Turtle Bay

Blistering insider memo describes U.N. chief’s actions as ‘seriously reprehensible’

The outgoing chief of the U.N.’s anti-corruption investigations division, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, issued a stinging rebuke of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, charging her former boss with undermining her efforts to combat corruption and leading the global institution into an era of decline, according to a highly confidential end-of-assignment report obtained by Turtle Bay. The memo by ...

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

The outgoing chief of the U.N.’s anti-corruption investigations division, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, issued a stinging rebuke of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, charging her former boss with undermining her efforts to combat corruption and leading the global institution into an era of decline, according to a highly confidential end-of-assignment report obtained by Turtle Bay.

The memo by Ahlenius, a Swedish auditor who stepped down Friday after serving five years as under secretary general of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), represents an extraordinary personal attack on Ban from within his own inner circle, calling his actions “not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible.” It also challenges Ban’s studiously cultivated image as a champion of accountability, a leader who committed himself in his first days in office to restoring the organization’s reputation after it was sullied by revelations of corruption in the U.N.-run Iraq Oil-for-Food program.

Ahlenius claims that Ban and his top advisors systematically sought to undercut the independence of her office, initially by trying to set up a competing investigations unit under Ban’s control and then by thwarting her efforts to hire her own staff. “Your actions are not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible. No UN Secretary General before you has questioned the authority delegated to the [under secretary general of OIOS] to appoint the staff in OIOS. Your action is without precedent and in my opinion seriously embarrassing for yourself,” Ahlenius wrote in her 50-page memo to Ban. “I regret to say that the [U.N.] secretariat now is in a process of decay … The secretariat is drifting, to use the words of one of my senior colleagues. It is drifting into irrelevance.”

Ban’s top advisors countered that Ahlenius’s memo provided a deeply unbalanced account of their differences over the best way to confront corruption, and that her criticism of Ban’s stewardship of the United Nations was patently unfair. “This secretary general, like his predecessors, has had to strike a balance between acting as a chief administrative officer of the United Nations on the one hand, and providing truly global leadership on the other,” wrote Ban’s chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, in a response to Turtle Bay‘s questions about the Ahlenius memo. “A look at his record shows that Secretary General Ban has provided genuine visionary leadership on important issues from climate change to development to women’s empowerment.

“He has promoted the cause of gender balance in general as well as within the organization. He has led from the front on important political issues from Gaza to Haiti to Sudan. And today, he is in Afghanistan.”

The departure of Ahlenius coincides with a period of crisis within the U.N.’s internal investigations division. During the past two years, the U.N. has shed some of its top investigators, including most members of an elite white-collar anti-corruption unit, the Procurement Task Force, which conducted some of the U.N.’s most aggressive corruption investigations before being eliminated in 2009.

The U.N. has failed to fill dozens of vacancies, including the chief of the U.N.’s investigations division, which has been vacant since 2006, leaving a void in the U.N.’s ability to police itself, according to U.N. diplomats. Some U.N. diplomats say that both sides in the dispute share some blame for exhibiting intransigence in reaching a compromise while the U.N.’s ability to police itself suffered.

“The United States has consistently and aggressively pushed for a strong and independent Office of Internal Oversight Services to uncover fraud, waste and mismanagement at the U.N., but we are disappointed with the recent performance of its investigations division,” said Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. “The coming change in OIOS leadership is an opportunity to bring about a significant improvement in its performance to increase oversight and transparency throughout the organization.”

The U.N. General Assembly established the Office of Internal Oversight Services in 1994 to conduct management audits of the U.N.’s main departments and to conduct investigations into corruption and misconduct. The founding resolution granted the office “operational independence” but placed it under the authority of the secretary-general and made it dependent on the U.N. departments it policed for much of its funding and administrative support.

The dispute between Ahlenius and Ban has underscored some underlying tension and ambiguity embedded in OIOS’s original mandate and exposed a protracted and acrimonious struggle for power over the course of U.N. investigations.

