Broken System: The Failure to Punish High Level Corruption at the UN

“Is bribery business as usual at the UN?”

So asked U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and with good reason. Notwithstanding the UN’s protestations to the contrary, recent years have seen a succession of UN corruption scandals. Among the most infamous is the Iraqi Oil-for-Food case, in which Saddam Hussein, in collaboration with UN staff members, earned billions of dollars through kickbacks and illegal oil smuggling. Corruption in some UN peacekeeping operations is high, with new corruption cases coming to light on a regular basis. And last October, new charges of corruption were brought against (among others) a former UN General Assembly President and another UN diplomat who allegedly were engaged in an important bribery scheme.

Each time a new corruption case is exposed, the UN’s public reaction is the same: the Secretary-General states that the organization is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness and initiates an internal investigation or audit, while at the same time the organization attempts to “sweep the matter under the rug” by claiming that senior UN officials were unaware of the problem, and that this was an isolated incident involving a few bad apples, not the UN system itself. Yet given the frequency of UN corruption scandals, it is about time that the organization stops pretending that this is just a “few bad apples” problem, and try to understand why it faces these situations with such frequency.

The natural place to start is with the UN’s system for investigating and sanctioning corrupt practices, in particular the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). OIOS performs internal audits and investigations into reported violations of UN regulations, rules, and administrative issuances, and is also authorized to initiate proactive investigations to assess potential fraud risks in “high-risk areas.” OIOS’s mandate is strictly limited to administrative fact-finding; it does not conduct criminal investigations, and indeed the UN has no criminal jurisdiction over its personnel. But as an employer, the UN can impose disciplinary sanctions in response to wrongdoing or take other administrative measures. In the UN context, these administrative sanctions are particularly important because UN staff members, officials, and diplomats are granted immunity from local prosecutions, and therefore domestic prosecutions in the countries where the corruption took place can be difficult unless these immunities are waived. In such circumstances, a strong internal anticorruption system within the UN itself is even more essential to avoid impunity.

Yet although the OIOS looks good on paper, critics both outside the organization (see, for example, here and here) and inside as well, have said that the OIOS is not doing an adequate job investigating corruption and fraud. There are at least three reasons for this:

  • First, the OIOS has been understaffed for years—with dozens of positions vacant for close to a decade. This has been a persistent cause for concern, and clearly undermines the ability of the OIOS to efficiently tackle corruption.
  • Second, the OIOS lacks sufficient independence. This problem was highlighted by the leak, in 2010, of an internal memo by Inga-Britt Ahlenius, former Undersecretary General of the OIOS, which alleged that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was undermining efforts to combat corruption within the UN. In response to these allegations, UN spokesmen stated that the memo would be taken seriously but that it contained “numerous inaccuracies,” that was merely “a personal opinion of one person.” While the accuracy of the specific allegations in the Ahlenius memo is disputed, the memo highlights more systemic problems–particularly the fact that OIOS may not be sufficiently independent to pursue serious investigations against powerful UN officials. This general problem at the UN is further illustrated by the history of a separate body, the Procurement Task Force (PTF), which was created in 2006 following the oil-for-food scandal to handle corruption issues at the UN. In its three years of operation, the PTF was very efficient: It identified more than $630 million in alleged contract fraud, and its investigations led to disciplinary actions against 17 UN employees, as well as the criminal conviction of a senior UN procurement officer. Yet despite its successful track record—or perhaps because of it—the PTF was shut down. As PTF Chairman Robert M. Appleton explained, the task force was dismantled because it uncovered evidence implicating high-level diplomats and other influential people. (According to reports, the pressure to shut down the PTF came primarily from Russia and Singapore, due to evidence that their nationals were involved in corrupt acts.) Given what happened with the PTF, it is hard to imagine that the OIOS would be any more effective in pursuing cases against powerful figures within the UN system.
  • Third, even when the OIOS does find sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, the disciplinary sanctions that the UN typically imposes are too limited, which undermines the deterrent effect of OIOS investigations. The stronger sanction the UN could take against its employees is dismissal and separation from service. Referral of a case to national criminal jurisdictions is also possible, though domestic authorities are not always willing to prosecute their nationals, especially high-ranking officials.

