Some Disassembly Required

A bit of creative destruction might be just what the United Nations needs.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once famously mused that the U.N. headquarters building in New York could lose 10 floors and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. While this could seem like a crazy plan, in some ways, it might not go far enough. In my time reporting on the United Nations, I've encountered an alarmingly high number of offices and positions that could simply be cut without anyone noticing or caring, and a few whose disappearance might actually improve things. With U.N. headquarters currently undergoing renovation, it's worth considering a few.

Some U.N. employees are just taking up space. My publication, Inner City Press, has in recent months conducted a series of interviews with a U.N. staffer who has literally not done a single day of work for two years, but is still getting paid. The man lost his U.N. post to nepotism but lingers on the payroll, engaged in a Kafkaesque battle with the United Nations' internal justice system.

And he's not the only one. It's not uncommon for senior U.N. positions to be created solely as favors to their holders or member states. Former head of peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guhenno was, without any formal announcement, stealthily named under secretary-general for regional cooperation. Found recently strolling First Avenue in a mink-collared coat, Guhenno acknowledged that the United Nations has yet to send him a single case or piece of work -- despite pressing issues regarding the African Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (which has been conferring on Burma and North Korea's missile launch), and NATO, whose upcoming military exercises in Georgia are described as triggering Russian military moves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Despite these issues, there is apparently no regional cooperation work for Guhenno.

Valuable space could also be saved by eliminating the offices devoted to the United Nations' production of fake news about itself. The secretary-general has an Office of the Spokesperson, which issues statements generated by his advisors on the 38th floor. Fair enough -- every large organization needs a spokesperson. But the United Nations, for some reason, has seen fit to supplement the spokesperson's office with another U.N. entity -- the U.N. News Center -- a division of its Department of Public Information that takes the press statements and produces its own one-sided elaborations of them, not unlike the pseudo news produced by North Korea's in-house news wire. For example, U.N. News's coverage of the United Nations' role in the botched December 2008 attack on the Lord's Resistance Army rebels in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo omitted all of the concerns regarding peacekeepers' negligence raised by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders. Likewise, this year U.N. News has mentioned the shelling death of an NGO worker in Sri Lanka without naming the governmental origin of the shells or reporting on the United Nations' failure to gain -- or even publicly seek -- the release of U.N. staff from detention by the Sri Lankan government.

I have repeatedly asked U.N. officials why the United Nations produces potentially misleading coverage of itself. No answer to date has been convincing. Worse, some senior U.N. officials have developed the expectation that all press coverage should resemble the sycophantic question-and-answer charade conducted by U.N. News. Once when I interviewed and quoted then Office of Legal Affairs chief Nicolas Michel about why he accepted rent subsidies from the Swiss government while working for the United Nations, he later protested that it wasn't how he wished to be covered. He did not dispute the veracity of the quote; he only protested that news coverage -- even coverage of a violation of the U.N. Charter -- should be more positive. At a minimum, the U.N. information staff producing propaganda should be redeployed to provide information that independent media actually request from the United Nations.

The organization could learn from Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs's briefings, which dispense with the press release statements that his U.N. counterparts start with, and go straight to question-and-answer sessions. If a factual question cannot be answered at the briefing, the response is e-mailed later that day to the reporters who were there. At the United Nations, many questions simply go unanswered.

In the category of U.N. departments that don't merely waste space, but actually make the world a worse place, consider the U.N. Global Compact housed in the annex on the other side of First Avenue. Set up by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the United Nations' interface with private business, it has become a platform for agribusiness giant Monsanto to talk at a VIP luncheon about how it is solving the food crisis and for Microsoft's ambassador to Africa -- who just happens to be the brother of the United Nations' caretaker special adviser on Africa -- to meet with African heads of state.

Recently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed to the Global Compact's board of directors a South Korean businessman, Chey Tae-won, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2003 for the fraud of inflating the profits of his SK Group, which he still runs, by $1.25 billion. Global Compact director Georg Kell told Inner City Press that Chey's service on the board was fitting, as Chey has learned from his mistakes. The same, of course, could be said of Bernie Madoff. Ban's spokesperson, when asked for Ban's defense of Chey's selection, said that Kell's response was all there was to say.

This is far from the worst type of malfeasance that the United Nations routinely tolerates. It loudly claims to have zero tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation by its peacekeepers. But, just to take one example, when 111 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti in 2007 were accused of such abuse, they were merely sent back en masse to Sri Lanka. Therefore, the Ethics Office on the 30th floor, if it's incapable of even basic levels of oversight, should also be closed or at least downsized. Better for the United Nations to be involved in fewer things but doing them well than to appear to be doing everything but in ways that have no substance.

Additional space and money can also be freed by rethinking some far-flung U.N. offices that are primarily a sop to donor states. In Japan, there is a Center for Regional Development in Nagoya that, like the U.N. Information Center in Tokyo, is plagued by financial irregularities. It remains a mystery to me what this center accomplishes. The same can be said of the Seoul-based U.N. Project Office on Governance.

If these are the parts of the United Nations that, in a more rational world, would get shuttered, there are also a couple of offices that should exist, but don't. A year and a half after the Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti were returned to their home country, I asked both lead Haiti envoy Hdi Annabi and Ban's spokesperson for any indication that disciplinary action was taken by Colombo. None has been forthcoming. An Office of Discipline -- as opposed to the toothless Ethics Office -- would ensure that for serious crimes such as rape, perpetrators wouldn't escape just because they wear blue berets or helmets.

It would also be helpful to have an office for keeping track of casualties in ongoing conflicts. During the current surge of conflict in northern Sri Lanka, Ban's spokesperson told Inner City Press that the United Nations is not in the business of doing body counts, but only of helping people. But what's wrong with body counts? If the United Nations stands for civilians, it needs a more objective standard to determine the degree of concern member states should have over a given crisis. Number of human beings killed seems as good a method as any, and obtaining this information is exactly the sort of business the United Nations should be in.

It is also exactly the sort of thing that is likely to be ignored unless the United Nations can free up much-needed resources. However, under the organization's current Capital Master Plan, the size of U.N. headquarters is not to be reduced. So the edifice will continue to loom over First Avenue taking up space, while the organization it houses grows increasingly irrelevant.



Day of Reckoning in Sri Lanka

A mass slaughter of civilians will take place Tuesday at noon. And everyone knows it.

The Sri Lankan government has issued a deadline of noon tomorrow for the Tamil Tigers to surrender. With the embattled rebels unlikely to put down their guns before then, only forceful and immediate international action to halt the fighting can prevent the possible deaths of tens of thousands of civilians trapped between the warring parties.

More than 100,000 men, women and children are trapped in a space roughly the size of Central Park, caught up in a war between the Sri Lankan government and the remaining forces of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers. Cornered in a shrinking patch of coast in the Northeast of Sri Lanka, with little access to food, water or medicine the past three months, the civilians have remained out of the sight of most of the world. U.N. and humanitarian workers were forced by the government to leave LTTE areas last September; journalists have also been banned from witnessing the unfolding horror.

The area the Sri Lankan government calls the no fire zone -- a sea of people, tents, and makeshift shelters on a sliver of jungle and beach -- is being shelled by the military. The Tamil Tigers are using the refugees there as human shields, preventing them from leaving. Available reports suggest 5,000 civilians, including at least 500 children, have died since mid-January, and more than 10,000 have been injured. And even though tens of thousands of civilians escaped the so-called no fire zone last night, as the Sri Lankan military advanced, many more remain in grave danger. If the Sri Lankan government's noon deadline passes, the long feared final assault could begin, with innocent civilians suffering disastrous consequences.

After a 25-year fight against a brutal LTTE insurgency, the government's desire to finish the job is understandable. But as the onslaught continues to imperil civilians, an already humiliated Tamil diaspora is growing more volatile, angry, and mobilized -- a potentially explosive combination.

There are disturbing signs that a new generation of young Tamils in the United States, Canada, Britain, Europe, and India are being radicalized. That process has the potential to produce new forms of terrorism and violence. While the Tigers' targets have so far been contained to Sri Lanka, they might soon find new venues. If the Tiger's leadership is removed or killed in a government assault, it's easy to imagine one of the newly energized generation stepping in to fill the void. The dream of an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka resonates powerfully across the diaspora and will certainly live on even after the defeat of the LTTE as a conventional military force. The deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians -- while their family members watch from afar -- is a recipe for another, possibly more explosive, generation of terrorism.

Much of the international community knows what is happening and what is at stake. Nongovernmental organizations, including the International Crisis Group, have been sounding the alarm bells since last fall. Since then, more and more hard proof of unacceptable civilian suffering and war crimes have emerged, including the satellite images of the crowded tent camps seen here, video of dead children, and interviews with exhausted ICRC doctors. Nonetheless, the U.N. and influential governments have been slow to act and have allowed a bad situation to grow much worse.

Similar paralysis and foot dragging by multinational institutions and powerful countries produced Rwanda and Srebrenica. Barack Obama's administration has said it is committed to the principals of international law and humanitarian protection. Sri Lanka is the perfect opportunity for the new U.S. president to show that this is not empty rhetoric.

With both government forces and Tamil Tigers abdicating their responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities, urgent, determined, and united international action is necessary to ensure the safety of the innocent -- by the United Nations Security Council, other multilateral organizations, and individual countries that have relations with Sri Lanka, including India and Japan.

The French, British, and U.S. governments released important statements last week calling for a new pause in the fighting. They urged all sides to facilitate humanitarian access and free movement for at-risk civilians. This was a good start, but not nearly enough. Strong and timely messages must continue, and the consequences of a bloody end to this crisis must be made crystal clear. Both Tamil Tiger and government leaders should be told that they are liable to be held personally accountable for breaches of international humanitarian law, and that they need to find a solution that avoids further bloodshed.

Until a more lasting solution can be found and the Tigers persuaded to put down their guns, international actors must demand that the Sri Lankan government halt its offensive. What's needed is a humanitarian pause of at least two weeks to give a chance for relief supplies to get in and civilians to get out. U.N. agencies and the ICRC must be allowed full access to all locations where either civilians or surrendered Tamil Tiger fighters might cross over into government controlled areas. Both civilians -- and disarmed fighters -- need stronger international guarantees of their safety. Only international supervision, unhindered by the government, can provide the necessary level of protection.

All means of influencing the Tamil Tigers must be explored. The Tamil diaspora has an important role in persuading the LTTE to allow the trapped civilians to leave the target area and ultimately, agree to lay down their arms. Simple and one-sided denunciations of government shelling and civilian deaths are not enough -- the Tigers, too, share the blame and must be held accountable.

But at this decisive moment, it is the Sri Lankan government that holds the lives of the trapped Tamil civilians in its hands. It is to the Sri Lankan government that international leaders must send their most immediate messages of restraint. How the war ends will be critical to Sri Lanka's future. Will it be in a bloody massacre whose memory will be used to incite decades more war and terrorism? Or will we see renewed efforts to find a negotiated end to the fighting, and with it, the possibility of building a new, more peaceful Sri Lanka for all its people?