Cover Story, Organizations, World — December 1, 2005 at 10:58 am

Reaching for the Stars

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Illustration by Shaina Rubin

The Valentine’s Day bombing in downtown Beirut that led to the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 members of his caravan unleashed a political fury in the Middle East. Hariri had been instrumental in negotiating a peace agreement acceptable to both the Lebanese National Assembly and Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime. With negotiations over the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon looming, Hariri’s passing could not have come at a worse time. His death threatened the fragile peace between both nations and, more importantly, the region’s tenuous hold on law and order.

The United Nations Security Council assumed responsibility for the investigation into the assassination in the hope of preserving the diplomatic gains achieved thus far and preventing the development of an even more hostile atmosphere. UNSC Resolution 1595 established an International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis and headquartered in Lebanon. The Commission’s mandate was to investigate the physical aspects of the crime and draw any pertinent conclusions, which were then to be turned over to the Lebanese government for use in judicial proceedings.

After months of scrutinizing the crime scene, telephone intercepts of key officials, and testimonies of over 500 individuals, the commission issued a comprehensive summary of its findings. The assassination “was carried out by a group with extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities,” indicated a spokesperson for Mehlis, who added that “evidence points at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist attack.” When the investigation was presented to Lebanese authorities, the Assad government immediately denounced its claim of collusion between the state security services and alleged that the UN investigation had been flawed.

The complexities surrounding Hariri’s assassination and the formation of the IIIC compel the international community to reconsider the efficacy of the UN as an investigative institution and judicial body. The investigation concluded and the judicial proceedings nearly underway, a fog of partisan politics clouds any semblance of due process. Despite a comprehensive effort to ensure the impartiality of the investigation, the work of Mehlis and the IIIC will be for naught if the findings are put in the hands of a biased judicial system. In this case, Hariri’s supporters in the Lebanese government will seek vengeance through the courts, and those high-ranking members of the Lebanese security service involved in the plot will try to save their own skins. In addition, the prosecutorial system in Syria does not have even the veil of impartiality. The combination of these concerns means that the responsibility for choosing the proper judicial body reverts back to the UN. Unfortunately, as the oil-for-food scandal has shown, it is no longer clear that the international community can afford to place its trust in the UN.

Complicating Factors

The role of the UN as a global police force is complicated by several factors. First, although the UN is an international organization that derives legitimacy from its member states, its investigative jurisdiction is constrained by the relative power of the state in question. The combination of Lebanese dependence on international aid and possible Syrian involvement in the assassination allowed the IIIC to assume jurisdiction in the Hariri case without too much resistance. However, if a similar event took place within the United States or the United Kingdom, the UN’s claim to jurisdiction would be significantly less powerful. In the future, if the UN is to serve as an effective police force, then it must clearly understand the limits of investigative mandate and its scope for meting out punishment.

Second, as the Hariri investigation demonstrated, the jurisdictional ambiguity does not end with the decision about whether the UN should conduct an investigation. “In the status quo, the UN heads the investigation, determining the facts and finding evidence,” observes Nile Gardiner, a Fellow of Anglo-American Security at the Heritage Foundation. “Once complete, the findings are turned over to the appropriate member state to commence with indictment and prosecution.” Yet as both the Security Council and the General Assembly are run by self-interested member nations, the search for an unbiased process for deciding jurisdiction would ultimately prove futile. Moreover, in the case of authoritarian states, which in itself is a standard open to debate, Gardiner notes that “the judicial jurisdiction is given to either the International Criminal Court or a special UN tribunal convened on a case-by-case basis.”

Third, the assignment of jurisdiction is further complicated by the potential involvement of the International Criminal Court—another international organization that derives legitimacy from its member states, though several key nations are absent, including the US. The level and legitimacy of justice achieved when the fundamental principles of the institution themselves cannot be agreed upon by the major powers. On the other hand, if special criminal tribunals were established for each case, there is no guarantee that the quality of justice would change—only the cause for criticism.

With these questions in mind, many wonder if the UN has what it takes to be the world’s police force. The Hariri investigation brings these murky problems into stark relief. One solution is “to empower Mehlis,” suggests Ammar Abdulhamid, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He believes that “the long-term answer is to enhance the scope of UN investigative and judicial jurisdiction,” with the latter assuming special focus when dealing with authoritarian states.

The investigation of the Hariri assassination is only the most recent event in an historic series that illuminates the fledgling state of UN reform under Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and Chairman of the United Nations Task Force of the US Institute of Peace, argues that “by fulfilling our long-standing commitment to reform limited oversight, inadequate management systems, and over-politicization, the UN will be in the position to effectively investigate and adjudicate complex international cases.” Despite the calls for structural reform by every secretary- general since the founding of the UN, the implementation of lasting change has not been accomplished. The Hariri case indicates the need for a greater UN presence, but only if accompanied by adequate resources, and manpower, and a clear investigative jurisdiction.

As it stands, the UN takes the lead on investigation but abdicates ultimate responsibility to either the ICC or the judiciary of a member state. The statutes governing these bodies are untested and extremely complex; each case is defined by its unique circumstances, not to mention the complexities of carrying out an international indictment. As such, Abdulhamid points out, “Strong cooperation between the mandated UN investigative commission and the respective judicial system [of the country in question] is absolutely necessary,” at least until the UN defines a set of guidelines by which it can operate universally.

Fixing the UN

For many, it has become increasingly clear that the United Nations is the only organization capable of maintaining a world police force. Yet as the scandal surrounding the Iraqi Oil-for- Food Program (OFF) illustrates, in its current state the UN is unprepared to handle this awesome responsibility.

In April 2004, Secretary-General Annan convened the UN Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) of the Oil-for-Food Program to respond to allegations of corruption carried out by UN and non-UN officials alike. The findings showed that “more than 2,000 companies that did business with the United Nations’ now-defunct Iraqi Oil-for-Food Program were involved in bribes and kickbacks,” wrote IIC chairman and former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker in an email to me. This allowed “Saddam Hussein’s sanction-bound regime to divert nearly two billion dollars” from legitimate to illegitimate uses. Volcker argued for new management systems and increased transparency. He also expressed his surprise at “the politicization of the process,” by which Hussein targeted specific states for cooperation that would benefit from the end of sanctions.

The results of the inquiry show that “what is at stake is whether the UN will be able to act effectively, whether it will have the funds, the competence and the administrative leadership to respond,” Volcker wrote, adding that “the Security Council did not properly delegate responsibility to the Secretariat.” A systemic overhaul, he believes, is an absolute necessity for overall UN operations and specifically its investigative functions.

Since the release of the final IIC report, Secretary-General Annan has refocused his proposals to increase oversight, transparency, and accountability within the UN administration. Recently progress on these reforms has stalled. This is especially unfortunate as these efforts are only the initial steps on the road to restoring the UN’s ability to function as an impartial and effective investigative body.

Volcker suggested four key areas for improvement. First, in initiating and approving UN intervention in critical and administratively complex areas, “the Security Council needs to clarify purpose and criteria.” The responsibilities should be “clearly delegated to the Secretariat and appropriate agencies, with understood lines of reporting and responsibility.” Especially with regard to large-scale investigations of complex international cases, the clarity of responsibilities and the transparency of the tasked agencies are fundamental to a speedy and complete investigative process.

Second, Volcker argued that “the position of Chief Operating Officer (COO) should be created.” Its holder should be “granted direct access to the Security Council, with authority for planning and personnel practices that emphasize professional and administrative talent.” The secretary-general is a purely diplomatic and political position that lacks the proper administrative focus. The historic paucity of attention given to administrative planning and personnel management by the Office of the Secretary- General creates an institutional black hole in which any project, despite its importance, may be irretrievably lost. The OFF crisis suggests that corrupt UN officials slowly built up the large embezzlement figures that were reported during the initial revelations of scandal. Without clear guidelines for the daily execution of their duties, UN officials possess an incredible opportunity for illegal profit.

Third, in order to bolster existing management protocols, “the present internal control, auditing and investigatory functions need to be strongly reinforced,” asserted Gingrich, who supported Volcker “in the formation of a strong Independent Oversight Board (IOB) with adequate staff support and capacity to fully review resource usage.” The three existing oversight mechanisms, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the Joint Inspection unit, and the Board of Auditors currently possess only marginal authority to manage and investigate internal practices. The proposed IOB would “ensure that audits and investigations are truly independent,” Gingrich observed, adding that it would be granted funding outside of the general budgetary process.

The final area for reform is interagency cooperation within the UN. The Security Council and the Secretary-General must designate appropriate oversight mechanisms to supervise and coordinate this kind of activity. Responsibility and financing must be granted only to those projects that can achieve clear objectives.

With a powerful reform agenda, the systemic flaws responsible for the OFF scandal can be remedied. Only then will the UN be ready to successfully undertake global investigations. Unfortunately, despite the suggestions of Volcker’s IIC and Gingrich’s UN Task Force, improved institutional organization is not enough to give the UN global police power. During the OFF scandal, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs butted heads with Volcker and the IIC. Apparently, the US believes that the position of world patrol officer is filled.

The US case for control over the investigative and judicial process will strengthen as Secretary-General Annan is accused of using his influence to determine the report of the IIC. Volcker’s refusal to provide the requested evidence to the subcommittee has led to greater Congressional criticism of the UN and other international organizations. Not even the US, however, could legally justify intervention in a case involving only two other sovereign states. At this point, the world can only wait patiently for the results of the UN reform effort and hope that with this newfound resolve the organization will finally be able to accept the responsibilities that it alone is positioned to shoulder.

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