DR TOM ODHIAMBO
The United Nations Organisation means different things to different people. But in the eyes of many, particularly victims of war and suffering, it means the alternative to failed governments, collapsed institutions and disintegrated humanity.
The UN, as it is generally known, is the refuge for many deprived of a normal life, threatened by war, afflicted by natural disasters, diseased, those looking for someone to make them feel safe or somewhere to call ‘home’ temporarily. Records show that the UN has secured, comforted and protected many in the world since its formation. It has been at the forefront of helping millions of people to overcome famine, disease and political turbulence, among many other vagaries of life.
But the UN is staffed by human beings from different places, cultures, ideological convictions, educational backgrounds, expectations or wants. These men and women, although largely seen as people who do good, who care, who are trustworthy, who best understand the rights of others and will seek justice for others at all times, they often – today, too often – fall short of these expectations. The tragedy of the failures of some men and women at the UN is the story of Rasna Warah’s book, “UNsilenced: UNmasking the United Nations’ Culture of Cover-ups, Corruption and Impunity” (2016).
This is the kind of book that will make many people who benefit from the UN uneasy or unhappy. But it is also a book worth reading. For it is very few today who can think of taking on the might of the UN by speaking about the evil that corrodes the soul of this global body. Rasna knows a thing or two about the UN. She has worked for it. She isn’t merely writing by collecting information from the archives, which is available in plenty, no. This is some kind of an insider’s account of the goings-on in an institution that is described in the Introduction by Beatrice Edwards as operating “beyond the reach of an external legal authority, and for a long time, had no obligation to provide audits or investigative reports even to its largest contributors, such as the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.”
Unsilenced highlights the perils of being a whistle-blower at the UN. The Introduction by Ms Edwards reads, “Whistle-blower Protection at the United Nations: Imperilled or Improving?” Here Edwards explains how the UN was caught up in the Iraq Oil-for-Food programme, which, nearly a decade after its initiation, “… it emerged that Iraq government officials had been subverting the programme, and had been using it for their own financial benefit – all under the UN’s watch.”
She goes on to note, “Investigations revealed widespread illegality and abuse. The UN’s final report on the episode, released on October 27, 2005, accused nearly half of the companies participating in the programme of paying kickbacks and bribes to win contracts.” But would this case really be a problem on its own? Shouldn’t people have just been sacked or sanctioned, so that it ended there?
Not really. Part of the crisis here was that whistle-blowers were involved. There had been people at the UN who had spoken of unethical acts by their colleagues. Either they were ignored, silenced or even punished. So, if the UN couldn’t protect its own who wished to guard its operations and integrity, who would? Would the US or one of the big five speak out and recommend serious action against wrongdoers? Not really. This is the potential tragedy of all those people in the world who rely on the goodwill and ethics of the UN staffers.
Warah’s book catalogues a series of indiscretions, misinformation and inaction of UN staffers in different parts of the world in the next three chapters of Unsilenced, with the titles, “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics”; “A Culture of Denial”; “Immunity or Impunity.” She shows how UN organisations can produce false statistics to back up programmes that could be better designed and implemented.
The ubiquitous slum-land of Kibera rears its head here. What is its population, size or meaning for those who confront urban planning and poverty at the UN? What would be the benefits of inflating the numbers of its residents? Ooh, she even reminds one that many of the lovely UN-Habitat staffers don’t even know how downtown Nairobi looks like. You see, they live in a very much self-contained city-within-city in Gigiri with all the benefits of international employees. Why bother about real Nairoberry?
You must have heard stories of UN peacekeepers accused of sexually abusing teenage boys and girls all over Africa? Well, this isn’t a burning issue in at the UN. It isn’t a big problem either for many international news organisations. Internal investigations don’t really go far in addressing this issue, Rasna tells us. This culture of silence is no different from another one that she speaks about. Apparently even senior staff at UN organisations may simply keep quiet when their host government commits atrocities against its own people. They would not want to lose their visas, which may mean relocation back home or to another country that may not be as hospitable as the current one. Then there is the old question of claiming diplomatic immunity when faced with a criminal offence in the host country. Often, “diplomatic immunity” affords the individual concerned exit opportunity, leaving the victim of their actions with no chance to seek justice.
This is the kind of UN that Rasna warns against. It is an organisation that clearly needs reform. But who would initiate such restructuring when the nature of the organisation is that its constituent parts and offices are largely distributed among its members through a “negotiated” process rather than an open and competitive method? For instance, currently the UN is in the process of looking for its next Sec-Gen. What undercurrents are at play that will determine who will become the UN’s next CEO? What trade-offs will be made; what will need to be swept under the carpet, or who will be forced out of the organisation, in order to keep the system as it is? In Unsilenced, Warah is reminding all of us that we have a stake in this organisation and therefore we can’t afford to ignore how it works and what it does.^
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org