15 November 2005

In his first meeting with correspondents at Headquarters on United Nations reform, recently appointed Under-Secretary General for Management, Christopher Burnham, said he believed he was hired to help make the greatest body of its kind a more accountable, transparent and ethical place. He distributed two drafts on new financial disclosure requirements and on protection against retaliation for reporting misconduct, or whistle-blower protection.

Burnham, who succeeded Catherine Bertini in June, had served since February as acting Undersecretary of the United States Department of State for Management. He had also worked in the private sector.

When Richard Roth (CNN) noted it was the third reform attempt during Mr. Annan's tenure, Mr. Burnham said his experience had been that Governments and corporations reformed when there was a crisis. Most of the time, that was associated with funding, and the United Nations could face a funding crisis in the future, but right now, it faced a "reputational crisis", in the wake of the "oil-for-food" scandal and investigation. Now, however, a broad and extensive coalition of nations had come together at the World Summit and produced a very good outcome document, a catalyst for the change and modernization of the United Nations.

"We are going into a period here to bring the United Nations into the twenty-first century, to reform the UN as we know it, for the Secretary-General to leave a reformed UN for his successor", he said. That meant putting in place the kind of protections that gave staff members confidence that they could come in every day to create a more free and secure and dignified world, and if they saw waste, fraud and abuse, that they could report that without retaliation.

Two reporters pointed out to low staff morale. "With the final Volcker report behind us," Mr. Burnham said he thought morale would improve. He had received an interim report from the Deloitte & Touche examination of internal and financial controls, and expected a complete report within the next three weeks. Also, there was an ongoing, vigorous and enlarged Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigation of the Procurement Division. He continued to seek vigorous pursuit of any "untoward behaviour" within the Procurement Division, and the United Nations continued to cooperate with federal and local authorities in two ongoing criminal investigations.

There were doubts about how the whistle blower operation would work. Burnham explained that the United Nations did not presently have a functioning whistle-blower protection system. There was an organizational culture whereby staff did not come forward to report wrongdoing for fear of losing their careers or experiencing some other form of retaliation. There was also a lack of oversight and internal controls, which were essential to preventing waste, fraud and abuse. The lack of a whistle-blower policy simply prevented the Organization from moving forward to correct the problems identified by so many different groups. "It is critical that we get it right," he added.

Having circulated the most recent draft for comment, he said he would be meeting with the Staff Council, whose support was needed for the new policy, and with Deloitte & Touche and the global governmental accountability project. It was also to evaluate the experience of the World Bank. It had gone through an even more lengthy review process than the United Nations Secretariat, and it was very important that the World Bankís best practices be shared with the Organization.

On plans for financial disclosure by staff, he explained that there was currently no appropriate financial disclosure system. A new system would be comprehensive and provide the United Nations with additional safeguards. The system would be stronger than that of the United States and many other Member States. One problem with the old system was that financial disclosure forms were submitted to the Chief of Staff. They should be submitted to an appropriate body for review, and that there was an ethics office to confirm financial disclosure forms annually. That office could also be a place to ask questions about ethics policy, such as how to respond if someone wanted to take you to a ball game or the theatre. Right now, there was no place to ask that question. Did that mean the new USG will be turning down lunch invitations? It depended how expensive was the restaurant, he quipped.

The ethics office was not a "gotcha office". It would be set up to prevent the Organization or individuals from getting into potential conflicts of interest. The role of the office would not be investigatory, as that was the domain of the OIOS. Rather, it would be a research office and a training centre for the men and women of the United Nations in ethics policy. Financial disclosures were also limited to Assistant Secretary-Generals and above. Now, those would extend to all offices with fiduciary responsibility, such as the Procurement Division, and be applicable down to the G-1 level. Assistant and Under-Secretaries-General would have the flexibility to require individuals below the D-1 level, on a case-by-case basis, to submit the forms, he continued. In addition, the gift limit was lowered from $10,000 to $250, an essential ingredient in restoring confidence that the United Nations was a beacon of honour, probity, dignity and integrity. He agreed with a correspondent that no one should accept gifts over $250, noting that the European Commission standard was 10 euros.

Would the "whistle blower" office operate effectively without the "ethics" was open to question. Burnham explained further that the OIOS was the proper investigative body of the Organization, and would remain so. The ethics office, which could turn cases over to the OIOS, was intended to train, to help, to review portfolios, to identify potential conflicts of interest, and to rectify those through sale or movement of assets, and so forth. Financial disclosure forms were a key element of that, but other aspects of the office included annual ethics training.

He said that one of his top three priorities this month was the whistle-blower protection policy - to get that out, get it promulgated and get it right. He needed to cast a broad net, particularly with the Staff Council, to ensure that the staff had confidence in the new system. He was trying to create the ability for staff to come forward if they suspected fraud or abuse. If certain things made staff uncomfortable, they would be empowered to come forward. He was fully committed to get that right on behalf of all the men and women who laboured here at the United Nations to make the world a better place.

Asked whether the Secretary General needed General assembly authorization, he confirmed that the Secretary General had the authority to rewrite whistle-blower protection, as well as the financial disclosure draft, he replied to another question. Making the financial disclosure applicable below the Assistant Secretary General level would require General Assembly approval. As the Summitís Outcome Document had clearly stated, the Secretary General should report back to the Assembly on the creation of an ethics office.

There was a huge issue of privacy. The financial disclosure form would not be made public. Employees fear of that was a very sensitive issue and one where protection of the individual outweighed that of some other individual nationsí financial disclosure requirements.

The question of whether financial disclosure forms would be retroactive to some degree was a very interesting one, he said, adding that retroactive law was the worst kind of law. He did not think the draft was retroactive; it was proactive. There would be a new financial disclosure form for 2005, and everyone would be under the new guidelines to comply. The Secretary-General would not only fill one out, but would probably be the first do so. Interesting.

To a question about whether he was meeting resistance or facing a cultural attitude that the whole reform was an American initiative, he said that, as an American, he had been met with the warmest and most genuine hospitality at the United Nations. One could say that the reform effort was an American- or United Kingdom- or Geneva- or Japan-driven initiative, but he had gotten "nothing but positive feedback and support" from the "Group of 77" developing countries and China.

There was a tremendous amount of miscommunication out there, he added. If there was a legitimate criticism for the whole process, it was that there had not been good enough communication between the Secretariat and the General Assembly.

Obviously, the United Nations was not a country and, thus, it did not have prosecutorial powers; it had the power to dismiss, and that was the ultimate penalty, he replied to a further question. That was the structure in which everyone had to operate.

A correspondent said there was a growing sense that the next oil-for-food-sized scandal would be United Nations peacekeeping and its procurement. How much was Mr. Burnham "bracing for the scale of that scandal and its damage"? "Iím not bracing for anything," he replied. He was urgently pursuing the restoration of honour, integrity and ethics within the United Nations and, more specifically, in the areas for which he was responsible.