The UN, under the leadership of Antonio Guteres, appears to be in the midst of a credibility crisis, which many might argue has come about following years of previous incumbents failing to nail a corruption problem.
And now, since Guterres took office in January 2017 and made a song and dance about resolving the organization’s sexual harassment problem, we are seeing that not only is he not doing anything about the plague of cases – but that also he appears to be doing the only thing that a UN chief with his opaque links to the graft itself could do: carry out a cover up.
You don’t have to look too far for sex scandals at the UN. And you don’t have to look too far for many examples of Guterres really doing what a guilty man would do in his position. Take the case of journalist Matt R . Lee who runs a news website which uncovers graft and exposes UN officials who are caught with their hand in the till. The journalist, who has covered the travails of the UN for well over a decade, just had his press pass cancelled so he is unable to enter the UN HQ in Manhattan. Lee has exposed the UN chief for appearing to not do the right thing over a number of cases which are popping up, but have a strange habit of fizzling out, with no enquiry and little dust being thrown up by the media. The story of Lee’s treatment is something one would expect from a South American regime, rather than the auspicious UN headquarters in New York.
Recently, Lee’s website accused Guterres of covering up a sex scandal with a Chilean official, who was promptly promoted to being one of the UN chief’s closest advisers. Another case of sexual harassment, alleged to be carried out by a Canadian official who is currently running MINURSO – the UN’s office in the troubled Western Sahara – appears to be heading the same way; this comes despite the number of witnesses both in the UN headquarters who support the allegations and in Adis Ababa (the official’s previous post where the incidents are said to have occurred) and, not to mention, the delicate talks at the moment which aim to give Western Sahara an autonomy of sorts, proposed by Morocco’s UN delegation and up for consideration by the Security Council itself.
How can the present MINURSO chief possibly have his contract extended with these allegations hanging over his head? Given the importance of the mission, the allegations themselves (sexual harassment which Guterres has promised he will resolve in the UN – where recently a third of employees admitted being affected by sexual harassment) or the implications of a senior UN official being vulnerable to blackmail, it should be a no brainer for Guterres to appoint a new chief and investigate the present incumbent who stands accused of the harassment itself.
But the journalist who’s at the heart of the allegations against Guterres claims there’s more to it than meets the eye. He claims that Guterres wants him muffled due to his reporting on a separate matter involving the UN chief and the murky world of a Lisbon-based organization linked to Patrick Ho, the Hong Kong businessman convicted in 2018 of corruption charges of senior officials within the UN itself. Lee claims that the deal to sell an energy utility to a Chinese firm linked to HO – even though it never came off in the end – would have grave implications towards Guterres, who it is alleged did not disclose to the UN when he took the post that he was being paid by the same Lisbon organization.
If Guterres is linked in any way to Ho, who is currently in a US jail, it might mean an investigation into Guterres’s private income and could result in him resigning – or at the very least a lack of confidence in the UN boss by the bigger guns there like the US, Britain, France, China and Russia.
Given the gravity of the link with Ho, many might argue that this is entirely in line with at least two previous UN chiefs, who both left office tarnished by corruption allegations. And yet, in the case of Guterres, the graft seems to be deeper and go further.
And having journalists who write about it thrown out and ostracized only smacks of desperation of a man on the run.
Consequently, we should not expect anything in terms of cracking down on sex scandals and that a recent study, which revealed that a third of those interviewed claimed they were the victims of sexual harassment, is probably only scratching the surface. If the present UN chief of the Western Sahara mission gets his contract extended with no investigation into these allegations, then bigger nations – and certainly France and the UK – should reconsider keeping their current funding allocation and question Guterres’s judgment. Those two countries have leaders who are strongly supportive of the “MEtoo” phenomenon, which appears to have started with a Hollywood producer, but is now permeating huge organizations around the world like the UN.
Recently, we were all shocked when in February 2018, it emerged that Oxfam officials were implicated in a sex abuse scandal of local people in Haiti what was called an established practice of “rape-for-food” which was carried out for years by white aid workers who cravenly operated under a cloak of neo-colonial supremacy.
Two ugly facts emerge in the aftermath of that hideous story. Firstly that most of those who were caught carrying out the abuse found jobs quickly in the aid sector; and secondly, that most probably thought they were immune from prosecution when witnessing the same behavior of UN workers in the field.
The truth is that sex abuse on all levels is out of hand in the aid sector and the UN itself is leading a cavalcade of those who enjoy privilege and protection against their appalling crimes. Guterres needs to make a statement now with the MINURSO chief and show that when it comes to sex crimes within the UN, he should at least put his money where his mouth is and lead by example. He should show his strong words come from a strong stomach and lift the immunity which he and his organization gives to those who practice sexual harassment – and roll out a zero tolerance policy for those who stand accused whilst working in the field – or face investigation, opprobrium himself and a credibility crisis for the UN itself.