Global Policy Forum

Annan's Last Spin


By Ayman El-Amir

Al-Ahram Weekly
February 17, 2005

In the early days of his first term as United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan had a line that he used to address sensitive issues. "How do we spin this" was his way of soliciting ideas from his inner cabinet staff to help shape public perceptions of a delicate situation involving the United Nations. But, with the release of the Volcker Commission's report of inquiry into the abuse of Iraq's Oil-for-Food Programme, and the full-blown profiteering scandal it unveiled, no amount of spinning can put the genie back in the bottle. The world public opinion, which the UN bureaucracy has always claimed as its constituency, feels betrayed and is demanding full accountability. In addition, five US congressional committees smell blood and are hotly pursuing the trail. For the secretary-general, there is still one last spin he can do to turn this adversity into an opportunity. He can stake his long UN experience and his international standing on re-casting the world body that has defied reform efforts for so long.

Reform of the UN is long overdue but it is more easily said than done. To be effective, changing the paradigm requires in- depth understanding of the dynamics of how the organisation works and the intertwined relationship between its different components. The world organisation consists of the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the International Court of Justice and the Secretariat, which is headed by the secretary-general. The Secretariat and its staff are therefore an integral part of this closely- knit, mutually influential complex of bodies, politics, staff, diplomats and interests. Inter-governmental bodies of the UN depend on the Secretariat to provide research, undertake fact-finding and prepare reports on the basis of which they formulate policies and make decisions. These are handed back to the Secretariat, as well as passed on to home countries, for action. A monitoring procedure requires the Secretariat to report back to inter- governmental bodies on its work, which is usually done in the name of the secretary-general. In times of weak UN administrations, the revolving-door interaction between the Secretariat and inter-governmental bodies becomes an exercise in power-peddling designed to promote mutual self-interest.

This tango partnership has often created a culture of political complicity at the UN. Senior management of the Secretariat, which is required to be impartial, sometimes succumbs to the myopic interests of influential member states in return for political favour. Strictly speaking, the United Nations Charter, as well as staff rules and regulations, enjoin staff from "seeking or receiving instructions" from any authority external to the organisation. The rule is supposed to ensure that no member-state can influence staff in the performance of their duties to favour this member-state or prejudice the interest of another. But when state- members of the organisation violate the rules they profess to subscribe to under the Charter, say, by seeking and receiving contraband oil from Iraq, by overlooking the illicit practices of their own corporations and nationals, or by ignoring sanction-busting by other members, then the administrators of the Oil-for-Food Programme cannot be expected to be more royalist than the king.

As billions of dollars of Iraq's oil sales were up for grabs, the Saddam Hussein government played one party's interest against the other and bought influence both within the Secretariat and with some member states. Everyone raced to get a piece of the cake, state members and staff members alike, not to mention a few hundred middlemen. Despite many warning signals, the revolving door skimming turned into a revolving door scandal that seriously implicated senior management of the organisation and the secretary-general's own son, as well as some member states. This is what the former executive director of the programme, now turned chief culprit, Benon Sevan, meant when he claimed through his lawyer that Volcker's commission of inquiry had framed him as "a scapegoat". Corrupt practices involving both the United Nations administration and its member states represent a threat to the conduct of international affairs that is reminiscent of the warning former US president Dwight D Eisenhower had sounded 50 years ago about the dangers to the US of what he called "the military-industrial complex".

Reform tingles the UN once in a while and sometimes comes to a full debate. It is like a 10-year itch. Hardly does a state representative speak before the international organisation without calling for UN reform, so much so, that it has become a cliché. Because of the complexity of interests involved, the Secretariat usually weathers the storm and the membership of the world organisation buries the issue in a pile of resolutions or in open- ended committee meetings and reports. The 10-year-old reform of the Security Council initiative is but one example. But where does reform begin? The membership of the world organisation lay reform packages at the doorsteps of the Secretariat and orders it to carry them out. On the other hand, senior management at the Secretariat considers it the responsibility of member states to reform the inter-governmental machinery they have created so that it can serve them better. But the Secretariat also has vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. From the perspective of the US and its Congress support for the UN is only due to the extent that it serves their national interest, with a small margin beyond that. Meanwhile, the secretary-general considers it his duty to implement the consensus decisions of the world organisation, without fear or favour, that is, unless he has to cave in to pressure from the powers that be for ulterior motives. This seems like a dead- end that the UN can live with, but not what the international community expects.

Public relations pundits at the UN often rehash the axiom "if the UN did not exist, it would have been invented." Maybe re- inventing the UN is not such a bad idea. After all, its state members have not risen to the level of responsibility they had pledged themselves to when they committed to the Charter, and "the peoples of the United Nations", including the surviving post-World War II generation of idealists, have yet to see "the city on a hill" they had envisioned.

Secretary-General Annan can use the remainder of his second term to make one small contribution towards rebuilding the UN credibility by ending the "old boys' club" syndrome that has been nurtured, under his own eyes, during his two-term tenure. He can also enforce a strict code of ethics that precludes favouritism and nepotism. Then he can use his influence and prestige to push reform on reluctant member states. Like the two-term presidency system in the US, the secretary-general has little to worry about in the last two years of his second term except his place in history.

Since the heyday of Dag Hammarskjold, no secretary-general has come to the UN without political or personal baggage. Yet, each one of them tried to cast himself as another Hammarskjold, even when none came remotely close to his legacy. At this time when the UN is facing grave corruption charges and the world is struggling with multiple disaster, both natural and man-made, it is good to remember Hammarskjold, whose centenary will be celebrated in April, as a remarkable man for all seasons.



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