Accuracy in Media

The United Nations has launched another effort at “reform,” designed to convince the American taxpayers that things are changing for the better at an institution known for corrupt practices.  The public face of this effort is an American, Christopher Burnham, the new U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Management, who recently spoke to the Heritage Foundation about affirming “the highest ethical standards” at the world body and making sure the world body is more open and accountable. Unfortunately for him, he agreed to take questions, one of which―about the U.N. Secretary-General getting a $500,000 personal gift from a foreign government―he didn’t want to answer. His other answers indicate that it’s mostly business as usual at the U.N.

Burnham said, during the question-and-answer period, that he didn’t know how much reform would cost because “There has not been a PBI, a budget implication document, produced yet.” He added, “So I would not use any figure right now as an absolute figure for what these reforms are going to cost.” Yet U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has put the cost at $510 million. That includes paying some employees to leave the U.N. through $100,000 per person “buyouts.”

Burnham described these employees as “no longer contributing to the United Nations” but still on the payroll. He said they “lack the passion” for the U.N. mission and “are marking time in the parade of life waiting for retirement to roll around.” He didn’t explain why they just couldn’t be fired or why the buyouts couldn’t be lower. Through the buyouts, he indicated, the U.N. would “help you reach that point where you can go into those golden years.” They are golden in more ways than one. These staffers would presumably still be able to receive pensions from the U.N. pension fund, which has assets of $29 billion. It’s a nice parade, if you can get a ticket.

So in order to get some better employees, the U.S. taxpayers are being asked to pay for the bad ones to leave. But where will the new ones come from? Burnham did not effectively dispute the notion, offered by a member of the audience, that new employees will be nominated by the same old governments which nominated the old ones.

Burnham, who has a very impressive background in financial affairs, said the U.N. needs $200 million worth of new computer software, in order to make the organization more open and transparent. But he didn’t know if that cost was part of the $510 million or not. So the cost of U.N. reform could go higher than $510 million. Burnham said the $510 million figure shouldn’t be etched into marble just yet. They use marble, not stone, at the U.N.

Burnham highlighted the new financial-disclosure policy, saying financial-disclosure forms will be “far more expanded and meaningful.” He said the financial-disclosure form to be filed by various U.N. officials “is stronger than the one we have in the federal government we have in Washington, D.C.”

But he admitted during the question period that the forms will NOT be available to the public. By contrast, federal financial-disclosure forms by high-ranking officials, including members of the executive and legislative branches and Supreme Court Justices, are disclosed publicly.

Insisting the secrecy is necessary for security reasons, because some U.N. employees are refugees from despotic regimes, he said he came into contact with some Iraqi doctors working for the U.N.‘s World Health Organization in Jordan during the time of the Saddam Hussein regime who could not go back to Iraq because they might be killed. Burnham said if these people had to release their disclosure forms and they were posted on the World Wide Web, Saddam’s intelligence services could have looked at them. “This is an inter-governmental international organization and you can’t have what you would expect here in the United States and perhaps other governments to do that,” he said.

That was a passionate plea, but he didn’t explain why disclosing possible financial conflicts-of-interest involving the U.N. might jeopardize someone’s life. If there are some U.N. employees who legitimately fear the disclosure of personal financial information, because it could somehow threaten their lives, why can’t those cases be dealt with as exceptions to the rule of making it public? An official in the audience countered that the Iraqi doctors were not of a high-enough level at the U.N. to have been required to file the forms anyway. But when he asked why financial-disclosure forms of higher-ranking U.N. officials should not be made available to the public, Burnham was adamant, saying that “we can’t have two different levels” or a “two-tiered system.” Burnham said the U.N. would have an outside entity, perhaps a law firm, review the forms. Of course, this process won’t be open to the public.   

On the matter of financial disclosure, the U.N. says that “Under the new financial disclosure system, the value of gifts that UN officials will be required to report will drop from $10,000 to $250, and financial disclosure forms will be required from a far broader spectrum of officials than the current range of assistant secretary-general and up.”

Can you imagine a system under which officials could receive gifts worth $10,000? That was the state of affairs at the U.N., and it’s supposed to be a great step forward to lower this to $250. If you didn’t know the figure was this high to begin with, that’s probably because the pro-U.N. press corps didn’t find it newsworthy. But Kofi Annan received a gift worth $500,000, and Burnham said that he would have nothing to say about it. Claudia Rosett disclosed the gift, a $500,000 environmental award from Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin-Rashid al-Maktoum, in a February 27 “Cash-for-Kofi” article in The Weekly Standard.

“I won’t comment on the gift to the Secretary-General,” Burnham said at the Heritage event. But why? How is a no-comment consistent with being more open and accountable? Burnham made the point that he is now an international civil servant, which helps to explain his no-comment and why he was so gung-ho about Annan’s “bold” U.N. reform plan. He used to work for the U.S. State Department but now he works for the U.N. ―and Annan.

New York Sun reporter Benny Avni, who covers the world body, has explained how Annan managed to accept a $500,000 gift. He reports that, according to the U.N. charter, “staff rules do not apply to the secretary-general. So instead of leading by example, Mr. Annan is now half-a-million dollars richer. And if Dubai does anything wrong around the world, he will wisely refrain from criticizing it.”

Such a “gift” demonstrates that perceived corruption is still a problem at the world body, and Burnham’s no-comment suggests he has no ability or intention to get to the bottom of it. If his performance at the Heritage Foundation is any indication, reform of the U.N. is shaping up as a very expensive fraud.

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