In fairness to the UN management, the UN is a large and complex bureaucratic organization, with many conflicting values and objectives (and stakeholders), which makes these issues very difficult to address. And it’s not realistic to expect the organization to drastically reinvent itself anytime soon. Nonetheless, there is a few things the UN could do, within the current framework, that would go a long way to improving the organization’s ability to get systemic corruption under control:

  • First, and most important, the UN should establish a truly and fully independent permanent oversight body modeled after the PTF. This could also be achieved through reforms to the OIOS, by nominating at its head someone with a record of competence and independence and by hiring qualified personnel to remedy the understaffing situation.
  • Second, the UN needs to define clear general and specific policies on tackling corruption for every mission, especially peacekeeping operations–something the UN (perhaps surprisingly) has not done. Another improvement that could be implemented within peacekeeping missions is to have at least one staff member per mission who would serve as a focal point for reporting abuse and answer ethical questions with regard to corruption, analogous to the focal point for women present in every mission today.
  • Third, in addition to making more use of more severe administrative sanctions, the UN needs to address concerns about how the immunity of UN personnel thwarts domestic prosecutions. While diplomatic immunity serves many important purposes, the Secretary-General could and should issue a Bulletin that would clarify that these immunities would not apply for corruption-related offenses, or at the very least could the UN could adopt policy of waiving immunity systematically in these cases.

These few changes could make a difference in the way the UN deals with corruption within its ranks and might weaken the many criticism of which it is the target.

6 thoughts on “Broken System: The Failure to Punish High Level Corruption at the UN

  1. This article lacks in precision about the status of diplomats at the UN versus that of UN officials and in my view this reveals either misunderstanding on the part of the author or weakness in the argument. The author bases this article on the scandal involving the then president of the UN General Assembly, Ambassador John Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda. Nowhere is it mentioned that this person is a diplomat of his own country, that he represents at the UN his own country, and has diplomatic immunity not because he works at the UN but because he’s a diplomat of his own country. The same applies to all other diplomat at the UN.
    The author also writes about UN staff members, officials and diplomats. Beyond the fact that I cannot understand what distinguishes a UN staff member from a UN official, I think it’s worth mentioning that any measure or sanction OIOS can impose will never extend to diplomats, who do not work for the UN but at the UN.
    Finally, I think it would be more academically sound, when referring to “new corruption cases coming to light on a regular basis” to cite something somewhat more recent that 2013.

    • Thank you for your comment.
      You are absolutely right in mentioning that there is several degree of immunity involved. (As the post was not precisely focusing on immunity, I did not distinguish between them). UN diplomats are immune from local prosecution because they are representing their home country abroad. Their immunity does not come from the UN itself, but derives from article 1 and 2 of the UN Charter, which provide that the organization is based on the sovereign equality of every state. Basis for diplomatic immunity is the reciprocal recognition of sovereignty by member states towards other member states. Because their states, and not the UN, grant diplomats’ immunity, only the state could waive it. It is also worth mentioning that UN diplomats benefit a personal immunity (ratione personae) which is absolute and applies even outside their functions. This renders domestic prosecutions of John Ashe, for instance, or Francis Lorenzo also alleged to be implicated in the same scheme, particularly hard.

      On the other hand, as you pointed out, UN personnel are granted a different immunity. This Immunity come directly from the organization. Such immunity is not absolute but only functional (Ratione materiae) and only covers their duties. UN staff members’ immunity does not extent outside this scope.

      On your second point, you are also right to point out that the powers of the OIOS are stickily limited to UN personnel and not diplomat. Its mandate is very clear on that issue. Its missions are to assist the Secretary-General “in fulfilling his internal oversight responsibilities [only] in respect of the resources and staff of the Organization”.

      Finally, regarding the distinction between, ‘staff members’ and ‘officials’, there are a lot of different status applicable to UN personnel (consultant, individual contractors, professional officers, UNV, directors…) amongst all these categories, all of them are not considered ‘UN officials’. Generally speaking, ‘staff members’ are UN personnel falling under the UN Staff Regulations and Staff Rules and ‘officials’ are people to which the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations applies. A person can be both staff member and official.

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