Legal Accountability of International Organizations and Their Agents

by Kenneth Anderson

Not infrequently, I have lamented what I perceive as the lack of due attention in the scholarly literature to the actual circumstances of international organizations, starting with the UN.  One of those fundamental issues concerns accountability, in the special sense that there is no obvious judicial forum for reviewing actions even of individuals alleged to have engaged in serious misconduct, such as fraud, embezzlement, etc.

On the one hand, the treaties put the organizations and their civil servants beyond the reach of national courts – leaving at most in some cases the often highly unlikely possibility of a prosecution or civil action in the person’s national jurisdiction, but that too seems put out of reach in many if not all cases.  On the other hand, such accountability as supposedly exists rests in various internal review processes.  These internal review processes vacillate between being tools by which senior managers are able to punish whistleblowers and protect themselves or their underlings or national confreres or what have you, or else being captured by the other side of the process through what amounts (in my jaundiced view, admittedly) to the world’s strongest public employee union at the UN.

I suppose I am not surprised that legal academics find it hard to get too interested in the hard material facts of UN budgets and fiscal accounting, although as Marx often advised, follow the money.  But it is more surprising to me that so little attention has been paid to the legal issues involved in whether and which courts might have jurisdiction in any of the remarkably varied cases that in an accountable domestic society might have attracted the attention of regulators or prosecutors or someone, by agencies and organizations also remarkably varied, and finally individual actors who also vary quite a lot in their legal situations, perhaps diplomats, perhaps not, and so on.

At the height of the Oil-for-Food scandal at the UN, when the General Secretariat was at its politically weakest as the reach of the scandal went all the way up to Kofi Annan (whom the Volcker reports left seriously wounded, with clear implications of some level of culpability, while leaving a barely sufficient shred of cover to not force a fight over pushing Annan to resign), there were calls for someone to prosecute someone for something.  It was not just the Oil-for-Food scandal, as anyone familiar even superficially with the opportunities for fraud, self-dealing, and rent-seeking in a system at once as byzantine and unaccountable as the UN’s would recognize.  As more rocks began to be overturned, evidence serious graft, embezzlement, kickbacks, and other serious financial fraud of a kind that would plainly be criminally prosecutable, if only there were someplace to prosecute it, began to emerge in other UN programs.  The procurement program for the politically crucial peacekeeping operations – in my view, one of the (very few) UN activities worthy of serious support by the US – was particularly at risk, for example, as its budget has ramped up in recent years, outstripping the regular organization budget.  Nor am I raising political or policy questions here – just “simple” fraud by well-placed officials.

In the midst of this turmoil at the UN in 2005, the then-Manhattan DA, the legendary Robert Morgenthau, announced an investigation into the senior UN official in the Oil-for-Food scandal, Benon Sevan (who departed to his native Cyprus, and, if I recall correctly and I might not, following “internal reviews” at the UN, had his legal fees paid and saw no reduction in his pension benefits).  The legal basis for this was never exactly clear to me.  Because the UN is located in Manhattan?  Because some of the conduct involved might have taken place in Manhattan but outside of the UN territory, or involved non-UN assets such as telephone lines, etc.?  This is, after all, an investigation by a state DA, and not even a federal prosecutor.  Although somewhat weirdly, given the politics at that moment, a local level investigation by a state DA of unimpeachable integrity and also a stalwart of the Democratic establishment – rather than a DOJ investigation by the then-Bush administration, turned out to be far more politically palatable.

In any case, the weakened Annan did not do what might otherwise have been an inflexible and categorical response of the UN – quite naturally, to be sure, for any sovereign – to disclaim any jurisdictional basis for a Manhattan DA to get involved at all.  Benon Sevan had diplomatic immunity, but the General Secretariat indicated that it would waive it if requested by a prosecutor – clearly meaning Morgenthau.  Perhaps the senior UN management understand perfectly well that Sevan would depart to his native country which of course would do nothing; perhaps some small number of top UN leaders understood that this lack of accountability was a genuine problem and that Morgenthau was a decent option.  (I skip over some other Manhattan DA investigations, particularly involving corruption in UN peacekeeping procurement.)  (Update: see Jeffrey Meyer’s correction in the comments – re indictment of Sevan, not just investigation, and also filling in other prosecutions in the procurement and other situations – thanks.)

It is not hard to see, in other words, that international organizations such as the UN have massive agency failure problems.  That is a somewhat anodyne way of putting it; the problems range from rent-seeking to major criminal corruption and fraud.  They arise from a treaty structure deliberately designed to shield the organization and its agents from judicial accountability – for perfectly understandable reasons, to be sure.  And from the predictable “capture” of internal review mechanisms.  The result is to put the UN and international organizations and their agents in fundamental ways outside of the rule of law in the most ordinary sense.  That’s not too strong a way of putting it.  But again, this receives remarkably little attention from academics.  The reflexive position of observers tends to be to define today’s deviancy down, discounting today against the glorious, but always-receding, always-promised future of international institutions.  Mostly, I think, people just want to focus on the idealistic stuff about tomorrow and plug up their ears about anything that actually happens today.

