A bit of creative destruction might be just what the United Nations needs.
- By Matthew Russell LeeMatthew Russell Lee is executive director of Inner City Press.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once famously mused that the U.N. headquarters building in New York could lose 10 floors and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. While this could seem like a crazy plan, in some ways, it might not go far enough. In my time reporting on the United Nations, I’ve encountered an alarmingly high number of offices and positions that could simply be cut without anyone noticing or caring, and a few whose disappearance might actually improve things. With U.N. headquarters currently undergoing renovation, it’s worth considering a few.
Some U.N. employees are just taking up space. My publication, Inner City Press, has in recent months conducted a series of interviews with a U.N. staffer who has literally not done a single day of work for two years, but is still getting paid. The man lost his U.N. post to nepotism but lingers on the payroll, engaged in a Kafkaesque battle with the United Nations’ internal justice system.
And he’s not the only one. It’s not uncommon for senior U.N. positions to be created solely as favors to their holders or member states. Former head of peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guhenno was, without any formal announcement, stealthily named under secretary-general for regional cooperation. Found recently strolling First Avenue in a mink-collared coat, Guhenno acknowledged that the United Nations has yet to send him a single case or piece of work — despite pressing issues regarding the African Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (which has been conferring on Burma and North Korea’s missile launch), and NATO, whose upcoming military exercises in Georgia are described as triggering Russian military moves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Despite these issues, there is apparently no regional cooperation work for Guhenno.
Valuable space could also be saved by eliminating the offices devoted to the United Nations’ production of fake news about itself. The secretary-general has an Office of the Spokesperson, which issues statements generated by his advisors on the 38th floor. Fair enough — every large organization needs a spokesperson. But the United Nations, for some reason, has seen fit to supplement the spokesperson’s office with another U.N. entity — the U.N. News Center — a division of its Department of Public Information that takes the press statements and produces its own one-sided elaborations of them, not unlike the pseudo news produced by North Korea’s in-house news wire. For example, U.N. News’s coverage of the United Nations’ role in the botched December 2008 attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo omitted all of the concerns regarding peacekeepers’ negligence raised by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders. Likewise, this year U.N. News has mentioned the shelling death of an NGO worker in Sri Lanka without naming the governmental origin of the shells or reporting on the United Nations’ failure to gain — or even publicly seek — the release of U.N. staff from detention by the Sri Lankan government.
I have repeatedly asked U.N. officials why the United Nations produces potentially misleading coverage of itself. No answer to date has been convincing. Worse, some senior U.N. officials have developed the expectation that all press coverage should resemble the sycophantic question-and-answer charade conducted by U.N. News. Once when I interviewed and quoted then Office of Legal Affairs chief Nicolas Michel about why he accepted rent subsidies from the Swiss government while working for the United Nations, he later protested that it wasn’t how he wished to be covered. He did not dispute the veracity of the quote; he only protested that news coverage — even coverage of a violation of the U.N. Charter — should be more positive. At a minimum, the U.N. information staff producing propaganda should be redeployed to provide information that independent media actually request from the United Nations.
The organization could learn from Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs’s briefings, which dispense with the press release statements that his U.N. counterparts start with, and go straight to question-and-answer sessions. If a factual question cannot be answered at the briefing, the response is e-mailed later that day to the reporters who were there. At the United Nations, many questions simply go unanswered.
In the category of U.N. departments that don’t merely waste space, but actually make the world a worse place, consider the U.N. Global Compact housed in the annex on the other side of First Avenue. Set up by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the United Nations’ interface with private business, it has become a platform for agribusiness giant Monsanto to talk at a VIP luncheon about how it is solving the food crisis and for Microsoft’s ambassador to Africa — who just happens to be the brother of the United Nations’ caretaker special adviser on Africa — to meet with African heads of state.
Recently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed to the Global Compact’s board of directors a South Korean businessman, Chey Tae-won, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2003 for the fraud of inflating the profits of his SK Group, which he still runs, by $1.25 billion. Global Compact director Georg Kell told Inner City Press that Chey’s service on the board was fitting, as Chey has learned from his mistakes. The same, of course, could be said of Bernie Madoff. Ban’s spokesperson, when asked for Ban’s defense of Chey’s selection, said that Kell’s response was all there was to say.
This is far from the worst type of malfeasance that the United Nations routinely tolerates. It loudly claims to have zero tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation by its peacekeepers. But, just to take one example, when 111 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti in 2007 were accused of such abuse, they were merely sent back en masse to Sri Lanka. Therefore, the Ethics Office on the 30th floor, if it’s incapable of even basic levels of oversight, should also be closed or at least downsized. Better for the United Nations to be involved in fewer things but doing them well than to appear to be doing everything but in ways that have no substance.
Additional space and money can also be freed by rethinking some far-flung U.N. offices that are primarily a sop to donor states. In Japan, there is a Center for Regional Development in Nagoya that, like the U.N. Information Center in Tokyo, is plagued by financial irregularities. It remains a mystery to me what this center accomplishes. The same can be said of the Seoul-based U.N. Project Office on Governance.
If these are the parts of the United Nations that, in a more rational world, would get shuttered, there are also a couple of offices that should exist, but don’t. A year and a half after the Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti were returned to their home country, I asked both lead Haiti envoy Hdi Annabi and Ban’s spokesperson for any indication that disciplinary action was taken by Colombo. None has been forthcoming. An Office of Discipline — as opposed to the toothless Ethics Office — would ensure that for serious crimes such as rape, perpetrators wouldn’t escape just because they wear blue berets or helmets.
It would also be helpful to have an office for keeping track of casualties in ongoing conflicts. During the current surge of conflict in northern Sri Lanka, Ban’s spokesperson told Inner City Press that the United Nations is not in the business of doing body counts, but only of helping people. But what’s wrong with body counts? If the United Nations stands for civilians, it needs a more objective standard to determine the degree of concern member states should have over a given crisis. Number of human beings killed seems as good a method as any, and obtaining this information is exactly the sort of business the United Nations should be in.
It is also exactly the sort of thing that is likely to be ignored unless the United Nations can free up much-needed resources. However, under the organization’s current Capital Master Plan, the size of U.N. headquarters is not to be reduced. So the edifice will continue to loom over First Avenue taking up space, while the organization it houses grows increasingly irrelevant.