THE recent creation of an independent inspector general by the United Nations General Assembly will go far toward expanding the capabilities of the UN. Strict financial oversight and strengthened accountability will generate greater confidence in UN operations and increase public demands for the UN to deal with humanitarian disasters, conflict control, and other urgent problems.
The irony is that many demands for the new post came from American antagonists of the UN - while resistance initially ran strong among many UN diplomats who eyed it suspiciously as a poison pill prescribed by UN bashers. So its establishment must be counted a victory for President Clinton's much-maligned foreign-policy team, which constructively refocused the UN debate. Perhaps for that reason, partisan critics on the right now stridently deny American success.
The UN's own fiscal oversight bodies have repeatedly called for a strong, independent oversight office - insisting that the UN's archaic and disorganized internal reporting requirements kept not only the outside world, but even senior UN officials, from knowing the severity of its fiscal problems. The abuses they discovered - while no match for the fabled $300 hammers and of Pentagon lore - were bad enough to stir a wave of indignation that shook the UN's complacent establishment.
For a remedy, United States politicians turned to a model of their own recent invention - the inspectors general that Congress pioneered in the federal government in response to widespread fraud and abuse in federal agencies two decades ago. Established over the opposition of virtually every agency, US inspectors generally have proved successful in stinging departments into more effective performance.
Essential to this success is their independence. Previous audit, evaluation, and investigative units could only be timid lambs when higher-ups growled at them to back off. Now, working for independent inspectors general, they have become lions. We may expect the same at the UN. Statutes guarantee independence to inspectors general by requiring Senate confirmation, permitting their removal only by the president (not department heads), and mandating full transmittal of their reports to the Congress. These safeguards have yielded more open governance and more economical administration; brought billions in hard savings; protected whistle blowers; and subjected wrongdoers at all levels to administrative or criminal punishment. It was only natural that the US should propose applying the inspector-general model to the UN.
Washington's initiative coincided with growing frustration in New York with the UN secretariat's habits of inertia and timidity -
acquired during decades of East-West and North-South hostilities. UN bodies of experts, frustrated by years of secretariat stonewalling of reform, called pointedly for independent oversight. Moreover, the French were calling for a UN legal procedure to deal with corruption in the secretariat, since fraud by international civil servants is rarely punishable under national law, and the UN has no power to administer any penalty beyond dismissal.
Both the Clinton and French proposals won conceptual assent from the General Assembly last December. But the real battle over details lay ahead. Many nations were suspicious that the US was just looking for another excuse to renege on its dues - which Congress seemed to confirm by withholding another $140 million in overdue payments until an inspector general was created.
In months of intricate negotiations, US officials overcame the resistance. The result is an office that, in some ways, enjoys greater independence and a broader mission than federal inspectors general in Washington.
The UN post is to be at ``Cabinet'' level - an undersecretary-general - and filled by the secretary-general's appointee with the approval of the General Assembly. The official cannot be reappointed after the five-year term, and cannot be removed by the secretary-general without a concurring vote by the Assembly - stronger provisions for independence than in US law. The individual will testify directly before the Assembly's budgetary panels on the adequacy of resources. All reports will be transmitted unedited to the Assembly.
The new office assumes the resources and broad powers of the Office of Inspections and Investigations, created last year by executive decree of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. By reference, it incorporates the access of that office to all relevant records and officials. While Mr. Boutros-Ghali will reaffirm the specifics of that access in his implementing directive, it would help if the General Assembly itself adopts the explicit language of the mandate for unhindered access, rather than leave the reference subject to possible misinterpretation downstream.
The UN has taken on many significant new responsibilities in the post-cold-war world, and it is clearly positioned to take on many more. But reports of inefficiency and abuse have given ammunition to its opponents. Now, the UN will have a senior officer reporting directly to the secretary-general, with clear authority to review all aspects of UN operations and with the independence and staff needed to assess them fully and objectively.
The US has persuaded skeptical partners that an inspector-general will help realize their common commitment to a stronger UN. Now Congress will have to show it honors the US commitment to fulfill its own obligations as a UN partner. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.