Global Policy Forum

UN Push to Stem Misconduct

This Wall Street Journal reports on the failed American initiative to curb misconduct at the UN. Though the article accurately highlights the problem of having multiple, separate bodies monitoring conduct of UN officials, it fails to address the various ways that the US, and other powerful member states, have systematically blocked any meaningful reform proposals of the larger UN system.

By Andrew Higgins and Steve Stecklow

December 26, 2008

An American-backed drive to curb misconduct at the United Nations is faltering, blighted by bureaucracy and accusations of retaliation against whistle-blowers.

Launched in December 2005 with advice from U.S. officials, the reform initiative was supposed to protect U.N. employees who exposed wrongdoing. The U.N. pledged this would ensure the "highest standards of integrity."

Since then, the organization has been hit by numerous allegations of misconduct, from claims that U.N. peacekeepers in Congo traded guns for gold with rebels to accusations of corruption by U.N. employees in Kosovo.

Instead of a streamlined system to process complaints, the U.N. has set up no fewer than eight separate ethics offices, each with its own guidelines, deadlines for claims and jurisdiction. Other parts of the U.N. also handle allegations of misconduct, including an ombudsman's office.

"The U.N. isn't serious about cleaning up its act," says James Wasserstrom, a former U.N. official in Kosovo who, after becoming a whistle-blower himself last year, was placed under investigation by the U.N. A 25-year veteran of the U.N., Mr. Wasserstrom, an American, was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing and recently filed a retaliation complaint with a U.N. appeals panel.

The U.N., says Mr. Wasserstrom, "uses the whistle-blowing program to get its most ethical staff to stick their heads above ground in order to chop them off."

The U.N. denies this and says it doesn't tolerate retaliation against staff members who report misdeeds. The U.N. is "very, very diligent in pursuing" wrongdoing, says Angela Kane, the organization's under-secretary-general for management. She says there has been a "great culture change" in the organization.

The U.N. declined to discuss individual cases of whistle-blowers who have alleged retaliation. On the issue of misconduct in general, the organization says that a number of senior officials have been punished after reports of wrongdoing by colleagues.

The system for rooting out misconduct mirrors the organization as a whole -- a sprawling array of fiefdoms. U.S. officials have been frustrated by the plethora of separate bodies monitoring what they hoped would be a unified ethics policy.

Canadian attorney Robert Benson says that when he arrived at the U.N. in May 2007 he assumed that his New York-based Ethics Office had jurisdiction over the entire organization. But he soon learned it only oversaw the U.N. Secretariat -- the U.N.'s main administrative body. Assorted agencies and funds opted to set up their own ethics bureaus.

"I wasn't a student of the United Nations," said Mr. Benson in an interview. "Would it be better to have one office? Absolutely."

The U.N. says it has no immediate plans to consolidate the various ethics bureaus, but it is finalizing one set of ethical standards to be followed by all its agencies.

The U.N. has been dogged for decades by complaints of corruption and lack of accountability. Pressure for change rose sharply after a 2004 scandal over the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program in Iraq. Then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan initiated a series of reforms, including a rule that U.N. officials disclose any gifts worth more than $250. The previous limit had been $10,000. The U.N. also set up Mr. Benson's office to foster "a culture of ethics, transparency and accountability."

Unlike businesses and other private organizations with operations around the world, the U.N. is not typically subject to national laws and has its own internal justice mechanism. This system, which dates from the 1940s, consists of various ad hoc panels and the appeals board, a tribunal staffed by U.N. officials.

A group of legal experts convened by the U.N. in 2006 declared the setup "outmoded, dysfunctional and ineffective." The U.N. promised to replace it with a new system staffed by professional judges. It is supposed to start up in January but so far judges haven't been appointed. The U.N. blames this in part on member states, which delayed approving rules that would govern the new arrangement.

Reports of Corruption

In February of last year, Mr. Wasserstrom, the American whistle-blower, began making reports to New York about mismanagement and possible corruption in Kosovo's energy sector on the part of senior U.N. officials in the formerly Serbian-controlled region.

He provided no concrete evidence of graft. But in communications with the Office of Internal Oversight Services, the U.N.'s main investigative unit, Mr. Wasserstrom passed on information relating to a proposed new power plant known as Kosovo C. This included claims that U.N. officials were taking kickbacks. He says he had "no way of knowing if the information was true or not, but it was at the very least very worrying and needed to be investigated."

At the time, Mr. Wasserstrom was the head of a U.N. office in Kosovo that monitored the electricity utility and other publicly owned enterprises. He also alleged that the U.N. Kosovo mission was colluding with local politicians to undermine the independence of publicly owned enterprises.

The OIOS declined to comment on the outcome of an investigation into the corruption and mismanagement concerns raised by Mr. Wasserstrom.

At the same time that OIOS was looking into Mr. Wasserstrom's allegations, the U.N.'s personnel department in Kosovo announced what it said was a long-scheduled decision: Mr. Wasserstrom's job was about to be eliminated.

Facing unemployment, he signed a contract to work as a private consultant for Kosovo's main airport and the region's telecommunications agency. Senior U.N. officials in Kosovo -- the same people he wanted investigated -- accused him of violating procedure and placed him under investigation for conflict of interest.

Detained at the Kosovo border by U.N. police in June last year, Mr. Wasserstrom says he had his American passport seized and car searched. His apartment in the Kosovo capital Pristina was also searched. Investigators sealed off his office, confiscated his computer and placed a "wanted poster" at entrances to the U.N. mission's Kosovo headquarters. It featured a mug shot of Mr. Wasserstrom and an order barring the American from the premises. Official U.N. documents on the matter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal confirm this account.

Cleared of Wrongdoing

"They treated me like a common criminal," says Mr. Wasserstrom. After an investigation lasting nearly 11 months, he was cleared earlier this year of any wrongdoing. Mr. Wasserstrom in the meantime filed a retaliation complaint with Mr. Benson's Ethics Office in New York. The U.N. says that 45 people similarly complained of retaliation over the 12 month period up to this July and that 18 of these cases warranted preliminary review.

In a letter to Mr. Wasserstrom in April, Mr. Benson said that while some of the measures taken against him "appeared to be excessive" and involved "investigative failures," a detailed study of his treatment by U.N. investigators "did not find any evidence that these activities were retaliatory."

Mr. Benson says he's not allowed to comment on individual cases. The OIOS, which investigated Mr. Wasserstrom's claims, says that retaliation is a "very specific type of conduct" and differs from other forms of mistreatment. In response to written questions, it did not address Mr. Wasserstrom's case directly but noted that "abuse of authority and harassment" can also flow from "interpersonal problems" and other issues unrelated to retaliation.

Going Outside the System

Arguing that the U.N. can't police itself properly, a few U.N. employees have sought legal redress for grievances outside the U.N. system.

One of these is Cynthia Brzak, an American U.N. staffer in Geneva. Ms. Brzak has been battling the organization since 2004, when she complained of sexual harassment by her boss, Ruud Lubbers, who was then head of the U.N.'s refugee agency.

The OIOS investigated and, in an initially secret report, found "serious acts of misconduct." The then-secretary-general, Mr. Annan, however, told Ms. Brzak in a letter that her complaint could not be "sustained." The OIOS report was leaked to the media. Mr. Lubbers, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, stepped down in 2005.

Ms. Brzak in the meantime complained that she was suffering retaliation -- including threats to fire her -- as a result of her initial complaint. She found an American lawyer to take the matter outside the U.N. and into the U.S. judicial system.

A New York district court in April dismissed her suit, saying it agreed with the U.N.'s defense that the court couldn't delve into a matter because of the international organization's immunity. Ms. Brzak has appealed.

The "only hope of accountability," says Ms. Brzak, is "to pierce their immunity." Until that happens, she says, "they will set up ethics offices and set up layers and layers of fog that you have to fight your way through just to go nowhere."


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