I’m Not Mad, Just Disappointed: Failures of Transparency and Accountability at the UN

Readers of this blog will be well familiar with my attempts to protect the UN from scurrilous attacks and slander. It’s a sad truth that the United Nations is often beset by its critics as being a weak-willed and corrupt institution, overabundant in ways to erect roadblocks to progress and lacking in its oversight. Sometimes those critics, unfortunately, hit the nail on the head.

In the case of roadblocks, often the structure of the body is at fault, with Member States exploring ways to hinder inquiries and reports that reflect poorly on its interests. The most recent example is the delay in the release of the Group of Experts report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent weeks. The report is mandated by the Security Council as part of its sanctions regime against Kinshasaa and the a late-drafted annex to the latest deliverable points fingers at the Rwandan government for sowing insurrection in the DRC. The United States sought to hold off on the publication of the damning annex, first citing procedural reasons, then asking that the Rwandan government be able to review before release. Eventually, the US agreed to allow the document to be published in full, with the Rwandan government immediately issuing a statement of denial.

The Group of Experts report incident is less representative of the UN as organization, and more reflective of its role as collection of states. However poorly stonewalling in the Security Council of technical reports reflects on the body, though, it is still a political creature by nature. The Secretariat, on the other hand, has done little to help change the stereotype of an organization riddled with mismanagement. Indeed,  the lack of desire for transparency shown by the permanent staff at Turtle Bay seems absolute, even when the revelation of misdeeds serves its own interests.

A prime example of the latter comes in the UN’s incomprehensible handling of the situation surrounding peacekeepers assigned to Haiti. Following the accusation that Nepali blue helmets had inadvertently introduced cholera into earthquake-ravage Haiti, the UN managed to display precisely how not to handle a crisis. Despite evidence to the contrary, the United Nations refused to acknowledge its role in the spread of the disease, complicating efforts to treat the outbreak. Rather than stepping forward, accepting responsibility, and rotating out the Nepali contingency, the attempt to ward itself from criticize only provoked greater mistrust from the Haitians it was meant to protect.

The Haitian incident reflects the UN’s unease at responding in an accountable manner to external criticism. Even more unfortunate is its inability to handle internal criticism. After facing the fact that its Ethics Office is less than adept at handling cases of misdeeds by upper level staff, the General Assembly authorized the creation of the UN Dispute Tribunal in 2009, granting it binding authority to impose decisions even on top officials. The Secretariat has pushed back since its inception to attempt to weaken the body, but the Tribunal handed down its first decision recently, slamming the UN Ethics Office for its lack of protection in the case of whistleblowers.

This report from al-Jazeera provides more details on the case and its outcome:


On the one hand, I sympathize with those within the Secretariat who have to handle such cases on a regular basis. As indicated in the article, and detailed in former Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Marrack Goulding made clear in his memoir, there are often forces at work preventing the effective management of employees. Among those issues are the system by which states are provided as near ‘equitable geographical distribution’ in staffing opportunities as possible, resulting in a quota system that doesn’t effectively bring on the most qualified staffers. Also, the system by which complaints regarding worker efficiency are processed is often met with an uproar that dwarfs the same in various national governments with retaliatory accusations are the norm in this climate.

Despite that, the actions of the UN in failing to protect legitimate whistle-blowers are still inexcusable. And the culture surrounding this attitude goes straight to the top floor in UN HQ. The Secretary-General is known for his mild-mannered nature compared to his predecessor, his desires to push for greater unified efforts towards sustainable development and outreach to the citizens of the states that make up the UN, and his unimpressive joke-telling abilities. The Wasserstrom case, and his gutting of the minimal authority granted to the Ethics Office in 2007, shows another side of Ban, one that is more concerned with preserving the freedom of action of the Office of the Secretary-General than of true reform.

This is a clear case of scolding because I love. The UN is an institution that deserves far more appreciation than it gets, and owes the world a far better system than it presents. The need for greater reforms from top to bottom are apparent to anyone. Challenges faced by would-be reformers in any bureaucracy are daunting, not least due to entrenched mindsets and long-time benefactors of the current system. However, reform is indeed necessary, less the good continue to be obscured by the bad in the UN system. The Secretariat, and especially the Secretary-General, needs to recognize a crisis at home that it actually has the power to fix, one that affects its ability to fulfill its other missions and in turn hurts the globe writ large. It’s hard to convince the world that you’re a global force for good when you refuse to face up to your own flaws.

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