UNreformable: An Insider's Rebuke

The world body continues to be tasked with vital mandates, such as the mission in Lebanon, that it is not fit to achieve, spurring false hopes and squandering human lives and financial resources.


With a precarious cease-fire holding, the international community has anointed the United Nations as guardian of peace in Lebanon. Indeed, what other body could be tasked with such a dangerous, ambitious undertaking? Of course, pivotal components remain unresolved: from whence, for example, will the blue-helmeted soldiers come? That question reflects general difficulties with UN peacekeeping missions but it doesn't identify the main problem with the UN mandate in Lebanon. More to the point, is the United Nations institutionally up to the job? As a 20-year veteran of the institution and witness to flagrant corruption and chronic incompetence, the short answer is: don't count on it.

The corruption that beset the United Nations during my tenure from 1973 to 1996 (including the awarding of contracts with no competitive bidding whatsoever) was never followed up by any corrective action or accountability. The incompetence, at a cost tens of thousands of dollars per mistake, also took place without a reckoning. My experience was not unique and I often hear of wrongdoing from my colleagues who remain at the United Nations and are appalled at the ongoing negligence. It is an organization benefiting from the goodwill of a handful of people, forced to operate in a kind bureaucratic netherworld lacking basic barometers for bad behavior.

Meanwhile, exposés of UN transgressions tend to be pugnaciously exploited by those opposed to the UN role, while those that cheer the legitimacy of the United Nations have little appetite for an airing of its frailties. There are few constituents, therefore, for the nuts and bolts of UN reform or media outlets for unflinching, yet not gratuitously malicious, critiques of the organization.

It's the Secretariat, stupid

Between 1992 and 2003, 14 successive reform agendas, goals, working groups, reports and non-papers all identified shortcomings in the functioning of the organization. None ever came close to even a modicum of implementation. Furthermore, reform proposals aimed altering the makeup of the Security Council are poorly focused. Reform must start with the UN execution arm, the Secretariat.

The shortcomings of the Secretariat have become more glaring of late because it has been tasked with more missions. During its first 45 years the organization was constrained by the Cold War. With a General Assembly whose resolutions were not binding and a Security Council immobilized by the right of veto, UN decision-making bodies were reduced to the role of forum and the workload on the Secretariat stayed correspondingly light. With the end of the Cold War, mutilateral endorsement of military intervention by the decision-making bodies of the United Nations, as demonstrated by the first Gulf War, resulted in a massive increase of Secretariat's workload. It did not rise to the challenge.

Iraq has been the ultimate demonstration of the Secretariat's incompetence. There was nothing wrong with the Oil for Food program as the decision-making United Nations had conceived it. There was everything wrong in the way it was implemented by the Secretariat.

Then, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Security Council on May 22, 2003 adopted Resolution 1483 which provided for a UN return to Iraq. On August 19, a major car bomb attack ravaged the UN headquarters in Baghdad and exposed a UN operation that had been ill conceived, ill planned, and ill managed. Again the responsibility rested squarely with the Secretariat.

A report by former Finnish President Matti Ahtisaarii damningly indicted not only the UN approach to security in Baghdad but also the way Secretary General Kofi Annan ran his shop, identifying the Secretariat's major shortcomings on internal coordination, threat assessments, accountability and discipline. Annan then commissioned a second report to assign blame, conveniently assigning the job to a retired, Austrian UN staff member of no standing. The report, which was never fully released, absolved Annan of all responsibility and placed blame on a few underlings. Subsequent lapses involving issues such as sexual harassment and graft by UN staff were confronted with such signature laxity.

Clearly, there is a glaring need for a complete overhaul of the Secretariat. For starters, the Secretariat's 14 units must be done away with and, in their stead, four deputy Secretary Generals should be established, one for operations (including current peace keeping and humanitarian affairs) one for political affairs, one for administration, (personnel, finance and auditing) and one for conference services.

And the organization needs independent watchdog offices. An Oversight and Monitoring Office, staffed by personnel with no previous UN affiliation, would operate as regulator of the Secretariat and would have unrestricted access to all personnel, administrative and financial information. It would have oversight of those issues that have so glaringly beset the organization: claims of corruption, allegations of sexual harassment and security lapses. It, and not the Secretariat, would also decide disciplinary measures. Another body, an Ethics, Good Governance and Best Practices Office, would scrutinize and potentially contest decisions or nominations displaying cronyism.