Ahlenius charged that Ban and his top aides have improperly sought to undermine her independence and wrest control of the U.N. investigations apparatus during her years in office. One of Ban’s closest aides, Kim Wonsoo, began pressing for the creation of a new internal investigation unit that would answer directly to the U.N. secretariat, a move she fruitlessly protested as an encroachment on her turf. “Mr. Kim requested a meeting with me to discuss the issue of investigation,” she said. “I recall it as a very unpleasant meeting and where Mr. Kim clearly stated that the investigations should come under the authority of the secretary-general.”

Ban’s initiative, which generated opposition from governments, never got off the ground. But Ahlenius claims that Ban’s top advisors — many of whom are subject to her office’s investigations — sought to interfere with her work in other ways.

In 2008, Ban’s Senior Review Group, which oversees U.N. staffing, blocked Ahlenius’s attempt to hire a former federal prosecutor, Robert Appleton, who headed the U.N. Procurement Task Force, a white-collar crime unit that from 2006 until 2009 carried out a series of highly aggressive investigations into corruption in U.N. peacekeeping missions. The unit’s investigation led to an unprecedented number of misconduct findings by U.N. officials, and prompted a series of federal U.S. probes into corruption.

Ahlenius writes that she advertised the job in 2008, attracting 73 candidates, including Appleton and three other male American nationals who made the shortlist. Ahlenius selected Appleton for the job after an outside panel that she assembled unanimously endorsed his candidacy.

But Ban’s Senior Review Group blocked the appointment on the grounds that Ahlenius had not followed the U.N.’s hiring procedures, which require that the shortlist should include a female candidate and representatives from a broader range of countries.

Ahlenius re-advertised the post the following year, attracting 69 candidates, including Appleton, two women, and a fourth candidate who made the shortlist. Ahlenius again recommended Appleton for the job. Again, the U.N.’s top managers blocked the appointment, and urged that Ahlenius consider four other candidates for the position, including a retired U.N. official and two others who lacked the required legal degrees, according to Ahlenius.

Catherine Pollard, the U.N.’s chief personnel official, pressed senior management’s case, according to Ahlenius. “She suggested that there was no policy preventing the organization from rehiring retired staff,” Ahlenius wrote. “She again mentioned two suitable candidates rejected by OIOS because they lacked the required advanced degree. She then suggested that OIOS should have a more ‘flexible approach’ as to academic requirements. She suggested that the internal candidate should also be considered.” Ahlenius’s persistence infuriated Ban. In a Feb. 14 email, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro noted Ban’s “displeasure to the manner in which his authority was being unduly questioned.”

“It seems to me that you fail to see the value and critical importance for your own position to be supported by an operationally independent oversight body,” Ahlenius wrote to Ban. “But rather you strive to control the function and to suppress it … You seem to rather regard its existence as problematic, our reports as detrimental to your reputation rather than to deal with them with resolve and to act in the spirit of your own rhetoric of accountability.”

Top U.N. officials said that Ahlenius had unfairly attributed what were fundamental differences of opinion over the role of internal investigations to a conspiratorial maneuver designed to undermine her authority. They asserted that Ahlenius, in fact, had exceeded her authority by insisting that she alone had the last word in hiring her staff.

“The Secretary General fully recognizes the operational independence of OIOS,” Nambiar wrote. “However, it is important to note that such independence relates only to the performance by OIOS of its oversight functions as clearly set out in its founding resolution. It does not, however, excuse OIOS from the application of the UN Staff Regulations and Rules and other policies and practices applicable to recruitment, which apply uniformly to all offices of the United Nations.”

Ban’s proposal to create a new investigation unit was designed to reinforce the U.N.’s capacity to combat corruption within the U.N.’s own ranks, not to undercut Ahlenius, according to Nambiar. The proposal, he said, was first floated by the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs under Kofi Annan, a sharp critic of OIOS’s investigations division.

“There were legitimate reasons why OLA suggested it would be a good idea to have a separate investigations division,” Nambiar said in an interview. “We needed to address the larger issue of wrongdoing inside the organization. There was an attempt to see if we could in fact increase the visibility, salience, and effectiveness of investigations.”

“There is a certain intellectual dishonesty in her case; everyone who disagrees with her must have a petty agenda,” Nambiar added. “She is unwilling to accept that the other side might be speaking from a point of principle, even though she doesn’t agree.”

Please follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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