So let me welcome a new paper up on SSRN by Matthew Parish, of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, writing in the International Organizations Law Review, “An Essay on the Accountability of International Organizations,” offering a detailed look at the problems of legal accountability for a wide variety of international organizations and their agents.  It is a fine paper on a neglected topic.  I don’t say this from complete agreement; I have reservations about the paper’s proposals for accountability for national peacekeeping forces on missions in the field, for example.  Nor does Parish share my fundamental skepticism about the UN and its imagined mission; far from it, he is looking for ways to make it better on its own terms.  But overall I think it has many sensible things to say, and in any case offers a cogent account of the many agency failure problems at issue, from the standpoint of legal jurisdiction.  I’ve put the abstract from SSRN below the fold.

International organizations sometimes suffer from acute agency problems. Three exogenous methods of addressing those problems are considered: economic incentives, political accountability and legal accountability. For international organizations, the first is undesirable and the second inevitably weak. There is therefore an argument for heightened legal scrutiny of their actions. Yet international organizations have an unenviable track record of acting without regard to the most fundamental international standards of rule of law, and this article offers an unsightly catalogue of their legal aberrations. Moreover, the internal legal mechanisms international organizations have created ostensibly to hold themselves to account prove wanting at best. There may also be structural reasons why international courts and tribunals will never be able to conduct an adequate review of the important decisions international organizations routinely take. This makes those organizations’ assertions of blanket legal immunity from jurisdiction of domestic courts appear increasingly inexplicable, as it removes all possibility of legal accountability. The supposed rationales for legal immunities of international organizations are reviewed and proved wanting. The conclusion drawn is that international organizations should be subjected to radically improved regimes of international judicial oversight, or their immunities should be abrogated in certain areas so that they may be rendered subject to the jurisdiction of the domestic courts of the countries in which they operate, or both. Measures of this kind may dramatically improve the quality of decision-making and accountability of international organizations.

5 Responses

  1. Geez – sound like the US and high-level civilians and military generals (or intelligence types in particular) on torture.  What to do MacNeil, What to do MacNeil (as my mother would say in my childhood in Liberia).  The waiver of immunity option seemed eminently sensible.  For an organization build on discussing difficult politics, I agree that they should be regarded.  How about another option – an addendum to the ICC Statute for criminal prosecutions of IGO persons violating a IGO Criminal Code ?

  2. The purely practical argument is that the ICC lacks the capacity to investigate complex white collar crime – Morgenthau’s office is one of the few places in the world with a truly sophisticated, specialized prosecutorial staff to be able to do that.  It doesn’t answer any of the fundamental questions, but one of the extremely practical arguments offered in favor of Morgenthau doing it was that the Manhattan DA was capable of doing so, and reasonably objectively.  What that would have meant if a challenge had ever been offered in a court, I don’t know.

  3. Contrary to this posting’s statement that corruption of the UN’s oil-for-food program resulted only in “an investigation by a state DA [Morgenthau], and not even a federal prosecutor” because it was somehow purportedly not “politically palatable” to have a federal investigation, in fact there was not only a federal investigation but also–following a UN waiver of immunity–a federal criminal indictment (still pending) of the UN’s head of the program (Benon Sevan) on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, and theft from a program receiving federal funds. See Former Chief of U.N. Effort Faces Charges of Corruption, N.Y. Times, Jan. 17, 2007.   Although Sevan has eluded arrest by hiding out in Cyprus, federal prosecutors have also charged and secured convictions of many others for defrauding the UN and the Oil-for-Food Program, including oil traders, middlemen, and officials from the UN’s procurement office.  See, e.g., Former Chief of U.N. Section Is Guilty of Fraud and Bribery, N.Y. Times, June 8, 2007; Russian Held in Scheme to Launder U.N. Bribes, N.Y. Times, Sept. 3, 2005. Yes, there’s a lot more need for vigorous outside investigation of UN misconduct, but there is no need to overlook facts about the history of federal investigations and prosecutions in this area.

  4. Jeffrey A Meyer – thanks for the correction, my error working from memory.  Also, I don’t want to slight the other prosecutions, particularly in the procurement area.  But now a question – can you (or someone) say anything about the jurisdictional basis for this stuff by either US federal prosecutors or the Manhattan DA or elsewhere?

  5. Response…Not sure exactly what you mean by “jurisdiction,” but the feds have subject matter jurisdiction over any federal crime under 18 USC 3231. Per 18 USC 3237, venue is proper in the SDNY as much of the conspiracy and acts in furtherance of the charged offenses took place in Manhattan—not just at Sevan’s UN workplace but also via cash deposits to his personal bank account in NY and many personal dealings in New York with his principal co-conspirator (Fred Nadler).  UN waiver of immunity removed any bar to prosecution.  And while I’m at it here’s a plug for my book about the Oil-for-Food program and the details of the Sevan investigation — Good Intentions Corrupted: The Oil-for-Food Scandal and the Threat to the UN (Public Affairs Books 2006).

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