For months, the United Nations has been rocked by one report after another of scandal, corruption, mismanagement, misconduct and abuse. And incredibly, for the U.N.’s senior leaders, it’s never their problem.
The biggest headline grabber, of course, is the corruption of the Oil for Food program. The U.N.’s reaction to that scandal has been to initially deny everything and then do the minimum necessary to respond to outside pressures. But even as investigations continue, U.N. defenders, including the Secretary General, have tried to downplay the scandal by arguing that many of the billions of dollars Saddam pocketed weren’t as a direct result of Oil for Food but, instead, came through oil smuggling. They ignore the irrefutable evidence that Saddam couldn’t have engaged in high-volume smuggling without the spare parts for his oil infrastructure provided under the U.N.-run Oil for Food program.
Last week, details began emerge of a new scandal. This one involves the World Meteorological Organization, a U.N.-controlled agency. According to The New York Times, one of the organization’s senior officials embezzled more than $3 million over three years. The Times further reports that the organization, with a staff of 350 and an annual budget of about $75 million, was “rife with intrigue” and suffering from mismanagement and favoritism. For example, the accountant who uncovered the embezzlement reports being told early in his tenure, “‘People here get promoted not because of their work, but because they’re nice to the powerful people here.”
The U.N.’s reaction was unsurprising. According to the Times, the Secretary General’s spokesman, “said that while the specialized agency was in the ‘U.N. constellation,’ it operated independently from the Secretariat in New York. ‘They are responsible for cleaning up whatever might have gone wrong there,’” the spokesman said. Translation: “It’s not our problem.”
Of course, it is their problem. The Secretary General is the U.N.’s chief executive officer. He is responsible for all of the U.N.’s far-flung operations, including the World Meteorological Organization, no matter how trifling an agency with a $75 million budget might seem to U.N. bigwigs in New York.
But if you think that simply blowing off a $3 million embezzlement is bad, consider the major sex scandal that’s emerged in the Congo.
According to a number of reports, U.N. peacekeepers and civilian employees in the Congo have been trading food and protection for sexual favors from the locals that they were supposed to be helping. ABC News reports that U.N. employees traded eggs, bread and peanut butter for sex with girls as young as 11. One senior U.N. logistics officer has been charged in his native France with luring “scores” of young Congolese girls into sex after investigators discovered dozens of photos of the girls on his computer. And six Moroccan peacekeepers, including the chief and deputy chief of the Moroccan contingent, were recently arrested for sexually abusing Congolese civilians.
In total, Congolese civilians have made more than 150 allegations of sexual abuse against U.N. employees or peacekeepers in the past few months. An internal U.N. report confirms that sexual abuse is a rampant, even systemic problem.
Even though reports of these allegations first surfaced more than two months ago, the senior U.N. official in the Congo told ABC News that the problems were “just recently” brought to his attention. And while the world body has instituted rules to try and stop the abuse, ABC cameras “caught a group of U.N. peacekeepers well after [their] curfew, partaking in drinks, dancing at a bar filled with prostitutes, and later loading several of the prostitutes into U.N. vehicles and driving away.” All in violation of the new rules, and all in the presence of senior U.N. managers, who were also in the bar.
So, what does the Secretary General’s spokesman say about this scandal? According to CNN, he said “that contributing nations are ‘clearly responsible’ for the discipline of their soldiers engaged in U.N. peacekeeping mission.”
Again, the world body’s reaction to scandal is to shift the blame and the burden for responsibility. He might as well have said, “Don’t look at us. It’s not our fault. The Secretary General was taking a high level nap.”
Can there be any doubt, in the face of this mountain of misconduct, that there is an absolute culture of mismanagement and corruption at the United Nations? And if any corporation were as pathetically managed as the world body, it would have collapsed long ago. It’s time for changes, and those changes must start at the top.
But, as always, nothing meaningful will happen. U.N. leaders will keep trying to “get beyond” the latest scandal. A few memos will be written. A few bureaucrats will add a few pages to a rule book that everyone already ignores.
We can only hope that people around the world who need help will somehow get the message. If the U.N. is coming, it’s time to go.February 16 , 2005