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UN Reforms Still "Disappointing," Secret Audits and also No-Bid Contracts Blamed

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, October 31 -- Five days after the UN Chief Executives Board meeting at which the availability of program's audits to member states was to have been resolved, U.S. Ambassador Mark D. Wallace called the outcome "disappointing." He analogized it to members of a corporation's board of directors being deny information about how the company is run. "It's been bounced from individual" funds and programs "to the CEB back to individuals and back to the CEB, it's not clear what's coming out yet, I think that's disappointing."

            Given that this had been a major UN reform demand of the U.S. -- it is the first item on a list of priorities of the U.S.'s new "UN Transparency and Accountability Initiative" -- Inner City Press on Wednesday asked Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson what Mr. Ban had pushed for in the CEB meeting. The spokesperson said that the CEB outcome was clear. Not to a major member state, Inner City Press pointed out. " You won’t get the readout," the spokesperson told Inner City Press. "This was a closed meeting.  What we get is the final statement.  I can ask additional information for you on those two specific issues.  I guess you are referring to the audits and you are referring to the Ethics Office, which you have asked about before."  But the lack of clarity, on this and on the jurisdiction of the UN Ethics Office over the funds and programs, is emblematic of continuing lack of transparency, and of what some see as a lack of focus on real UN reform.

Amb. Wallace speak in the GA, May 2007 -- Lockheed contract not shown, UNTAI still to come

            [Mr. Ban had not spoken publicly of the CEB meeting until Wednesday afternoon, when he mentioned it in the context of protecting UN officials. Video here, from Minute 7:14, and click here for Inner City Press' story on this.]

            Meeting with eight UN correspondents in the UN's Delegates' Lounge on Wednesday morning, Amb. Wallace distributed UNTAI lapel pins along with copies of his October 25 statement on the UN's proposed budget. He said it is troubling that the size of the UN budget is still not known, saying that this is the work of the UN Department of Management. Asked about the ongoing inquiry into the UN Development Program and North Korea, he said that while the Board of Auditors has concluded that it will not be allowed to visit the country, the U.S. Mission had a meeting that day with the alternative three-person panel, whose members were appointed by UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis. Asked what will happen with the North Korea whistleblower, whose contract was not renewed by UNDP and whose photograph was placed in UN Security's watch-list, Amb. Wallace said he hoped the three-person panel would provide justice. Given that UNDP's Dervis has already public predicted the outcome, click here for that, we'll see.

            Inner City Press asked Amb. Wallace for his view on the UN's recent $250 million no-bid contract with U.S.-based military contractor Lockheed Martin for infrastructure for the UN's Darfur peacekeeping mission, slated to begin before the end of the year. Inner City Press also asked if the U.S. believe there should be a cap on the size of contracts which the UN can seek to award without competitive bidding. While Amb. Wallace said he would look into it, U.S. Mission spokesman Richard Grenell quoted U.S. Permanent Representative Zalmay Khalilzad that the U.S. is "the first country to always ask for more information, for more transparency, for all details... This was not our decision... If there is any evidence [of wrongdoing], we will be the first to" demand action on it. Mr. Grenell subsequently clarified that Amb. Khalilzad said this to " a couple of journalists" while walking away from the Security Council stakeout. It does not appear that either of these two unnamed journalists reported these statements by Amb. Khalilzad, at least not in print.

News analysis: That the U.S.'s largest military contractor has been the sole-source beneficiary of the largest recent UN contract may reveal another stumbling block for reform: if it is always the U.S. leading the charge for reform, with countries like the UK saying that issue of transparency in procurement are issues "for the UN" Secretariat and not for them (as UK Amb. Sawers recently said, click here for that), then when the U.S. for various reasons steps back, whether because getting UN support in Iraq seems more important, or because on a particular contract, it is a U.S. company, and workers, who are benefiting, then UN reform is blocked, just as surely as the Permanent Five can block considering of the pet issues in the Security Council. Some say that the seemingly unattainable reform of the veto system in the Council is the ultimate and needed UN reform, that without it the UN is destined to go the way of the League of Nations. In the interim there should be availability of audits, protection of whistleblowers, and transparency in procurement. There is a long way to go on each of these.

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Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540