirt, they can usually only scratch the surface.
The story at issue, “UN cuts back on investigating fraud,” came from the Associated Press on Tuesday. The gist is that the UN has reduced the level of internal investigation markedly, halting at least five serious cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. The number of cases completed dropped from an average of 150 annually to….zero.
Readers may recall that the last round of major UN scandals centered on the “oil for food” program in Iraq under Sadaam Hussein, in which over 2000 companies in 40 countries worked with the regime to syphon off nearly $2 billion of humanitarian aid funding. The story dutifully cites the UN insisting that everything is hunky dory versus a list of investigations that have been halted. It notes:
The Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based nonprofit law firm that defends whistleblowers, says the U.N. quashed the task force, buried its cases and retaliated against an investigator trying to protect some probes’ computer files.
“We did talk to investigators. They were concerned that investigations which were substantial and which had accumulated credible evidence of wrongdoing had not been zealously pursued since the task force was disbanded,” said Bea Edwards, the firm’s international program director. “It appears there was political pressure brought to bear that may have been instrumental in delaying or stopping (task force) investigations.”
Now this is where the plot thickens. The only reference in the story to a US angle involves what amounts to large scale, but nevertheless petty corruption, that of an investigation into the former head of the American office for the UN in Kabul, who was purported to have used $500,000 for personal perks such as first class flights and leasing expensive cars.
However, that may be misleading. The article does state (toward the end) that one impediment is the failure to appoint a permanent head of the investigations division, a slot that has been vacant for 2 1/2 years (!). The article has this curious explanation:
Edwards says the appointment is improperly “bottlenecked” in Ban’s office.
This is what my correspondent alleges:
The importance of this story is not just that the UN is failing to investivate corruption within its institution and ranks (which is of course true). The bigger issue, as those in the UN system know, is that though US funds are being skimmed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is failing to take a hard stance on corruption by supporting its own nominee to head the UN’s permanent investigation unit. The UN’s selection process identified, not once but twice, an American former federal prosecutor whose appointment is being blocked by Ban because he is perceived to be “too” successful at identifying fraud and corruption which is embarrassing to the UN. It’s the same issue with Galbraith who was fired by the UN because he made the UN “look bad” when his concerns about Afghanistan election fraud became public. In both cases, Americans drew attention to fraud and corruption, the UN stifles them, and the US administration rolls over. The gap between this US’s administration’s soaring rhetoric (in this case on corruption and fraud) and its behavior is vast. Many inside the UN believe what happened to this anticorruption task force was a travesty and wish the fuller issues were uncovered; unfortunately, anyone who draws attention to these issues in any way, puts his job in jeopardy.
Yves here. So far, although upsetting to those in the UN family, still sounds like what the AP says it is, a bad case of self-policing, with the added wrinkle that the US trying to act as if it wants corruption cleaned up but is instead acting as an enabler.
Now I have seen so much chicanery in financial services, and read so much about KBR and Halliburton featherbedding in war zones that I may simply be projecting my prejudices onto an unrelated fact set. But 2 1/2 years is a ridiculously long time to pretend to be bringing an head of an internal audit team on board. And completing zero investigations is a noteworthy accomplishment. The possibility of merely embarrassing the UN seems inconsistent with this effective cessation of internal investigations.
So that would suggest someone REALLY does not want rocks turned over, and two of the biggest focuses of inquiry were Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact set is certainly not inconsistent with there being something Seriously Bad having happened (or worse, still in progress) that would embarrass not just the UN, but the US as well.