Gulf Money Makes U.N. Revolving Door Spin

The world body has been hit with a series of damaging revelations about the enrichment of top officials by foreign businessmen and governments. What’s the U.N. doing about it? Not much.

United Nations envoy Bernardino Leon speaks during a press conference on October 21, 2015 in Tunis. Leon insisted that efforts to clinch a political deal to end rampant insecurity in Libya will carry on although several parties have rejected his proposals. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID        (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations envoy Bernardino Leon speaks during a press conference on October 21, 2015 in Tunis. Leon insisted that efforts to clinch a political deal to end rampant insecurity in Libya will carry on although several parties have rejected his proposals. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)


This story has been updated.

Back in the summer of 2015, the U.N.’s mediator in Libya, Bernardino León, was struggling to cajole Libya’s fractious militias into a unified government capable of reversing the North African country’s descent into chaos. But he was also taking time out of his busy schedule to plan his own future, weighing an offer of more than $50,000 per month to head up a newly established diplomatic academy in the United Arab Emirates.

León ultimately took the post, and the revelation of his job search — detailed in a series of leaked emails obtained by the Guardian — raised concerns among U.N. diplomats and observers that the world body’s revolving door system had gotten out of hand. But in the week following the disclosure, senior U.N. leaders have shown little interest in determining whether the former Spanish deputy foreign minister acted improperly and instead have given the appearance of trying to simply put the embarrassing episode behind them.

Critics point out that León wasn’t simply looking for a job, something any retiring public official would try to do. Instead, he was discussing a lucrative post funded by a government playing an active role in the conflict he was trying to resolve. The UAE reportedly supported airstrikes against Libya’s Islamist factions last year, and it has been a key behind-the-scenes player in the diplomatic maneuvering aimed at cinching a government of national unity.

U.N. officials and Security Council diplomats privately acknowledged that León’s job search has done damage to the world body’s credibility. Libya’s New General National Congress, an unelected political body which includes a coalition of Libyan Islamists, appealed in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an investigation into León’s relationship with the UAE, saying the U.N. envoy’s impartiality had been compromised.

Even León acknowledged that the optics looked pretty bad.

“Here I am to say, very humbly, maybe I could have done things differently,” the veteran Spanish diplomat told reporters at U.N. headquarters last week following his final briefing to the U.N. Security Council. “Look, the appearances are not good, which I can accept.”

The episode dealt another body blow to the U.N.’s reputation just weeks after a former U.N. General Assembly president, John Ashe, was arrested and accused by federal prosecutors of taking more than $1.3 million in bribes from a billionaire Chinese real estate developer and other Chinese business executives. Ashe has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

A contrite León, however, appealed to reporters to judge him on the basis of an agreement he has been hammering out over the past year to end the fighting in Libya. He denied that he had shown favoritism toward Emirati officials or any of the warring Libyan parties, and said that he had been fully open with the U.N. about his intentions to find a job before his one-year contract expired. “I have always followed the rules,” he said.

The problem is that the U.N. has virtually no rules that prevent a senior envoy from trading in his or her diplomatic work for a better payday in the private sector or a higher government posting elsewhere.

U.N. civil servants are supposed to abide by the International Civil Service Commission’s “Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service.” Those standards, which were updated in 2013, encourage U.N. officials not to “take improper advantage of their former official functions and positions.” But they allow officials to seek jobs outside the U.N. while still employed by the world body as long as they inform its senior leadership. A separate 2012 U.N. guide to effective mediation does urge U.N. officials like León to ”not accept conditions for support from external actors that would affect the impartiality of the process.”

Under the current rules, the U.N. has the authority to conduct investigations into wrongdoing by U.N. staff, including senior officials and envoys. The U.N. used that power to pressure Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister who served as U.N. high commissioner for refugees, to resign from his job following findings by internal U.N. investigators that he had sexually harassed several female employees.

But the authority is rarely exercised, and Lubbers is one of the few senior officials ever pushed out of the United Nations for such misdeeds.

In fact, high-level posts at the U.N. can often serve as a stepping stone to corporate consulting jobs or higher political office.

Danilo Turk, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, left the world body and subsequently was elected president of Slovenia; he’s now vying to succeed Ban as secretary-general. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet headed up the U.N. agency for women before leaving her post in March 2013 and waiting for a chance to run for reelection; she won that race in December 2013. And on Monday, Ban congratulated Amina J. Mohammed, one of his special advisors on sustainable development, after she was named as a cabinet official in Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.

The U.N. did seek to rein in the most flagrant of its revolving door practices following revelations of large-scale corruption in the $64 billion oil-for-food program, which permitted the government of Saddam Hussein to use his country’s oil wealth to purchase essential goods under U.N. supervision. In December 2006, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a directive barring U.N. procurement officials from “seeking or accepting employment” from any U.N. contractor for up to one year. But this so-called “cooling off” policy doesn’t apply to the U.N.’s most senior officials, including mediators and peacemakers who take on their assignments for a limited period. Besides, the U.N. lacks the power to enforce the ban on U.N. officials after they have left the organization.

The founders of the United Nations had sought to discourage the body’s top official from converting his or her job into a political role back home. In 1946, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution stating: “Because a Secretary-General is a confident of many governments, it is desirable that no Member should offer him, at any rate immediately on retirement, any governmental position in which his confidential information might be a source of embarrassment to other Members, and on his part a Secretary-General should refrain from accepting any such position.”

That didn’t dissuade former U.N. secretaries-general from participating in political contests following their retirement. Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim served as U.N. secretary-general until the end of 1981 and then ran for the presidency of Austria, which he won in 1986. His successor, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, ran an unsuccessful campaign for Peru’s presidency in 1995, more than three years after he retired from the U.N.’s top job.

Asked whether that rule would impede the current U.N. leader from seeking the presidency in his native South Korea after his second and final term expires at the end of December 2016, Ban’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said: “As you know, the secretary-general has made it clear that his only focus is his work as secretary general. He has always abided and been guided by the highest ethical standards. He is, of course, fully aware of the General Assembly resolution from 1946.”

For more than a year, Ban has tried to fend off persistent rumors of a future career in elected politics. The South Korean political class and press have largely chosen to ignore his denials, and Ban routinely finishes well-ahead of the pack among hopefuls for the country’s December 2017 presidential election.

In September, Ban stirred a fresh round of speculation by hiking the revered Chinese mountain of Taishan, a sacred site frequented by ancient Chinese emperors, and apparently modern South Korean presidential aspirants, to receive heavenly blessings for their bids to rule.

In the León case, Dujarric issued a gentle reminder last week on behalf of the secretary-general that senior officials, including Ban’s special envoys, should abide by “the highest ethical standards” and not permit “any further search for employment to influence their impartiality.” But the U.N. brass also rallied behind León, saying that his “tireless” effort on behalf of a peace deal in Libya “speaks for itself.”

León, meanwhile, told reporters that after a long and exacting career as a Spanish, European Union, and U.N. envoy, he needed and deserved a highly compensated job that would place fewer demands on him. “I don’t have the money to survive for a long time, so I have to work somewhere,” he said. “I think I deserve a calmer job.”

Photo credit: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Nov. 12, 2015: Bernardino León was previously Spain’s secretary of state for foreign affairs, a position equivalent to deputy foreign minister. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified him as a former Spanish foreign minister.

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

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