The State of the UN: Mark Malloch Brown on NPR

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State of the United Nations

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.

The crises that face the United Nations today include charges of corruption and mismanagement, rape and murder by UN peacekeepers, and the deep rift between the world body and its most important member, the United States. The UN has also found itself a target in some places in the world. A huge bomb destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad a year and a half ago. Just last week, nine UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh were killed in the Congo. As part of an effort to reform and revitalize the institution, Secretary-General Kofi Annan replaced his longtime chief of staff. The new number-three at the UN is Mark Malloch Brown, previously vice president for communications at the World Bank who’s earned praise as the head of the UNDP, the UN Development Program. Since taking the job as chief of staff, he’s mounted what some call a charm offensive here in Washington, DC, and he’s also played a roll in tsunami relief.

And let me now welcome Mark Malloch Brown, the chief of staff to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who joins us from our bureau in New York.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. MARK MALLOCH BROWN (Chief of Staff to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: The issue of accountability is among your biggest challenges. Let’s jump right in. What’s being done at the UN regarding the oil-for-food program still being investigated by Paul Volcker?

Mr. BROWN: Well, I think that’s the first point–still being investigated–and we’ve put together a huge investigative apparatus, not just Paul Volcker but close to 70 top-class investigators supporting him and examining records that quite literally have trails that lead around the world. And yet there was only one UN name on the 270 names of individuals who it seems have benefited from–on the list of individuals in Baghdad who allegedly received oil allocations from Saddam Hussein. So I think we’re going after our bit of this scandal very vigorously and determinedly, and if it ends up in criminal prosecutions, we’ll make sure that those prosecutions happen and that if necessary people go to jail for this. But the fact is what the UN has gotten caught up in is a much bigger story of governments doing political deals to protect allies, to make sure that Iraq’s oil continued to reach countries such as Jordan and Turkey even during the Saddam Hussein years. So ours is just a small bit of a bigger scandal actually.

CONAN: You find yourself–you, the UN; I’m talking about you institutionally already–but the UN finds itself now being investigated. Several investigations are under way here in Washington, DC, about this oil-for-food program. And the UN is in a way being called on the carpet by one of its member states.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. I mean, there are half a dozen investigations in Washington, and, you know, a lot of the rest of the world looks on a little bewilderedly because while there is a recognition of wrongdoing in the UN that must be corrected, there’s a worry about the proportionality: Why is there not a similar investigation of US involvement in or allowance of oil smuggling during those years? So there’s constantly in the rest of the world a concern that there is a political dimension to this as well, not just a push for accountability. But, you know, I think the way we look at it is whatever the origins of this, whatever the political motives that are involved, nevertheless, these committees in Washington have a real point. There was wrongdoing at the UN, an organization which must live by the highest ethical standards, and we’ve got to correct it and root it out and have an organization that people everywhere–Americans, people in any country anywhere–can have confidence in as a place of the highest values and ethics in the way it operates.

CONAN: You talked about a political component to this. How much of this do you think is the result of a grudge held by some in Washington over the UN and the war in Iraq?

Mr. BROWN: Well, I mean, I think there is–obviously, it’s even older than the war in Iraq. I mean, for years the UN has been dogged by charges that it’s the world government trying to kind of get influence over US life through the back door. And, you know, there’s always been a small element of American public opinion which has subscribed to that kind of conspiracy theory. I think what’s happened with oil-for-food is those concerns have come more into the mainstream because here is real proof of things which went wrong. Same with the devastating and tragic allegations of sexual exploitation of underage girls in the Congo and perhaps in other peacekeeping operations. Again, these are not things that we can shrug off as the conspiracy theories of right-wingers who don’t mean the UN good. These are real problems which have given our critics real meat to feed on, and, you know, we can’t solve them with a public-relations charm offensive, as some may think we’re trying to do. We’ve got to correct the problems inside the organization that led to them. Otherwise, mainstream American public opinion is not going to recover confidence in us.

CONAN: We’ll get back to the scandal involving the peacekeepers in just a moment, but in a piece in The Times of London, you wrote among many other things that `the UN needs to escape the busy hands of too many governments seeking to micromanage what we do.’ Is that a way of saying the United States?

Mr. BROWN: No, it’s not. I mean, it’s a way of saying all governments, because when you get scandals of the kind we’re discussing, the instant reaction of many governments and of many parliaments and congresses around the world is, `Gosh, these guys are out of control. We should manage their affairs more carefully.’ And our argument is that oil-for-food and other issues shows that there’s just too much micromanagement through a kind of complex committee system where all our management decisions are subject to review by intergovernmental panels and, therefore, subject to political horse dealing by those panels and that oil-for-food showed this.

There was a committee of the Security Council which approved every oil-for-food contract and never once challenged one on grounds of corruption and overpricing, but did sort of mean that responsibility for the program was split between this committee, whose considerations were entirely political and often very properly so, and the secretary-general, who only had partial authority over the program. And what we’re saying is, `Give the secretary-general the power to manage the organization like a chief executive would of a corporation or a president would of a country and then hold him accountable as a parliament or a congress does or as a board of directors and shareholders do, to hold him accountable to agreed benchmarks of results but let him or her manage towards them.’ So this is a plea by a kind of professional manager in the international system–myself–to say, `Give us the space to manage. Give us the tools to manage. And then we will do so in a transparent and accountable way. And you hold us accountable for those results.’

CONAN: Accountability. Again, the situation regarding the sex crimes apparently committed by UN peacekeepers in, as you said, primarily the Congo but that’s not the only place. A former American diplomat, according to The Washington Post today, may resign over these allegations. What can you tell us about this?

Mr. BROWN: Well, the individual referred to is a very distinguished American diplomat who is ambassador in Sudan, Haiti, amongst other places, in a long career and has in recent years, Bill Swing, been leading a huge and complicated and difficult operation in the Congo, one which as you mentioned had nine peacekeepers killed at the end of last week, where today peacekeepers came under attack again and responded very robustly and killed 50 or 60 rebels. So he’s managing an operation in a theater of war or at least creeping insurgency, but, you know, in it, the highest standards of behavior by our peacekeepers and indeed by civilian officials in the mission has lapsed, and they have not honored the secretary-general’s demand for what we call a zero tolerance policy towards no prostitution, no sexual relations with underage minors and very limited fraternization with local people.

And this is because, you know, our peacekeepers arrive with relative wealth compared to the very low incomes of those around them. And it very easily becomes an exploitive situation where sexual favors are sold. And so we have to stop that, and Bill Swing, who is himself a man of the utter integrity and honor, you know, is the guy in charge. So he is coming to New York to discuss the next steps. He’s not resigned, but he’s very aware that ultimately the buck stops with him in terms of responsibility for the program.

CONAN: Below that level, though, has any UN peacekeeper been charged? Has any UN official lost his job?

Mr. BROWN: Absolutely. First, we’ve changed all the senior civilian and military command in that operation bar the top man. Second, there are a number of officials–there’s a particularly terrible case of a UN official charged with running a pedophile net who is in prison now in France awaiting trial and has been suspended without pay and now dismissed from the UN. And there are others similarly who’ve been either dismissed or facing legal proceedings in their own countries. So we’ve come down on this thing like a ton of bricks because we recognize it is hugely damaging to the UN in Congo but also globally. Peacekeepers who come to make the peace and improve the lives of those they seek to help utterly undermine that mission and themselves when they engage in these behaviors.

CONAN: You wrote in that same piece in The Times of London that this raises fundamental questions about an organization whose authority stems from core values of integrity and trust.

Mr. BROWN: Absolutely. And we have to win that back. You know, the fact is there’s an extenuating context. For many years, soldiers abroad did believe there was a certain freedom to, if you like, sort of sow their wild oats before they went home. And, you know, many of our peacekeepers come from conservative countries, leaving their communities for the first time and no doubt see great incentives to behave in the way that generations of soldiers behaved before. In my own country, British soldiers off on imperial missions abroad no doubt engaged in many of these behaviors. And somehow peacekeeping, therefore, had gotten stuck in a time warp. These soldiers didn’t understand that there are new standards now expected of people, that the world has moved on, and I think we’ve got to just make sure peacekeepers catch up with today’s global social standards and expectations.

