27 June 2016

The UN ‘Family’, its business and surname

Neil Buhne, the UN resident coordinator, we are told, has conveyed a message from UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon to the Government of Sri Lanka.  Ki-moon apparently has, ‘strong expectations for better treatment of the UN family in Sri Lanka’.  He desires, also, ‘progress on Sri Lanka’s commitments regarding the resettlement of IDPs, political reconciliation and accountability’. Thoughtful of him, I couldn’t help observing.
Looks multi-colored and lovely but scratch the UN skin and most of the colors disappear
The context is of course well known; Wimal Weerawansa’s theatrics prior to what might have been a notable and far more effective fast-unto-death exercise had he not blundered before.  UN officials certainly don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to moral posturing, but this doesn’t give license to play clown or vandal.  One doesn’t pick a pickpocket’s pocket and if one does and gets caught cannot really expect applause or even sympathy, even if it was one’s own pocket that was picked in the first place.

I feel however that Buhne’s wordage calls for comment, not to defend the indefensible, but to make it clear to Buhne and Ki-moon that we are not quite in the dark about UN doings.

He wants the UN family to be treated better.  In Colombo, he qualifies of course.  The word made me wonder what the larger UN family really was and what it’s been up to.  Is it made of the ‘member states’?  Is it just an aggregation of paid staff in all UN agencies? Those who work directly under the Secretary General?  The Security Council?  It is a one-man family called Barack Obama?  Is it a U-M and not UN, a ‘united mafia’?  Anyway, how happy is this happy family, or should we say instead ‘these happy families’ I wondered?  It looks like they have been having a bit of a ball; no, not the ‘Member States Family’, but that other clan of officials, consultants, experts, panelists, advisors etc. 

We are talking of big-time, major-league, mother-of-’em-all kinds of parties, folks.  If this family has a surname it has to be ‘Scandal’.  It’s been known for years that UN officials have been engaged in lots of fraudulent operations in countless countries.  It’s been about helping one another and helping friend, friend’s friend, cousin’s brother-in-law, third cousin twice removed, the classmate who wiped the knee when you slipped on a banana peel in third grade etc.  The odious stuff pertaining to bid-rigging, bribery and other abuses at U.N. headquarters and in peacekeeping missions abroad kept leaking and the stench was too much to ignore. Finally, a controlling/oversight body was set up to stem the rot. It was called the Procurement Task Force.  This unit revealed that contract fraud amounting to $630 million had been committed.  The ‘UN family’ decided not to renew funding for the Task Force, putting at risk 175 investigations that were yet to be completed. 
In the meantime, Ki-moon has stepped in firmly, it seems, to protect the ‘family’ by tripping the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) at every turn possible.
Inga-Britt Ahlenius eventually submitted a 50-page memo blasting the Secretary General for driving the UN (family) into irrelevance by his ‘deplorable, reprehensible, without-precedent and embarrassing’ actions. 

The ‘Family’, friends, has a well-earned reputation for mismanagement and is well known to be vulnerable to corruption and fraud.  The better known (meaning of course that we are seeing just the tip of the family-business iceberg) are the following:  a) The Iraqi Oil-for-Food scandal that Saddam Hussein used to generate over $10 billion in illegal revenue, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, b) a huge corruption scandal in which over 40 percent of U.N. procurement for peacekeeping was tainted by fraud, and c) the  widespread incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel in Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Guinea, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.

So what do we have?   

We have a ‘family’ that’s heavily invested in fraud and sexual exploitation. We have a ‘family’ that has in-built resistance to reform. We have a ‘family’ that is made for wrong-doing and of course will not suffer any kind of corrective intervention.  This is a ‘family’ that doesn’t believe in ‘transparency’ or ‘accountability’.   

Does Neil Buhne know all this?  Ki-moon briefed him on what he should say when he returns to Colombo, did he say, ‘Look boss, we really can’t afford to talk about accountability, can we?’

I like to think well of a person before he/she seems to be an insufferable rotten egg.  I am sure Buhne would have used a different set of words, but if he is an honourable man, a person who does not suffer double standards, I am sure he would have made a short speech to Ki-moon. Something like the following:

‘The Sri Lankan Government didn’t do enough to protect us during the protest carried out by a political ally led by a minister, this is true.  On the other hand, Sir, our officials in all parts of the world have not exactly done any ‘protecting’ either; they have, as you know, being involved in numerous cases of sexual harassment.  They’ve been found guilty of fraud.  Indeed, if Mahinda Rajapaksa says with his signature guffaw “Neil, I know what you UN people have done in Burundi and I know about the Oil-for-food scandal; I know also what happened to the Procurement Task Force and how things were made difficult for Ms. Inga-Britt Ahlenius”, I would have to spend a lot of times looking at the toes of my shoes.  And sir, about resettlement, they’ve done a decent job; to put things in perspective, we have by omission or commission supported the creation of IDPs to the tune of millions and have not treated them even fractionally as well as Sri Lanka has treated IDPs in the Vanni. Sir, there’s more happening there on the ground than what you can hope to see happen in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the next few years.  And sir, people know that when our family takes care of IDPs, rape is not a possibility but a probability’.  

If that was a prepared speech I think Ki-moon would have cut him short after the first sentence with a curt, ‘you benefit, so shut up’.  I don’t know.  Maybe Buhne will tell us. In any case, the good Buhne must be having his conscience twisted in knots.  I am wondering when he will pack his bags and say goodbye to the family.    

The Government, meanwhile, must treat Buhne and his cousins on Bauddhaloka Mawatha nicely.  ‘Nicely’ means ensuring that politicians with bloated egos are kept at bay. ‘Nicely’ also means reminding the family that people know about the family business and are aware of the family’s surname, Scandal. 

This article was first published in the 'Sunday Island' in June 2010.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Eamil: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene