U.N. Oversight Body Running Out of Time on Pledge to Post Audits by Month’s End

By Patrick Goodenough | January 26, 2012 | 4:35 AM EST

Joseph Torsella, deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform, speaks at U.N. headquarters in New York City on May 11, 2011. (Photo: U.S. Mission to the U.N.)

(CNSNews.com) – The key United Nations oversight body has less than a week to begin posting its audits on its Web site, in line with a commitment made by its head and endorsed by the General Assembly in a resolution last month. Making the audits publicly accessible in this way reportedly faces resistance from some developing countries.

Prodded by the Obama administration, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has pledged to make its audits publicly available, posted online along with evaluations ratings, effective in January 2012.

The administration has touted the move as an important achievement in its efforts to advance U.N. reform, at a time when U.S. funding for the world body is in Republican lawmakers’ sights. American taxpayers account for 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget, in addition to billions of dollars in “voluntary contributions” for various agencies. The total U.S. contribution in fiscal year 2010 was $7.69 billion.

“The Obama administration has made considerable progress in boosting transparency and advancing accountability issues at the U.N., including … [s]ecuring a commitment from the heads of OIOS and all of the U.N. funds and programs in New York to press their governing bodies for public disclosure online of all internal audit reports starting in 2012,” reads a Jan. 19 fact sheet entitled “Obama Administration Accomplishments: Reforming the United Nations.”

With just four working days left in January, however, the reports have yet to appear on the OIOS Web site.

“The process is currently pending a final decision by the General Assembly,” an OIOS spokeswoman said Wednesday in response to queries.

In fact, the General Assembly already has approved the move. On December 24 the assembly, without a vote, adopted a resolution containing an annual report on the activities of the OIOS. Paragraph 19 of that report contains the transparency plan.

“OIOS plans to routinely make its internal audit reports available to the public through its Web site beginning in January 2012,” it says.

The paragraph goes on to explain that the office will also assign ratings – “satisfactory,” “partially satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” – to overall audit results, with the grades relating to “the adequacy and effectiveness of governance, risk management and internal control processes examined.”

In cases that merit “unsatisfactory” ratings, the OIOS says, “[q]uarterly reports to the Secretary-General will include details of identified deficiencies, related action plans, individuals accountable, current progress towards implementation and revised target dates.”

Asked whether there has been any resistance from U.N. member states to beginning the process this month, the OIOS spokeswoman would only say that “questions regarding discussions among member-states are best directed to member-states.”

In a speech last Friday – aimed in part at pushing back against Republican calls to tie funding to reforms – U.S. deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform Joseph Torsella hailed the OIOS decision to make all of its audits and reports universally and publicly available.

“But as recently as last month, a small group of member-states in New York was still trying to prevent OIOS from carrying out this promise,” he told a Council on Foreign Relations audience.

“Their view is that the right to see audits belongs only to member-states, not to the public – foreign ministers, ambassadors, heads of state, yes; journalists, students, NGOs, no. For those members-states, it’s a concept of institutional accountability that dates from – again – the mid-20th century.”

Torsella did not identify the countries concerned, but in a Nov. 23 Twitter posting praising OIOS head Carman Lapointe – a Canadian auditor – for the transparency proposal, he said that efforts to block the initiative were coming from a “small bloc” in the developing nations’ group known as the G77, with Iran a “ring-leader.”

Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) head Carman Lapointe. (UN Photo by Mark Garten)

Queries sent Wednesday to the Iranian mission to the U.N. and to the G77 secretariat in New York brought no response by press time.

In his speech, Torsella noted that the U.S. Mission to the U.N. has posted OIOS audits on its own Web site for several years – “and the sky has not fallen.”

(OIOS reports and audits dating back to 2007 are available, with a searchable archive bringing up reports from earlier years too. More than 180 reports were posted last year alone, with the most recent one dated September 30.)

“In the months ahead, we’re going further. We’re going to urge U.N. funds and programs to post audits on the web, as UNICEF and UNDP recently pledged to do,” he said, referring to the U.N. Children’s Fund and the U.N. Development Program.

“Web sites like the U.S. government’s recovery.gov, the U.K.’s dfid.gov and Kentucky’s opendoor.gov make unprecedented amounts of information – about salaries, contracts, and budgets – easily available to the public,” Torsella continued.

“We’re going to ask the U.N. system to do the same. And we will lead by example, making it much simpler for Americans who visit the USUN [U.S. Mission to the U.N. ] Web site to see what their money is being spent on at the U.N.”

‘Undermining oversight effort’

The OIOS was created in 1994 as an “operationally independent” body tasked to identify fraud, waste and mismanagement at the U.N.

LaPoint’s predecessor as OIOS head, Swedish diplomat Inga-Britt Ahlenius, ended her five-year stint at the helm in July 2010 amid the leaking of an internal document in which she accused U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon of undermining her efforts and of an “absence of strategic guidance and leadership.”

“Rather than supporting the internal oversight which is the sign of strong leadership and good governance, you have strived to control it, which is to undermine its position,” Ahlenius wrote in the memo addressed to Ban. “I do not see any signs of reform in the Organization.”

One of her criticisms dealt with the alleged blocking by Ban of the appointment of an American, former assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut Robert Appleton, as head of the OIOS’s Investigations Division.

Senior U.N. officials opposed the move because a short list of candidates contained no women or nationalities other than American, in contravention of the U.N. geographic and gender diversity standards.

Russia also had opposed the appointment of Appleton, who in a previous capacity as special counsel to the Volcker inquiry – an investigation into corruption in the U.N.’s Iraq oil-for-food program – had implicated Russian nationals, among others.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow