Topic: Professions & Institutions

Kofi Annan and the U.N.’s Culture of Corruption

Ethical relativists who argue that whether conduct is right or wrong depends on the culture where it occurs frequently cite bribery as an example: unethical and illegal in America, standard practice in many other countries. In trith, bribery is evidence of the opposite position, which the Ethics Scoreboard maintains is the correct one. Bribery is unethical wherever it occurs, because it is unjust, unfair, and corrupting whether it is legal or not. “Everybody” in a country may accept bribery as a way of life, just as “everybody” may accept vengeance killings, abuse of women and child slavery. Bribery still creates conflicts of interest, distorts policy and impedes justice. It favors the rich and powerful over the poor and weak. It harms society. It is wrong.

The welfare of countries that allow bribery testifies to the fact. Corruption keeps Africa in poverty and prevents South America from taking advantage of its vast resources. Corruption is the scourge of China and substantially responsible for the slow progress of the former Soviet republics. For all of its scams, scandals, political intrigue and institutional sausage-making, the United States has built one of the least corrupt of all world cultures, and that has been a major reason for its relentless advances since 1776. U.S. critics who incessantly hold other nations up as role models for America ignore this crucial difference between our ethical culture and much of the world. When the U.S. buys international support with foreign aid, it is playing by international rules, not its own. Still, international tolerance of blatant corruption far exceeds anything that would be accepted in the U.S., and we can be thankful for that. It is a condition that Americans must work to maintain.

In January, spurred by the continuing disgrace of the “Oil for Food” scandal, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan established an ethics office within the U.N. Secretariat. He issued guidelines requiring staff to report any gifts of more than $250, a significant improvement over the previous guidelines that allowed gifts up to $10,000.

Then, in February, Annan flew to Dubai and received the Zayed International Prize for the Environment, a cool $500,000, from Sheikh Mohammed, who is not only Dubai’s ruler but also the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. A half-million dollars from a member state given to the supposedly neutral leader of an international bodyÂ…does that cause any ethical alarm bells to start ringing? Imagine President Bush accepting a half million dollar prize from the Gulf Oil Foundation. No, actually, it’s unimaginable. The conflict of interest scandal would have the media, public, Democrats and Republicans screaming; it would be called open bribery; it would make the uproar over the Dubai port management deal (what is it about Dubai?) look like a gentile tiff. Yet Kofi Annan apparently saw nothing wrong or even remarkable about his doing what no American official (except perhaps ex-Rep. and future jailbird Randy Cunningham) would dream of doing. He did announce that he would be using the money for a charitable foundation he says he plans to set up in Africa, but provided no information about what the foundation would actually do, who would oversee it, or what his role might be. (Tom DeLay has a foundation too.) Not that any of this information would cleanse the prize from the taint of bribery: if Annan gets to use the money for his own purposes, no matter how admirable they might be, he is still a beneficiary, and he is still presumed to be beholden to his benefactor. That is how conflicts of interest arise. That is what we call “an appearance of impropriety.” That is what, apparently, the United Nations calls “business as usual.”

Astoundingly, the U.S. press barely covered Annan’s profitable indiscretion, and of the few publications that did, only a couple mentioned the ethical implications of his blithe acceptance of such a large cash gift. Such indifference to smoking-gun evidence of a corrupt culture at the U.N. is obtuse at best; sinister at worst. In the days preceding the invasion of Iraq, the refusal of that international body to follow through on its own ultimatums to Saddam Hussein was accepted by much of the international community and the majority of the U.S. media, not to mention anti-war advocates and Bush administration critics, as a persuasive and definitive legal and moral verdict against American policy. But irrespective of one’s personal assessment of the wisdom or justification for the Iraqi invasion, no rational observer can accept U.N. decisions, then or now, as emerging from unbiased, genuine, analytical, fair and objective deliberations, rather than greased palms and under-the-table deals. An organization that permits its leader to accept a $500,000 check from a member without so much as a peep of protest or hint of curiosity has announced to anyone paying attention that it is open for business and corrupt to the core. The United States has its own serious faults to address, but it should not have to listen to lectures on justice, honesty and morality from supporters of the ethics cesspool known as the United Nations.

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