CONAN: More with the new chief of staff at the United Nations, Mark Malloch Brown, after a short break.

I’m Neal Conan. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.

We’re talking about reform and revitalization of the United Nations. Our guest is Mark Malloch Brown, recently appointed chief of staff to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Of course, you’re invited to join the conversation. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address:

And let’s get a caller right now. Roger joins us from Rockford, Illinois.

ROGER (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

ROGER: I would like to ask Mark why it seems that the UN is so incapable at least in the past of intervening quickly in situations such as those in Rwanda, Darfur. At least now they’re coming into the Congo. What is it that holds the UN back from getting peacekeepers in and stopping the slaughter of people that goes on on a daily basis? And I’ll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Roger.

Mr. BROWN: Well, Roger, you know, I think it starts with the political will of governments to back us to do the job properly, the financial resources and the troops to get there and get the job done. And let me take the current example of Darfur, which really exercises me deeply. I mean, if you’re chief of staff, you want to make sure you don’t have on your watch a Rwanda because what’s happened with Rwanda, a general there in charge and others in charge sent messages back to UN headquarters and said, `Something terrible is brewing here. You need to intervene more decisively to head it off.’ But there just was not the political will in the Security Council, the financial resources or the troops available to do it. And so a terrible slaughter unfolded, a genocide unfolded.

Now in Darfur, we have a declining humanitarian situation with now close to two million people displaced, with our humanitarian operations increasingly hindered by rising levels of insecurity, with continued violence against Sudanese going on, and we have not yet gotten out of the Security Council a resolution that allows us to go in there and forcefully back up the African Union monitors, of whom there are only some hundreds currently on the ground in a place the size of France. And we need to get a much more robust UN backup to them in place.

But it’s very, very difficult despite the fact the US Congress has passed many resolutions on this, called the situation a genocide. To translate that into the resources to get it done is difficult, and, you know, then only three armies in the world can deploy in a matter of days or weeks–the American Army, the British and the French. When it comes to ourselves using a patchwork of logistics equipment–planes rented from Russia and Ukraine, troops from various different troop-contributing countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, African countries Nigeria, Kenya, others–to put all this together and put troops in Darfur to stop what’s happening is something, like a four-month minimum time line, and that’s three times quicker than it was back in the days of Rwanda. We’ve improved since, but until we’re given the will and the muscular resources to step in and end conflicts, we’re going continue to disappoint, but this is governments that need to step up and give us the means to do this.

CONAN: Might governments be more willing to contribute if the leadership of the UN, the secretary-general, called Darfur instead of a declining humanitarian situation a genocide?

Mr. BROWN: Well, he’s called it a war crime on a heinous scale. I mean, the point about genocide is a dangerously, if you like, distracting argument because, you know, what the commission of inquiry that we formed said was there are killings and human-rights crimes on a scale which may be equal to genocide, but the motives of these killings are an out-of-control, runaway, violent counterinsurgency operation where there have been efforts to empty villages which are seen as supporting the rebels and insurgents. It is not a genocide in the sense it’s not an effort to destroy this ethnic group, but it said, `Look, while it’s important to defend distinctions and definitions, it’s a huge human-rights crime and there needs to be an intervention to stop it and the perpetrators of it need to be taken to justice.’ Now neither have happened. The intervention isn’t there yet, and there has not been an agreement by the Security Council on what kind of court should be established to bring the perpetrators to justice.

So we have this commission which we looked into it, gave the secretary-general a sealed list of some 70 names against whom it felt there were credible war-crimes charges. That list sits in the secretary-general’s safe, and I think I and the secretary-general are the only who know the code, because we’ve got no court to turn it over to. Again, it’s inaction at the intergovernmental level, and I hope through engaging with the American public in programs like this, one can kind of spur political action to members of Congress and from members of Congress to the administration to get this back onto the front burner, to give it the sense of urgency that America was giving it six months ago. America’s been a real leader on this issue, but it needs now to kind of come back hard to not let this thing sit in the Security Council while war crimes go on in Darfur.

