- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2007

Reminders of the need for far-reaching U.N. reform keep rolling in. The latest is the conviction of former U.N. commodity procurement chief Sanjaya Bahel, found guilty Thursday of bribery and fraud for helping an associate win $100 million in contracts in exchange for cheap Manhattan luxury apartments and cash. Each sorry tale strengthens the hand of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, now serving his sixth month on the job and still vocal about his commitment to reform. Perhaps the stars have finally aligned.

Mr. Ban’s tenure thus far encourages optimism. The U.N. Office of Internal Oversight, whose work helped unravel the oil-for-food scandal, has been busy on his watch. Once derided by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a “junkyard puppy,” the office is currently investigating 140 cases of possible fraud and mismanagement in contracts totalling $1 billion — which, to put it in context, is slightly more than half the value of an entire year of U.N. procurement. Last week, its procurement task force called for a major overhaul of purchasing operations as the news of Bahel’s conviction emerged. Reform cannot begin without a vigorous watchdog.

In complex bureaucracies, reform’s real story is often told through hirings and firings. In that regard, Mr. Ban’s giving pink slips to a number of top figures from the Annan years can only be regarded as good news. It began with a very public request for resignations from all U.N. officers at the assistant secretary-general level and above, including one official who first learned of it during the press conference. This sent a message. While some were eventually rehired, Mr. Ban’s performance was a noticeable improvement over that of previous secretariats. For instance, when Kofi Annan assumed the secretary-general’s office in 1997, he fired the top officials who served his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, but did so with the clear message that most would be rehired, as they were. Previously, a beyond-my-tenure act of cronyism by Mr. Boutros-Ghali had extended these officials’ contracts into the Annan years. Mr. Annan had no problem retaining cronies or otherwise stomping on principles like merit and competence if doing so could reinforce his influence.

Certainly Mr. Ban acts and sounds like a different kind of secretary-general. Here’s one piece of evidence, which shouldn’t be but obviously is groundbreaking: Mr. Ban said last week that he was “shocked and dismayed” by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent assertion that a countdown for Israel’s “destruction” is underway. In the Annan years, the secretary-general and friends would look away. “[T]he State of Israel is a full and long-standing member of the United Nations with the same rights and obligations as every other member,” Mr. Ban said. “[A]ll members have undertaken to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.” Commonsensical acts like condemning one state’s threat to the existence of the people of another can be shocking to some.

To be sure, the current picture is not entirely one that encourages optimism. Mr. Ban’s secretariat began on a rocky footing when his first major initiative — a drive to reorganize the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations — met with stiff resistance from a bloc of developing nations. Although he was supported in the effort by the U.N.’s major financial backers — the United States and Japan — Mr. Ban was nevertheless forced to shelve his plans.

At minimum, though, noxious flowers like the corrupt procurement official Bahel seem less likely to blossom these days. As the story goes, the Indian national kept a private cell phone just for calls from his consiglieres in bribery. While the crooks seem to have fewer places to hide nowadays, thanks to Mr. Ban and reformist allies, investigators must nonetheless continue to sniff out fraud and corruption in all corners of the United Nations.