UN Circles Wagons Against Charges it Thwarts Investigations

07/23/2010 02:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The United Nations this week went on the offensive to refute a blistering report that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon deliberately crippled the agency in charge of investigations of his bureaucracy, preventing the hiring of qualified officials.

The report came from Inga-Britt Ahlenius, a Swedish auditor, who recently left her job as head of the investigative unit (known as the Office of Internal Oversight Services or OIOS) after her five-year term came to an end. The Washington Post's Colum Lynch leaked the contents and a covering memo after which the UN secretariat went into overdrive in an effort to refute it with two press conferences on Thursday alone.

"Your action is without precedent and in my opinion seriously embarrassing for yourself," she wrote. "I regret to say that the secretariat now is in a process of decay. I am sad that we are in the process of decline and reduced relevance of the organization. In short, we seem to be seen less and less as a relevant partner in the resolution of world problems."

"Mr. Secretary-General, I have expanded on this issue at some length, as I would like to
ensure that my successor, the incoming USG/OIOS, will not have to spend three years
defending OIOS mandate and the operational independence of the Office against the
Secretary-General himself; be it investigations or any of the other disciplines of the
Office, audit or evaluations."

The bottom line, however, is that crucial posts in the key investigative unit of her department were left vacant for three years. Ahlenius, whose cover memo to a 50-page report bordered on the vitriolic, apparently did not know how to circumvent the UN bureaucracy or lobby effectively within it. On the other side, there was little evidence that the Secretary General's staff was eager to see the unit functioning properly. (The full report was released on Friday by the Inter Press Service)

The United Nations has a history of not publicizing abuses until the press or an advocacy group unearths them or the perpetrator is handed over to national law enforcement officials. There are exceptions to this pattern and UN officials argue that confidentiality and due process are necessary.

Ahlenius had wanted a former US prosecutor, Robert Appleton, who had headed a successful UN procurement task force, to lead her investigations unit. That task force, created in 2006 was shut down in 2008 and folded into OIOS. Russia and Singapore, whose nationals had been investigated, were among countries who objected to the task force. Appleton was also seen by some as a US prosecutor who would do the bidding of the United States and the West, which found money for investigations but not enough for anti-poverty projects. But most of his work concerned American vendors.

But a senior UN official, who gave an off the record news conference, vigorously denied that any ambassador had interfered in the selection process. He said that UN managers were concerned that there were no female candidates on a short list, as UN rules demanded. In her report, Ahlenius said there were no qualified female candidates, although Lynch unearthed the names of some serious American women applicants.

Speaking by video link from London, Angela Kane, the undersecretary-general for the Department of Management, and Catherine Pollard, an assistant secretary-general for Human Resources, said there were numerous inaccuracies in Ahlenius' report.

"This is an end of assignment report. It is a personal opinion of one person," Kane said. "It is not correct to say the Secretary-General was attempting to set up another investigative capacity," she said in reference to another charge by Ahlenius." That is absolutely not correct. And I must respond to that in the strongest terms. He has been very supportive of OIOS and its investigative capacity."

Beware of Scandinavian Women
The criticisms recall those made last year by Norway's deputy UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who, in a leaked memo to her government, accused Ban of being "spineless," particularly in handling crises in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. "The Secretary-General was a powerless observer to thousands of civilians losing their lives and becoming displaced from their homes," Juul said.

So what does it mean for Ban Ki-moon, who took office in 2007? Like every secretary-general before him, he promised wide-spread reform in an organization where any one in his job has limited power to ferret out abuses and navigate micromanagement by member states. And he was precisely the man the Bush administration wanted, a leader without the public personality of his predecessor, Kofi Annan, but intelligent enough to function in the job.

These days, however, Ban is far more confident and articulate than he was in before his election on the stage of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2006, where he delivered a stumbling string of clichés in barely coherent English. He is known as a tireless worker, travels to nearly every country in the world and is passionate about climate change. A vacation is not in his vocabulary.

No doubt he will seek a second five-year term and, barring some unforeseen disaster, he will be elected.