CONAN: Let’s get another caller on the line. James joins us from River Edge, New Jersey.

JAMES (Caller): How are you?

CONAN: All right.

JAMES: Good. My question is in regards to the effect the UN authority has in the world and how it’s been hinder by the US–I guess its action in Iraq, how it basically went it alone, whether the UN cared, whatever the UN says. I also would like to mention and point out the fact that you have a lot of countries stating that they don’t want anybody to go nuclear or to acquire nuclear weapons, and you have Israel complaining on the UN floor that Syria and Iran and North Korea should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Yet, you know, it’s common knowledge that they have over 200 nuclear weapons and have never signed any agreement to be monitored and have never let a UN inspection in any of their sites and…

CONAN: Not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

JAMES: That’s correct.

CONAN: Yeah.

JAMES: And knowing that, there’s never been one UN inspector to be able to go into Israel. They’ve not allowed it.

CONAN: Because they’re not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

JAMES: That I understand, but at the same time, they have a voice on the floor of the UN stating that no one else should? It’s a tad bit hypocritical and I believe they’re emboldened–excuse me–by the US actions in Iraq and, you know, the last four years since Bush has been president. And it’s disrespect to the UN authority and…

CONAN: Let’s get a response from Mark Malloch Brown. Yeah.

Mr. BROWN: Well, look, the General Assembly reflects the world of which it’s part, and to the extent it’s a microcosm, all the contradictions and hypocrisies that you see going on in the world play out in the debates of the General Assembly. And, you know, the challenge in the UN is to kind of cut through that and create courses of action that command a majority and ideally a consensus and where you get people to kind of rise a little bit above their national interests and understand the greater global good. And the secretary-general in a sort of huge last effort, a legacylike effort this fall, is going to come to the world with an agenda of reforms on international security and on development which, at the one hand, will offer the US what it needs in terms of a greater global crackdown on terrorism, a strengthened Security Council and much strengthened non-proliferation regime against both nuclear weapons and other new emerging categories of weapons like chemical and biological, while at the same time offering poor countries what they desperately need, which is a new deal on development, more help to meet at least a basic income standard and health and education for kids and families.

And as we’ve tried to put that deal together, we hope we can get the General Assembly to be better than the sum of its parts and to come together around a kind of global deal which will allow us to put Iraq behind us and move forward in a much more collaborative and cooperative and fraternal way. But, you know, even as we do that, we will go on having lots of nasty quarrels all around the world, and it’s an indispensable part of the UN’s job to both provide forums for people to let off steam about that but more critically through the Security Council to provide means to resolve those disputes before they get really nasty.

CONAN: Yeah. You’ve talked about this millennium deal. You’ve said the UN needs a San Francisco moment, referring to the conference in San Francisco in 1945, the creation of the United Nations. Is that kind of revitalization necessary at this point?

Mr. BROWN: I absolutely think it is, and it’s a tall order from where we are now in February to where we need to be in September, because we’ve got to put these scandals behind us with a really credible, far-reaching set of reforms that show that we’re managing our own house, that we’re getting the organization back to the standards of accountability and transparency and ethical behavior that people have a right to expect of the UN. And then we have to turn the world’s attention to the fact that this is a dangerous place. It’s a dangerous place for those of us who live in a city like New York, because of the fears of terrorism and new generations of small weapons which can be brought to the heart of a city like this.

But it’s a dangerous place for someone growing up poor in Africa, where perhaps a third of the people in his or her village, young adults, are likely to be infected with HIV, where poverty and hunger, malaria and many other threats are much more present in their lives than terrorism is in ours. And somehow, finding a global deal which addresses both those agendas and brings people together around a revitalized United Nations and a revitalized multilateral, political will to support it would offer the world a really fine new starting point in the UN, the kind of re-legitimization that it perhaps needs at this point.

CONAN: Let’s get another caller on the line. Henry’s with us from Cleveland.

