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Nailing a Memo to the U.N.'s Door

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Your actions are not only deplorable, but seriously reprehensible…Your action is without precedent and in my opinion seriously embarrassing to yourself.”

While this may read like a transcript of a conversation between my high school principal and me, this was in fact a memo written by outgoing chief of the Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS) at the U.N., Inga-Britt Ahlenius, to current Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. OIOS’s job is to sniff out and expose corruption from within the United Nations.

This public and unprecedented rebuke of a sitting Secretary General and the organization as a whole, is stunning in its scope, ferocity and detail. It is testimony that at the U.N. today the “existing culture is one of secrecy” and contributes to “a process of decay.”

And that was just the cover letter.

She continues for fifty more pages, excoriating the lack of accountability, transparency and will to stamp out corruption.

For the past few years, I’ve had a chance to see firsthand the depths to which the U.N. has fallen away from its grand ideals. Through producing my documentary, U.N. Me (, I’ve seen how corruption eats away at the core of the United Nations.

While the revelations of this memo are unsurprising to me or any ardent observer of the United Nations, it is still an extraordinary look into a high-ranking U.N. official’s long-simmering frustration with the world body and its inability to police itself. It shows that the United Nations has become so putrefied that even senior officials in the U.N. have been forced to recognize and publicly proclaim it.

I would like to see this as an inflection point. I wish it could be a moment of bright clarity for the institution, a chance to reevaluate and reset itself again, allowing it to begin the deep and necessary process of reform.

Unfortunately, recent history has shown us otherwise.

While I will not take the time to enumerate the copious examples that substantiate this point, I will mention one recent and wholly under-reported example that, to me, exposes the United Nations and its “process.” This example begins, as many United Nation’s initiatives do, with right-minded intentions that along the way become either laughingly ineffectual or dark and dangerous.

In January 2006, a task force was created by the United Nations to investigate corruption in peacekeeping procurement, an effort that should rightly be applauded. It was headed by former U.S. federal prosecutor Robert Appleton and staffed by 18 white-collar crime experts.

This task force did an admirable job and uncovered a pervasive pattern of corruption and mismanagement involving hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for fuel, food, construction and other materials and services used by U.N. peacekeeping operations. This corruption came with a price tag of more than $610 million. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

But instead of staffing up the task force to complete a more thorough investigation of U.N. efforts, Appleton and his experts were obstructed and attacked for their efforts at every turn. In the midst of their investigations, and with billions worth of contracts yet to be investigated, they were fired. The U.N. bureaucracy refused to follow up on their findings and ignored many of their recommendations.

Ahlenius, in her outgoing report, dealt with this culture of obstruction and obfuscation forthrightly and candidly and for that she should be applauded. But for it to have the effect that she intended, the reformation of the United Nations, it has to be taken seriously by the leadership at the U.N. Unfortunately, they have already begun the process of attacking both Ahlenius and her memo. To not heed her calls for reform is a slap in the face not only to us here in the United States that fund the U.N. to the tune of six billion dollars a year, but also to the vulnerable populations whose needs were not met due to the siphoning of money and aid in these corrupt dealings.

It is clear that something is rotten in Turtle Bay. The leadership of the United Nations should be ashamed.

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