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That UNeasy feeling

Paul Volcker spent 18 months examining what went wrong with the programme that ran from 1996 to 2003, writes Bhaichand Patel.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2005 18:06 IST

When I was working on the 35th floor of the United Nations Secretariat in New York, someone had scribbled graffiti above the urinal in the men’s room: “This is the only place in the building where I know what I am doing.” It must have been written in jest, at least half in jest, but it was probably also a cry for help.

It was a difficult time for the UN. We were in the middle of a Cold War; Ronald Reagan was in the White House and he had a mean-spirited ambassador in New York who regarded the organisation solely as an appendage of American domestic policy. The staff was under all sorts of pressures from all sides.

While most of us were quickly cured of the idealism from which we suffered when we first joined, the morale of the staff was quite high during my 26 years in the UN. We knew we were doing some good, even if most of that good was in the field, away from headquarters.

It was a different UN building I entered on a visit to New York last September than the one I had left eight years ago. The premises looked tired and worn out, reflecting the mood of the staff affected by the swirling accusations of corruption and incompetence. There was a time when Secretary General Kofi Annan cut a dashing figure in his tailored, dark striped suits. He had a bounce to his walk. That, too, has gone. Whether he will survive the next 11 months of his term is anyone’s guess.

He has been given a scathing rebuke in the report of the Volcker panel for the management of the oil-for-food programme for Iraq, the UN’s largest-ever humanitarian aid operation. The programme was set up at the end of 1996 to provide relief to Iraqis undergoing hardship from a UN trade embargo that was imposed after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. It allowed Iraq to sell oil through the UN and to use the proceeds to buy food and medicine and also to pay billions of dollars in war reparations.

Paul Volcker spent 18 months examining what went wrong with the programme that ran from 1996 to 2003. His team concluded that the Secretary General’s son, Kojo Annan, took advantage of his father’s position to profit from it. He was paid nearly half a million dollars in ‘consulting fees’ by a Swiss company that got a UN contract.

The Secretary General has denied, not too convincingly, any knowledge of his son’s links to the Iraqi programme. Natwar Singh might take comfort from the fact that he is not the only one with a ‘son problem’. The UN Chief of Staff, Mark Malloch Brown, cracked an off-colour joke recently, “I am glad my son is only eight years old.”

Volcker warned the UN to change the way it did business or lose the public support it had carefully built over the years. “Our assignment has been to look for mis- or mal- administration in the oil-for-food programme, and for evidence of corruption within the UN organisation and by contractors. Unhappily, we found both,” Volcker told a grim Security Council.

This is by far the biggest scandal in the UN’s 60 years. Sure, there was corruption in the secretariat in the old days. There were always rumours that some of the junior officers in the administration and procurement were on the take when it came to contracts and purchases. An Under Secretary General was caught with his hands in the till in the Vienna office. A report came up with the startling conclusion that UN staff in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone used their positions to seek sexual favours from children, mainly adolescent girls. Similar charges were levelled against UN peacekeeping soldiers in the Congo. Last year, the head of UNHCR, Ruud Lubbers, was accused of sexual improprieties by several women on his staff and was forced to quit.

But all these shenanigans are peanuts compared to events of the recent months. Saddam Hussein manipulated oil-for-food to extract $1.7 billion in kickbacks out of the $ 64 billion programme. The UN not only failed to monitor it but, as it now turns out, it was also part of the problem. With millions of dollars to play with, some of the senior UN staff succumbed to temptations. And the most damning part of the Volcker report was that Saddam’s abuse of the programme was well-known to members of the Security Council as well as to the UN secretariat. No one was willing to blow the whistle.

Benon Sevan, the former head of the programme, quit the UN days before the Volcker indictment.He is said to have accumulated $150,000 illegally from the programme and is now ensconced in Cyprus, which does not have an extradition treaty with the US.

Others have been less lucky. A Russian official in the procurement department, Alexander Yakoviev, has pleaded guilty in a US court to channeling almost a million dollars to a secret offshore bank account. Another staff member is facing charges of selling commercially sensitive information to a rival bidder for oil contracts.

A day before the Volcker panel began its work, Iqbal Riza, UN Chief of Staff, approved the shredding of thousands of documents that might have shed light on the scandal and he did so in contravention of one of his own directives to senior staff to “take all necessary steps to collect, preserve and secure all files” relating to the programme. The Volcker Committee was sharply critical of his actions but the Secretary General saw no grounds for disciplining Riza. Instead he bid him fond farewell.

Corruption and inefficiency charges seem to be bottomless. They are now coming also from quarters that were previously supportive of the organisation. Obviously, things have gone badly wrong in the management practices.

A major casualty has been the reform process. A General Assembly resolution in 1993 cited 15 previous attempts at reforming the way the UN works. The following year an internal watchdog office was established, Office of Internal Oversight Services, to crack down on waste, fraud and abuse. This was the year that the UN was to pay serious attention to reforms. Instead, the Secretary General has been sidetracked.

Still, he has promised to build a more efficient UN system. By early next year he will set up an ethics office which, among other things, will protect staff members who reveal wrongdoing in the administration. Senior staff will be obliged to disclose their financial resources. There will be stronger protection against sexual harassment and an independent external evaluation of UN management and a more transparent handling of UN contracts.

Perhaps it is also time the UN looked at its recruiting methods. Jobs are still filled through a quota system based on nationality and not on merit. It is a relic from the Cold War days and has outlived its usefulness. It leads to accumulation of a lot of deadwood on the payroll. The Secretary General plans to reduce the present staff through a one-time payoff and recruit a younger, more energetic team. It’s a start.

The writer is former Director, United Nations Information Centre, New Delhi