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World News

U.N. seen slow to address corruption

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The head of the U.N. internal watchdog accused the world body on Thursday of laxity in rooting out corruption, as Western and developing countries clashed over how the problem was being addressed.

Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of Germany Joschka Fischer addresses the 59th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N headquarters in New York, September 23, 2004. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The comments by Inga-Britt Ahlenius came as she presented a U.N. committee with a report by a task force that details its investigations over the past year into cases of alleged graft linked to U.N. contracts worth over $20 million (12 million pounds).

Ahlenius heads the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which runs the controversial and soon-to-be-disbanded Procurement Task Force, set up three years ago following a scandal over a former U.N. oil-for-food program with Iraq.

Ahlenius told the General Assembly’s budgetary committee that the task force’s 250 investigations had highlighted a “serious problem” of defective U.N. internal control that laid the organisation “open to waste, abuse, fraud and corruption.”

“Historically the (U.N.) organisation has been slow and even resistant to hold culprits accountable -- and not proactive in seeking to recover damages caused by corrupt conduct,” said Ahlenius, who is Swedish.

She called on the United Nations to send a “strong message” that it was serious about addressing corruption both within its own ranks and among individuals and companies it dealt with.

The task force’s report, covering July 1, 2007 to July 31, 2008, said it had probed five significant corruption schemes involving U.N. offices in Kenya, Greece and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the New York headquarters.

It said the total value of the contracts involved was more than $20 million but it gave individual figures only for a case in Nairobi, where it said an unnamed female U.N. employee had tried to steer contracts totalling more than $350,000 to a company associated with her husband.

CONTRACT VALUES

In a note attached to the report, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon underlined that the figures were for contract values, not for U.N. losses.

And in an apparent attempt to play down the report, he said it was for him to decide whether any rules had been breached and that the findings “should be regarded as those of the Task Force, and not a final determination by the Organisation.”

The figures for the past year are dwarfed by those for the full three years of task force activity. The force has said that during that time it has found that contracts worth $630 million have been tainted by corruption or fraud.

An audit also presented to the committee on Thursday said that U.N. losses from those contracts amounted to about $25 million, of which some $20 million involved just one person whom it did not identify. The report by the U.N. board of auditors said the force’s efforts “did not expose widespread corruption at the United Nations.”

The task force’s best-known target has been former U.N. official Sanjaya Bahel of India, jailed by a New York court in April for eight years for corruptly helping a friend secure at least $50 million in contracts.

The 15-strong force is headed by Robert Appleton, formerly an assistant U.S. attorney in the state of Connecticut. It is due to cease operations at the end of this year, when its functions will be taken over by the OIOS itself.

The force has been strongly criticized by developing nations, which have accused it of failing to respect the rights of U.N. employees it has investigated.

Singapore delegate Hoe Yeen Teck told the committee that when the force stopped work, “it will mark the end of a sorry process that could have been much better.”

But U.S. delegate Cherith Norman told the committee the force’s work had “proven critical in the effort to identify and deal with fraud, waste and mismanagement” at the U.N. and that the OIOS should be beefed up to take on its caseload.

Editing by David Wiessler

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