THE VOLCKER Commission’s revelations of widespread corruption in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program with Iraq have set off another round of reform at the world body. It’s happened dozens of times.
A 1993 General Assembly reform resolution cited 15 previous attempts, dating from 1946, to overhaul the organization. A year later, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., exulted in the success of an “enormous diplomatic effort” to secure a standing internal watchdog office. The mission of this Office of Internal Oversight Services, explained Albright, was “to crack down on waste, fraud and abuse.” In 1994, the oil-for-food program began.
Since Kofi Annan became U.N. secretary-general in 1997, reforms have come so fast that no one has been able to keep up with them all, not even Annan. A 2004 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 60% of the 88 reforms authorized by Annan in 1997 had been implemented, compared with 38% of the 66 reforms he initiated in 2002. The researchers lamented that no one at U.N. headquarters carried out systematic “assessments of the status and impact of reforms.”
The effect of all these reforms is not hard to assess: The U.N. still doesn’t function well. The oil-for-food scandal is not the only evidence.
A 2001 report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Save the Children fund charged that U.N. personnel in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone used their positions to elicit sexual favors from children, primarily adolescent girls. The usual denials, regrets and promises of tighter procedures followed, but three years later, U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo were charged with similar misbehavior. The Office of Internal Oversight Services investigated and found sexual exploitation and abuse of local women and girls. It concluded the problem was “serious and ongoing. Equally disturbing was the lack of a protection and deterrence program.”
Then there was the strange case of former High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. In 2004, a member of his staff complained that Lubbers had lewdly manhandled her. After interviewing staff members and two witnesses, U.N. investigators said the woman’s story was true. They also found four other woman willing to testify about their accusations of sexual improprieties by Lubbers. The commissioner protested that he was just a “physical” and “friendly” person.
The Office of Internal Oversight included these accusations and the fact that Lubbers had tried to influence its investigation in a report to Annan. But the secretary-general declared “the complaint against Mr. Lubbers cannot be sustained.” He cited no facts other than the abundantly damning ones in the report, which he kept secret.
Unfortunately for the high commissioner, the oil-for-food scandal broke a few months later, and as it began to touch people close to Annan, a copy of the Lubbers report found its way into a British newspaper. Annan summoned Lubbers and forced him to quit. The message was clear: U.N. officials were not to take liberties with female subordinates as long as the secretary-general was in hot water.
All of these cases grow out of an inbred, cosseted (by diplomatic immunity) and opaque U.N. bureaucracy. Jobs are filled by nationality, not merit. The remedy for U.N. misfeasance is transparency and accountability, but it is difficult to see how the world body will ever achieve these. In a democratic polity, they are hard-won goals. Their realization depends less on formal rules than on the self-interest of opposition parties to search out and reveal incumbent misbehavior.
But there is no opposition in the United Nations. The system is based on diplomatic give-and-take, which rewards indifference rather than integrity. Perhaps the most scandalous thing in Volcker’s five reports was that Saddam Hussein’s abuse of the oil-for-food program was well known by member states of the Security Council as well as the staff of the U.N. secretariat. But no one blew the whistle.
This mutual back-scratching leads not only to petty villainy and abuses of power, it also compromises the U.N.'s most sacred goals -- the advancement of human rights, for one. Members of the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights have included the world’s most repressive regimes, and -- no surprise -- it rarely has criticized any of them. How is it that China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Sudan get elected to this body? The answer: vote trading. And it is doubtful the results will be any different when a smaller human rights council replaces the commission, the latest reform aimed at ending this disgrace.
Governments tend to be cynical; a club of 191 of them is bound to be utterly cynical. The oil-for-food scandal will stimulate a new round of reform. But the U.N. that will emerge is unlikely to escape corruption and hypocrisy or, more important, be faithful to its founding purposes.