HENRY (Caller): Hi. I’ve had the fortunate or misfortune to work with the UN several times on peacekeeping efforts, and I’ve found out and I’ve taken to heart the criticisms of severe cronyism and the blood of bureaucracies I’ve had to deal with and the many other instances where instead of getting things done, we just got paperwork moved, and it feels like Kofi Annan’s taking a step back in that under his administration. What steps are you looking for as you reform this UN into something a little more agile and maybe quick reacting in the bureaucratic sense?

Mr. BROWN: Well, look, first, Kofi Annan has been a great reformer. He had himself been the head of peacekeeping, as well as the head of management inside the UN before he became secretary-general. And, you know, what is striking to those of us who are his loyal friends and colleagues is that for eight years, he was celebrated in America for his modern leadership of the United Nations. He got a Nobel Prize. But had huge respect across all walks of life in this country, and then suddenly, it’s blown away and he’s seen as somehow a tarnished leader of a corrupt organization, and all that he’s done to move the organization forward seems to matter for naught. So I think it’s very important to understand all he’d done, but also, to recognize that despite all that reform, oil-for-food and sexual exploitation has happened, and many of our operations are still too bureaucratic and too slow, as the caller has just said. So we’ve got to kind of renew our efforts to correct these problems.

But if I could just say, I mean, I think the other point which is incredibly important for listeners to understand, is while the UN seems like a huge bureaucracy, it’s actually globally smaller than city government in New York City with a much smaller budget, and yet is, you know, trying to stop wars in a dozen countries with peacekeeping operations, has UNICEF and the World Food Program running, humanitarian operations from tsunami-affected countries, to Bolivia and Afri–or to Latin America and Africa and way beyond those places. You have my old organization, UNDP, in 160 countries, bringing development assistance. But all with a much smaller head count and a much smaller budget than the city of New York. So, you know, perversely I’d argue we’re undermanned and underfinanced for the tasks people give us, rather than too big and too bureaucratic.

CONAN: Mark Malloch Brown is chief of staff to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask a question about, as you mentioned, your old job. I think you still have, as the head of UNDP, at least until somebody else is named. You’ve said that, you know, the world as a whole is likely to have poverty by 2015–this is in terms of the Millennial Project–have poverty based just on current trends in Asia. The problem, you say, is in Africa.

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. I mean, first, you know, Africa tends to loom large in all our visions and images of global poverty, but the fact is two-thirds of the world’s poor live, by good fortune, in the highly dynamic region of Asia, where China and India between them are lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the years; I mean, China alone, 300 million over the last 15 years or so. So that region is broadly on track, but partly it’s on track because they have the kind of economies which allow them to make heavy investment of their own in poverty reduction and in bringing health, education and economic opportunity to the poorer segments of their societies.

By contrast in Africa, you have countries which have no ability to compete effectively in the global economy, because of distance and landlockedness and lack of infrastructure to get goods to port in world markets, lack the capital to renew their agricultural systems, they’ve lost topsoils. They don’t have adequate water management or fertilizers or nutrients, are done down by diseases which are simple and cheap to address such as malaria or even now HIV, where antiretrovirals have become very affordable, even in poor countries, if the resources are made available.

They can’t break out of this poverty trap and need international public investment to do so, and so very much what we’re pushing for is to help Asia and other regions continue on the track they’re going and to address some weaknesses they have in their development model, particularly as it relates to women and to the environment. But to particularly concentrate our external international efforts on Africa, but also a few other landlocked or isolated world regions, where they don’t have the means locally available to them to break out of this poverty trap, and yet, where if we gave them that means, even over the next 10 years before we reach 2015, this deadline for halving poverty, they could make extraordinary strides if they could emulate some of the success of Asia.

CONAN: Mark Malloch Brown, thanks very much for being with us and good luck to you.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Mark Malloch Brown is chief of staff to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and was kind enough to join us today from our bureau in New York.

When we come back from a short break, the Ten Commandments get their day at the US Supreme Court. We’ll hear about what happened. Plus, federal judges at risk.

I’m Neal Conan. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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