United Nations General Assembly 2019: As Member States gather in New York the UN must commit to its fight against corruption

16th September 2019

Bénédicte Aboul-Nasr is a Project Officer at Transparency International Defence and Security. She works on issues related to corruption, conflict, and insecurity in the Middle East and North Africa region, as well as on how corruption affects United Nations Peacekeeping.

This week, Member States are convening for the 74th Session of General Assembly, during which they will discuss the general affairs of the United Nations. This will include a session focusing on a comprehensive review of peacekeeping operations.

Last September, the Security Council held its first meeting on corruption, underlying its relationship to global insecurity. Secretary-General António Guterres emphasised these links, noting that: ‘Regrettably, there is currently no coordinated strategy to gain the necessary leverage … to break the link between corruption and conflict’. The sentiments were echoed by the UK, calling corruption ‘an insidious plague’; and the Executive Director of our chapter in Venezuela made the same argument. And while not often discussed, links between corruption and the conflicts which the UN seeks to address with peacekeeping operations should be discussed.

There is no doubt that corruption breeds conflict and insecurity, as well as poverty and inequality. Six of the ten lowest-scoring countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index were also amongst the ten least peaceful countries in the most recent Global Peace Index. Transparency International’s research has long highlighted that addressing corruption can help prevent and address the very conflicts the UN finds itself involved in.

The Secretary-General has praised peacekeeping for its instrumental role in supporting peace and security – all the while acknowledging shortcomings and promising to reform performance and accountability and the conduct of peacekeepers and peacekeeping operations throughout his ‘Action for Peacekeeping’ (‘A4P’) initiative. Whilst those fighting corruption around the world will welcome his strong words, newly implemented reforms and a persistent focus on the challenges operations face present an even better opportunity for the UN to do more to root out corruption within its ranks.

Corruption undermines the chances of mission success, particularly of complex UN peacekeeping missions in the most high-risk areas of the world. Where fuel supplies are sold off, for example, troop mobility is reduced; when soldiers have paid to become blue helmets instead of earning their post through merit, missions may lack the skills they need; and when a blind eye is turned to smuggling, it enriches combatants and fuels further conflict. Such misconduct also reduces public trust in the ability of intervention forces to secure the peace.

The increasing discussions around corruption and conflict are a welcome step to beginning to address the problem. But as is so often the case, taking serious action is harder. In order to make words a reality, the UN will need to address corruption within its own systems, and figure out how to deal with corrupt governments in the areas where peace operations are in place – in particular if leaders are more focused on self-enrichment than on the needs of the population or the fulfilment of a UN mandate.

A leaked staff survey of the Secretariat in December 2017 had depressing findings: 50% of staff doubt people at all levels are held accountable for ethical behaviour; 55% were not confident that ‘UN staff members will be protected from retaliation for reporting misconduct or cooperating with an authorised audit or investigation’. Far from New York, the problem can have immediate with dire consequences for the hope of lasting peace.

So how can the UN go from public statements to actually handling the issue?

The UN Secretariat should strengthen its commitment to tackling corruption and the associated risks, particularly in the context of peace operations. To do so, the Secretary-General could issue a direction providing greater clarity on the responsibilities of Troop and Police Contributing Countries; in particular, when it comes to investigating instances of corruption and holding individuals responsible for misconduct to account within their national judicial systems. Whistleblowers – one of the best ways of identifying corruption – should be encouraged to come forward. Ultimately, holding perpetrators to account is often the best way to shift an institutional culture away from turning a blind eye, or even condoning graft.

The UN also needs people in the organisation with the mandate, expertise and capacity to get to grips with this issue – from understanding the risks on the ground to navigating corruption risks in one of the world’s largest and most complex bureaucracies.

Guterres was right when he said that ‘In peace operations, our engagement should be designed and implemented with a clearer anti-corruption lens to reinforce a culture of accountability and respect for the rule of law.’ But in a Member State organisation, this will be tough. The sad truth is that many governments in states where there are UN operations are kleptocratic or based around highly corrupt regimes and networks – often in direct contravention to the UN’s aims and to mission mandates. Operating with an ‘anti-corruption lens’ will not mean just improving procedures, but making difficult political decisions; ultimately, the UN has to be willing to put its goals in peace operations over the interests of diplomacy, if it is to successfully implement its own peacekeeping mandates.

Transparency International wants to help the UN fulfil its aims and support its efforts to strengthen peace and security worldwide. In July, we published an assessment of corruption risks within UN bodies relating to peacekeeping, to illuminate the dynamics of corruption and better support efforts to address it. TI’s Defence and Security Programme is also working on a toolkit for those leading international interventions to help officials, commanders and their planners chart a course through the challenges of conducting operations in high-risk, corrupt environments and understand the ways of responding to corruption.

If admitting to a problem is the first step to solving it, then the UN is on a much better path than it has been, and Guterres should be commended for this. But now is the time to start the next round of the heavy lifting needed to weave a more consistent approach to tackling corruption into the fabric of the organisation and its missions. Doing so promises to make UN operations more effective, cheaper, and better able to serve the interests of the most vulnerable.

Not tackling the underlying dynamics at the root of a conflict, and inadvertently sustaining or even reinforcing it, merely serves to prolong a peace intervention and can end up sowing the seeds of the next crisis. If the UN is serious about reducing the root of conflicts — all of which will be discussed in much detail over the coming weeks — it should ensure that its own operations are capable of responding to the very corruption risks they are vulnerable to — regardless of political sensitivities.