When $6 million was declared missing last year from a $50-million UN housing construction plan in East Africa, UN officials simply assumed that the money had been inadvertently "overpaid" to several contractors hired by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in an unfortunate but unsurprising development.
The case was taken up by an independent, internal-audit arm of the UN, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). After nearly a year of a still-pending investigation, the agency concluded in a preliminary study that the lost money was the result of contractual "irregularities" and failures of UN bureaucratic management. It has now set out to pinpoint those mistakes.
The UN reform process never had it so tough - or so effective. The OIOS has emerged as one of the most respected UN departments in the battle to clean house at the world body. And its pull-no-punches investigations present the clearest picture of a UN badly in need of reform.
The $15-million, two-year-old department is headed by Karl Theodor Paschke, a towering German national who seems one part urbane European diplomat, one part white-knuckled New York police chief.
"Our work is not going for sensation," said Mr. Paschke in a recent interview with World Chronicle, a UN radio program. "[It] is the continuous attempt to look over the shoulders of people who are working here."
In a series of particularly scathing episodes within the past year, the OIOS has investigated the kind of missions-gone-sour that have toppled the UN from high-ideal grace to humiliating failure. That litany includes Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, and the handling of Palestinian refugees.
An OIOS study of mismanagement of the International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda resulted in the dismissal of the entire top-level management of the court by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, including the registrar, the deputy prosecutor, the chief of administration, and the head of personnel.
Established in 1994 to bring war criminals of the 1993 genocide of Rwandans to justice, the Tanzania-based court received the most cutting report ever given by the OIOS.
Its findings include a $27,000 plane ride around Central Africa that was meant to pick up court indictees but came back empty, an employee who was "overpaid" a total of $34,000 in extra salary, and security guards found missing from their posts.
The UN's Department of Peacekeeping has also come under OIOS scrutiny. The most serious findings have focused on the 1993 Somalia mission, mainly involving an ongoing $3.9 million embezzlement case.
In the original investigation by the UN, done without the OIOS, one Canadian UN official was mistakenly accused of the crime, resulting in a $10,000-plus "moral injury" compensation to the former official. The OIOS has since taken over the investigation.
Not every case has necessarily originated from the complex void of underdeveloped areas or war-torn nations. In one of the more well-publicized cases of recent times, the OIOS tracked down the paper trail of a middle-ranking, American UN staff member in the UN's Geneva office who skimmed $500,000 over the course of five years from the office's accounting bureau.
While such revelations have perhaps made the OIOS the most feared agency with the UN, its own aspirations are quite different.
Says one agency official, "We like to think of ourselves as the conscience of individual staff members of the UN."