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: Continue reading