The U.N. is riddled with massive corruption

The 500-page report painted an ugly tableau of bribery, kickbacks, corruption, and fraud on a global scale.

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United Nations Flag [ Photo © stock.adobe ]

The United Nations (UN) was set up in 1945 as an international umbrella organisation with several objectives primarily including the prevention of war and maintaining peace in disputed areas. However, the UN has failed so many times across the world.

The United States has greatly responsible for weakening the U.N. financially, politically, and strategically. Because of this, it has become an impotent body, lacking in legitimacy, financially insecure, and doomed to go down the same path as its predecessor, the League of Nations.

The Oil-for-Food and Congo peacekeeping scandals have had a devastating impact on the U.N.’s reputation, reinforcing the view that the world body is riddled with corruption and mismanagement, as well as a complete lack of discipline in its peacekeeping operations. The spectacular failure of the hugely discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights (now the U.N. Human Rights Council), populated with some of the world’s worst human rights violators, has added to the U.N.’s poor image.

A great deal depends on the institutional and management reforms that must take place if the U.N. is to become an effective body and on the willingness of the Group of 77 (G-77) nations to support these changes. If these reforms are not implemented, if Uncle Sam’s forced interests are not abandoned, no reforms will take place in the U.N.  

There is also a popularly held view that the United States dominates the U.N. and that reform is merely an exercise in enhancing American power.

The history of the United Nations over the past several decades has been dominated by scandal, division, and failure. From the disaster of the U.N. peace­keeping missions in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s to the U.N.’s slow response to the Sudan genocide, the U.N.’s recent track record has been spectacularly unimpressive. The tenure of Kofi Annan, which began in January 1997 and ends in December 2006, has been one of the least successful of any Secretary-General. His successor will inherit a largely poisoned chalice, a U.N. whose image has slipped to an all-time low.

The U.N.’s failure has been multifaceted and cannot be ascribed to one single cause. It is partly a failure of leadership, combined with poor management, discipline, and widespread inefficiency, as well as a deep-seated culture of corruption. It is also due to a lack of moral clarity on the international stage an unwillingness to confront acts of genocide or totalitarian regimes, coupled with a ready willingness to accommodate tyrants and dictators. It has led to a loss of faith in the U.N.’s ability to stand up even for its own Universal Charter of Human Rights, or protect the world’s most vulnerable people, including victims of ethnic cleansing and refugees seeking protection under the U.N.’s flag.

It is a world body that is increasingly ill-equipped for the demands of the 22nd century and working its way towards irrelevance unless it undergoes a transformation. The U.N. today is best described as a sickly patient awaiting a blood transfusion.

Human Rights Failures. The United Nations has let down millions of the world’s weakest and most vulnerable people in Africa and the Balkans. The U.N.’s failure to prevent the slaughter of thousands of Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 and the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 are shameful episodes that will haunt the United Nations for generations.

There are echoes today of Bosnia and Rwanda in the killing fields of Darfur in the Sudan, a tragedy that the U.N. initially refused to categorize as genocide. Over 200,000 people have lost their lives, many of them at the hands of the Janjaweed militias, backed by the Sudanese government. Sudan, a country with an appalling human rights track record, was an active member of the now-defunct U.N. Commission on Human Rights from 2002 to 2005. It used its membership to help block censure from the United Nations. Zimbabwe, another African country with a horrific record of abusing the rights of its citizens, sat on the council from 2003 to 2005.

The council’s lack of membership criteria renders it open to participation and manipulation by the world’s worst human rights abusers. Tyrannical regimes such as Burma, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Zimbabwe all voted in favour of establishing the council in the face of strong U.S. opposition. The North Korean dictatorship also gave the council its ringing endorsement. When council elections were held in May, leading human rights abusers Algeria, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia were all elected.

Founded after the Second World War, UNESCO was established “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world.” But UNESCO has had a controversial history.

