By Thalif Deen IPS

15 May 2005

As charges of mismanagement and nepotism continue to swirl round the United Nations, the organisation's new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown recounted to reporters recently that he had jokingly told Secretary-General Kofi Annan: "I am glad my son is only eight years old."

Other senior U.N. officials are not so fortunate: Annan's 31-year-old son Kojo Annan has been faulted for intentionally deceiving his father and continuing a financial relationship with Cotecna Inspection Services, a Swiss company he worked for, which is currently under U.N. investigation.

The company continued to pay Kojo as much as 450,000 dollars in consulting fees, a sizeable part of it after he left the company.

Maurice Strong, the U.N. special envoy for North Korea and former secretary-general of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, also is accused of hiring his step daughter, Kristina Mayo, in violation of U.N. staff regulations.

A similar violation is said to have occurred when Imran Riza, the son of former Chief of Staff Iqbal Riza, was hired to work for the organisation in Beirut, Lebanon.

According to staff rules, the United Nations bars the appointment of any person closely related to a staff member: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, or sister. The only exception is a staff member's wife, particularly those employed in field operations.

As a result of the recent revelations, the UN. Secretariat is investigating whether other similar violations have occurred.

"The main strength of the United Nations is its credibility; the main pillar of its credibility is a fairly selected, truly representative international civil service," Samir Sanbar, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general and head of the department of public information, told IPS.

"The harm done to U.N. credibility and its dedicated civil service by brazen violation or evasion of staff rules and regulations has drastically limited the organisation's capacity to play its entrusted role," he added.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, a non-governmental watchdog, told IPS: "New revelations about nepotism and corruption have caused, even among long-time employees and devotees of the United Nations, an unprecedented erosion of credibility in the world body generally, and in its leadership echelons in particular."

According to Neuer, "the seemingly endless revelations of wrongdoing by U.N. officials constitute a damaging distraction, posing an obstacle to the realization of proposed reforms vital to keeping the organisation relevant".

He said that Annan's "bold proposal" for a new human rights body made up of democracies, not dictatorships, is under attack by repressive regimes.

"Yet how can we interest global citizens to rally behind such needed initiatives, when all they hear about the United Nations is nepotism, unscrupulousness, and fraud?" Neuer asked.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a member of the U.N. staff union told IPS: "There are ways of circumventing staff rules and regulations and this has been developed into a perfect art in the U.N. system."

"It's the quid-pro-quo principle", he added: Since the rules do not apply to most appointments between the U.N. secretariat in New York and U.N. agencies or programmes in the field, a senior U.N. official in the secretariat will approach his counterpart, say in Geneva, Rome or Vienna, with the proposition: 'You hire my son, and I will hire your daughter.'

And "that's how the game is played," he added. "We call it family planning, U.N. style."

The Staff Union long has complained about this. "The staff selection system in its present form provides conditions ripe for nepotism, favouritism and patronage to become a normally accepted form of corruption within the organisation," it warned in a statement issued last June.

"It is hard to blame the U.N. Staff Council's loss of confidence in senior management when workers see the U.N. giving out favoured jobs to people like the son of Iqbal Riza, Annan's former chef de cabinet," said Neuer. "The cynicism over perceived favouritism practiced at the highest levels is compounded by recent findings of obfuscation if not obstruction of justice."

After the U.N.'s three-member Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) criticised Kojo Annan for his role in the Cotecna contract and for his refusal to appear before the committee, the secretary-general told reporters: "I love my son and have always expected the highest standards of integrity from him. I am deeply saddened by the fact that my son failed to cooperate, and (urge him to) reconsider his position."

Immediately following the committee's report last month, the secretary-general said that he was personally exonerated of any wrongdoing in the now-defunct, scandal-plagued, 67 billion dollar oil-for-food programme in Iraq, but agreed with the committee's finding about a lapse in judgement on his part for not conducting a formal investigation after he became aware that the company Kojo worked for had won a U.N. contract.

Kojo is said to have used his UN. connections in trying to advance other proposed business deals, according to the report.

"The case of Kojo is still under investigation and it pains me to observe helplessly how my former long time colleague, the current secretary general got, or was dragged, into this mess which at least from the media perspective his team handled erratically with counterproductive effect," Sanbar said.

When the U.N.'s long established appointment and promotion bodies were abolished three years ago -- ostensibly to give managers more flexible leeway -- all barriers were practically lifted and the office of personnel was mainly transformed into a processing plant, he added.

Riza's evasion of staff rules was most glaring because he was the one entrusted to safeguard them, Sanbar said. As the chief of staff, he should have set the most inspiring example to others.

Asked to clarify allegations against Strong, U.N. associate spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters last week that Mayo had had not disclosed her relationship to her stepfather on the U.N. personnel form and that this was ''a violation of U.N. rules.'' Since the exposure, Mayo has resigned after nearly two years on the job.

I want to make clear, though, that Mr. Strong himself had not concealed that she was his step daughter, and had indeed sought approval for the appointment," Dujarric said. "We're now examining why U.N. staffing policies and procedures were not followed in this particular case."

Strong has stepped down as special envoy until investigations are completed on another brewing scandal: his business links to South Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park who is alleged to have played an influential role in the oil-for-food scandal.