U.N. needs more powers to root out fraud

The United Nations needs greater investigative powers to probe its own activities and root out fraud, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday.

The United Nations recently acknowledged there had been several instances of fraud linked to hundreds of millions of dollars of peacekeeping-related contracts.

The fraud was uncovered by the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), an independent accountability office. Although the OIOS was able to unearth the fraud, Ban said his ability to conduct investigations was limited.

"I think the United Nations needs some strengthened investigative capacity," Ban told reporters at his first news conference of 2008. "We have many different mandates, different organizations, different agencies."

"I hope the members states one day will consider how we can strengthen the investigative capacity ... (of) the United Nations," he said. He gave no details of the kinds of powers he had in mind.

The United Nations currently relies on the OIOS' Procurement Task Force, a temporary body whose mandate was recently extended for another year, to investigate fraud related to procurement contracts.

The U.N. peacekeeping budget for 2007-2008 amounts to over $5 billion.

The most widely publicized corruption case at the United Nations involved the U.N. oil-for-food program set up in the mid-1990s to enable Iraq, under a U.N. embargo at the time, to sell oil for food, medicine and other humanitarian items.

The program and the United Nations became the target of criticism when a series of investigations after the 2003 invasion of Iraq led to several indictments and at least one conviction involving abuse of the oil-for-food program.

Ban told reporters he wanted the United Nations to be as transparent as possible in its management and procurement activities. He said he would soon sign "managerial compacts" with all senior U.N. executives to establish measurable performance benchmarks in this area.

But Ban himself has come under fire for awarding a $250 million contract to U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin to build five new peacekeeping base camps in Sudan's western Darfur region, which has been racked by five years of war, without competitive bidding.

In December the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution criticizing Ban for awarding the contract without competitive bidding. But Ban defended his decision.

"The situation in Darfur ... is a very difficult one. You don't have many vendors who are readily available to provide such service at a limited time," Ban said, adding that he was allowed to make such decisions in extraordinary situations.

In a resolution adopted on December 21, the General Assembly called for the OIOS to "undertake a comprehensive review of the use of extraordinary measures" for the U.N.'s Darfur peacekeeping mission. ( Reuters )

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