The Congo Peacekeeping Scandal. The U.N.’s human rights failure has been compounded by a series of peacekeeping scandals, from Bosnia to Burundi to Sierra Leone. By far the worst instances of abuse have taken place in the Congo, the U.N.’s second largest peacekeeping mission, with 16,000 peacekeepers.

In the Congo, acts of barbarism have been perpetrated by United Nations peacekeepers and civilian personnel entrusted with protecting some of the weakest and most vulnerable women and children in the world. Personnel from the U.N. Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) stand accused of at least 150 major human rights violations. This is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg: The scale of the problem is likely to be far greater.

The crimes involve rape and forced prostitution of women and young girls across the country, including inside a refugee camp in the town of Bunia in north­eastern Congo. The alleged perpetrators include U.N. military and civilian personnel from Nepal, Morocco, Tunisia, Uruguay, South Africa, Pakistan, and France. The victims are defenseless refugees – many of them children who have already been brutalized and terrorized by years of war and who looked to the U.N. for safety and protection.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged that “acts of gross misconduct have taken place.” A draft United Nations report described sexual exploitation by U.N. personnel in the Congo as “significant, widespread and ongoing.” In the words of William Lacy Swing, Annan’s special representative to the Congo, “We are shocked by it, we’re out­raged, we’re sickened by it. Peacekeepers who have been sworn to assist those in need, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, instead have caused grievous harm.”

The sexual abuse scandal in the Congo makes a mockery of the U.N.’s professed commitment to upholding basic human rights. U.N. peacekeepers and the civilian personnel who work with them should be symbols of the international community’s commitment to protecting the weak and innocent in times of war. The exploitation of some of the most vulnerable people in the world-refugees in a war-ravaged country is a shameful episode and a massive betrayal of trust.

Corruption: The scandal surrounding the U.N.-administered Oil-for-Food Program has also done immense damage to the world organization’s already shaky credibility. The Oil-for-Food scandal is undoubtedly the biggest scandal in the history of the United Nations and probably the largest financial fraud in modern times. It has shattered the illusion that the U.N. is the arbiter of moral authority in the international sphere.

Set up in the mid-1990s as a means of providing humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people, the U.N.-run Oil-for-Food Program was subverted and manipulated by Saddam Hussein’s regime, allegedly with the complicity of U.N. officials, to help prop up the Iraqi dictator. Saddam’s dictatorship was able to siphon off billions of dollars from the program through oil smuggling and systematic thievery, by demanding illegal payments from companies buying Iraqi oil, and through kickbacks from those selling goods to Iraq – all under the noses of U.N. bureaucrats.

In addition, the 18-month, US$34 million U.N.-appointed Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) documented a huge amount of evidence regarding manipulation of the US$60 billion program by the Saddam Hussein regime with the complicity of more than 2,200 companies in 66 countries as well as a number of prominent international politicians. The three-member committee was chaired by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. The other two committee members were South African Justice Richard Goldstone and Swiss professor of criminal law Mark Pieth.

The 500-page report painted an ugly tableau of bribery, kickbacks, corruption, and fraud on a global scale. It amply demonstrates how the Iraqi dictator generously rewarded those who supported the lifting of U.N. sanctions on Iraq and who paid lip service to his barbaric regime. Oil-for-Food became a shameless political charade through which Saddam Hussein attempted to manipulate decision making at the U.N. Security Council by buying the support of influential figures in countries such as Russia and France.

In future years, the Secretary-General should not be permitted to hand-pick the investigative committee inquiring into a U.N. scandal and then pass it off as “independent.” Such inquiries will always be open to the possibility of political interference and manipulation by those being investigated.

Founded in 1945 with lofty ambitions to advance peace, prosperity, and security in the world, the United Nations can point to few significant achievements. Its two finest hours-the defense of South Korea in the Korean War and the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq-were both American and British led operations that frankly would have taken place even if the United Nations did not exist. Still then, because of the United States interests, the U.N. is little more than an emperor with no clothes.

Anwar A. Khan

Anwar A. Khan is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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