The presidency of the United Nations General Assembly, a ceremonial position filled annually by the organization’s 193 member nations, needs to fling open its doors to basic transparency on its financing and staffing operations, says a new report commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The office of the presidency of the UN General Assembly has historically suffered from a sense of apathy in the UN as well as a lack of written ethical work standards, leaving its loose management in the hands of whoever is president each year and creating a reputation, with important exceptions, of being opaque. That method of operation, however, has begun to change in the last year for one reason: accusations of corruption.
The report, produced by a task force assigned by Ban to study the “functioning” of the office of the General Assembly presidency, was a response to the arrest and indictment last fall by a United States prosecutor in New York of six people, including John Ashe, the 68th president of the General Assembly, and Francis Lorenzo, a deputy permanent representative to the UN from the Dominican Republic. They were charged in a $1.3 million bribery scheme.
The alleged scheme centered on a Chinese billionaire developer who, among other attempts, used Ashe’s role as General Assembly president to encourage the UN to build an international conference in Macau. It has not been built. Three people have pleaded guilty, though not Ashe or the billionaire, Ng Lap Seng. A seventh person, Julia Vivi Wang, was recently charged with bribery by the US in connection with the plan. Ashe has asked friends and acquaintances to contribute to a legal defense fund for him, contending he and his family are broke.
The 19-page report of the task force has been released to UN member states; a working group on reforming the General Assembly will formally review the report on April 7, said the current General Assembly president, Mogens Lykketoft. He was voted into office for a yearlong term starting in September 2015, before the US allegations surfaced against Ashe, who is charged with tax fraud and not bribery, and the others.
Lykketoft has made inroads in cleaning up the Assembly presidency office since the scandal emerged, including posting his travel itineraries on this office’s website, identifying who is paying for the trips and who makes up his staff, but the task force report details how much more needs to be done regarding financial clarity and the hiring of personnel and creating a code of conduct for an office that has operated with little to no oversight for decades.
The task force wrote that the allegations involving Ashe, “which have tarnished the image and reputation” of the UN, “occurred in an environment where there were significant loopholes and blind spots” in the operations of the president’s office.
The office, controlled by the member countries, is not part of the UN administration, led by Ban, and lacks a system of “checks and balances,” the report noted, found elsewhere in the UN, making it not only insufficiently open and accountable but also presenting a “risk” to the organization.
Part of the problem, the task force said, is that the office’s functions have grown while “support and backstopping arrangements” and provisions of UN regular budget resources have not been commensurate. As the number of staff members and uses of the office have increased, the budget has been mostly static since 1998, operating on $326,000 a year.
The office has therefore resorted to all sorts of convoluted contribution methods, including a trust fund, to pay for its rising costs. These arrangements have been left to the “sole discretion of the President,” the report said, calling it a source of concern. The many sources of donations — from member states to private individuals — have been given on an ad hoc basis, enabling loopholes to form and finances to become shady.
No official records have been kept on some in-kind contributions that go straight to the presidency and its office from donors, like payments for travel and hospitality costs. Moreover, no systematic arrangements to manage oversight are available for reporting between the president and the General Assembly, with few restrictions imposed.
As a result of such murky arrangements and insufficient recordkeeping, the “total magnitude of financial resources” used by the presidency is unknown to the General Assembly and a related UN management department.
The hiring of personnel has hardly been transparent, either, except for those people provided through UN program budgets, and the resources relied on by the presidency for paying its staff are also not known to the General Assembly or to the UN management department. Ashe, for example, had rejected the assignment of a spokesperson made by the UN Department of Public Information and instead hired an inexperienced outsider.
The presidential office also lacks standardized briefing and handover procedures from one presidency to the next, leaving new presidents to reinvent the job to their personal and national interests’ liking. As Lykketoft said when he became president and news broke about the Ashe affair, the office had been emptied of all physical records that could have provided insights on previous presidencies, including Ashe’s.
Finally, the report found that there were no formal principles of ethical conduct or financial disclosure measures for the president and staff of the office to follow, except for personnel working through UN appointments.
Most of the task force’s recommendations involve extensive bureaucratic changes, which the UN is famous for advising but never following through on fully. The General Assembly presidency is a classic example of an office never having been required to make its operations accountable or public in any clear way, given its ceremonial status. And the media have shown little interest in the office as well.
But now, the task force has suggested, for example, that the presidency systematically provide more information at the end of its term on such activities as travel. Ashe, for starters, paid for trips to China as president of the Assembly allegedly through the donations of the Chinese billionaire, Ng Lap Seng. Ashe also traveled so much during his presidency that he reportedly was absent from presiding at many General Assembly meetings.
As to financing, the task force suggested numerous itemized recommendations to promote full openness for all the various funds being set up by the president’s office. The task force also recommended more clarity on hiring methods, including secondments from member states and UN entities, and obvious information to the General Assembly membership on all “human resources obtained through the regular budget” of the UN, member states, UN funds and programs and other sources.
Lykketoft, who leaves office in mid-September, has only six months to act on the recommended changes, with the General Assembly’s help. Then, an Asian country is expected to assume the office of the presidency. Right now, Cyprus and Fiji are squabbling for that spot.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Well done Dulcie! You simplified a lot into a very readable yet comprehensive article.