Reports Fault U.N. Watchdog Unit
By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008; A09
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations’ internal investigation division has been plagued by leadership that demoralized its investigators and stymied the group’s ability to function effectively as an anti-corruption watchdog, according to two confidential U.N. reviews.
The management culture in the investigations division has been so dysfunctional, the author of one of the reviews wrote last summer, that the division should be shut down and replaced.
“A command and control, fear-inducing, top-down management style served as the basis for day-to-day operations” in the investigations division, Erling Grimstad, a former Norwegian prosecutor, wrote in a confidential June 2007 review commissioned by the head of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, of which the investigations division is a part.
“There was an almost obsessive focus on confidentiality and a lack of transparency . . . which gave people outside . . . the impression that it was being directed as an intelligence service” that instilled a “culture of fear and insecurity,” Grimstad’s report said.
His report and another by Michel Girodo, a Canadian management consultant, which were obtained by The Washington Post, were critical of the U.N.’s former top investigator, Barbara Dixon, an American lawyer who ran the unit from 1995 to 2006, and the agency’s Vienna-based deputy director, Mark Gough of Australia. As Gough resigned last month, he told his staff in an e-mail that he disagreed with planned changes, according to a U.N. official.
Dixon responded that the reports are riddled with inaccuracies that raise questions about their “credibility.” Karl Paschke, a German national who hired Dixon in 1995 to lead the division, said he had the “highest regard” for her performance. “That does not sound as if they are talking about the Barbara Dixon that I know,” he said.
The Office of Internal Oversight Services was created in 1994 to investigate corruption, fraud and other violations of U.N. rules. It includes an audit unit and an investigations division, which came under criticism in the reports for failing to uncover corruption.
In 2004, the division exonerated a U.N. procurement official, Sanjay Bahel, who was under suspicion of steering tens of millions of dollars in contracts to an Indian state company, according to U.N. documents.
But a procurement task force, established in 2006, reinvestigated him, leading to his conviction this year for bribery.
The findings of Grimstad and Girodo were first reported Monday by the BBC. The reports highlight the failure of the investigations division to hold U.N. peacekeepers accountable, Human Rights Watch said Friday in a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, adding that U.N.
investigators “ignored, minimized or shelved” allegations that Indian and Pakistani peacekeepers illegally traded gold, arms and rations with local militias.
The two reports “confirmed my own concerns and conclusions: namely that the professional investigators were under very poor leadership in a flawed structure,” Inga-Britt Ahlenius, undersecretary general for the internal oversight office, said in an interview with The Post.
“The secretiveness and confidentiality of everything really serves us extremely poorly.”
Girodo’s report described a “paramilitary management” culture that discouraged initiative among field investigators and centralized authority in the hands of a few senior officials.
“Investigators were not allowed to develop cases on their own, as all major case decisions were made by the Former Director,” Grimstad wrote in a 147-page report. “As a result, if the Former Director was not in the office, work processes often came to a halt.”
In a 45-page report, Girodo found that a “toxic” atmosphere drove some investigators to depart. The review, also commissioned by Ahlenius and completed in July, was based on interviews and questionnaires involving more than 100 former and current employees in New York, Vienna and Nairobi.
“Uniformity and conformity take precedence over suggestions for innovation and progress. . . . We still see this today for the habits of nearly 12 years of authoritarian and intimidating leadership do not dissolve with the departure of its founder,” the Girodo report said.
“It’s hard to respond to ‘authoritarian’ — I don’t know what that means,” Dixon said in a telephone interview last Saturday. “Did we have high standards? Did we require people to live up to those standards? Yes, because the ramifications of our findings are pretty broad, like having someone hauled off to jail, peacekeepers sent back home in disgrace. . . . We had very high standards. If people didn’t live up to them, they didn’t belong here. Is that authoritarian? I don’t think so.”
Dixon said the reviews did not mention the division’s accomplishments over the past decade, including investigations that led to prosecutions in Africa, Europe and North America and the conviction of three individuals. She said an investigation into sexual harassment allegations concerning Ruud Lubbers led to his resignation as high commissioner for refugees.
Dixon said she was not interviewed for the reviews and dismissed many of the allegations as “adjectives and verbs.” She said allegations that the division had no standard operating procedures and blocked investigators from initiating cases “are clearly inaccurate.”
She said the reviewers provided no evidence of tampering, work delays or staff flight. “Very few investigators left during my tenure,” she said. “We had a management structure to ensure that procedures were followed and quality maintained.”
Dixon defended her handling of the Bahel investigation, saying she played a critical role in establishing the procurement task force that helped uncover evidence of his bribery. But Dixon’s division recommended Bahel “be cleared of the allegations against him” in December 2004. And her department also initially refused to provide the task force all documents, e-mails and access to computer files it sought, according to e-mails obtained by The Post, handing them over to the task force only after Ahlenius demanded them. Dixon said she was concerned that the release of sensitive information would set a bad precedent.