The Witchfinder and the Secretary General

To great fanfare, last year the UN’s witch-finding inspectors, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), announced that they had nailed a Singaporean staff member, Andrew Toh, for corruption. To considerably less fanfare, this month the Singapore government revealed that the UN’s internal courts had cleared Toh of any substantial wrongdoing — and found that the OIOS had harassed him and spent millions of dollars investigating him without any success on the main charges.

Instead of punishing his persecutors, last Thursday UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon suspended Toh for two months without pay and demoted him. This is like fining a witch at the stake for fire-raising, or as the indignant Singapore foreign ministry colourfully put it: “Toh is like a pedestrian deliberately hit by a speeding car as he crosses the street, only to be cited for jaywalking as he lies injured, while the culprit goes unpunished”.

Almost two years ago, under pressure from the US, the UN sent more staff to help the OIOS investigate the UN’s procurement office. The new procurement task force began in January 2006, with its head a former assistant district attorney from Connecticut, and its first official act was to put Toh on leave while they investigated. Toh was been ground down in a Kafkaesque process ever since. When they could not find any evidence to back their original corruption charges against him, they expanded their investigation and demanded that he submit details of all transactions in his family exceeding US$10,000, as well as any gifts received exceeding US$250, for the previous decade.

The UN’s joint disciplinary committee has now cleared Toh of fraud, but obviously leery of being accused of wasting the UN’s resources, reprimanded him for negligence in filing his financial disclosures.

This should be no surprise to anyone who has watched the OIOS at work. For years, American politicians and media wanting to score quick political points have raised allegations of “waste, mismanagement and corruption” at the UN. Instead of rebutting false charges, successive secretary generals have pandered to them, throwing accused staff to the wolves. Any UN staff member who comes under investigation, particularly from an American accusation, is presumed guilty, even if like Toh he is proven innocent.

During the Iraq “oil for food” storm, the Volcker commission‘s release of OIOS’s internal reports fed the media frenzy, helped along by malicious leaks from investigators. Half-digested, with no notice taken of any rebuttals from the “accused,” a typically memorable charge was that the UN’s border inspectors had wasted money by being on station at the Iraqi border months before the food and oil trade was up and running. But, as an exasperated staff member pointed out, that was because the UN security council had ordered them to be there. And if they were not, doubtless, he suggested, there would have been a nitpicking OIOS report complaining about their failure to comply with the council’s instructions.

In 2001 I wrote a story about a company using the planes that it was contracting to the UN to smuggle “blood diamonds” from central Africa. I approached OIOS for comment. They did not return my calls, but internal sources told me its response was not to investigate the company, but to investigate who had leaked me the story. Even professionals inside its ranks have quit and tried to blow the whistle on the OIOS’s methods.

The UN needs an adequate justice system that exonerates the innocent, punishes the guilty and dissolves the OIOS and its procurement task force, the acting head of which — despite being guilty of this wasteful and malicious vendetta against Toh — is confidently expecting to be promoted next year. The Wall St Journal is already campaigning to retain the task force in the face of Singapore’s objections.

The UN panel on Toh’s claims recommended that OIOS and the UN should review their rules on investigations and “bring them in line with the judgements of the United Nations administrative tribunal and the existing international instruments on human rights”.

That is long overdue. The impunity that used to be enjoyed by perpetrators in the UN has been replaced with a lack of accountability and a total impunity by the OIOS, whose malicious incompetence is aimed more at glory in the Murdoch press than at justice.

Since the UN has been quick to remove the diplomatic immunity of any staff member suspected of criminal behaviour, not least anyone fingered by the Fox-hunters of the far right, Toh wants reciprocation. He wants the secretary general to lift the immunity of his persecutors so he can sue his persecutors for the egregious abuses of natural justice and established procedure which the UN’s own courts have found.

By the time the UN appeals procedure rules that Toh’s suspension and demotion were wrong, and awards him substantial compensation, his persecutors will be safely drawing a substantial salary. Ban Ki Moon has made the promotion of human rights a priority of his administration. He should begin inside his own organization by ignoring US pressure and putting a stop to the persecution of Toh.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Read other articles by Ian, or visit Ian's website.