Reporting from the UN: Q&A with Colum Lynch

The senior diplomatic reporter for Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch, has covered the UN for more than 20 years. He spoke to the International Peace Institute’s Warren Hoge on the challenges facing journalists today and his experiences reporting about the institution’s strengths and weaknesses. The interview was conducted on the margins of the ICM’s retreat on the UN’s communications strategy, held March 10-11th.

Do UN officials understand the adversarial nature, at least of American journalism, covering the institution?

I think senior officials understand the adversarial relationship because they’re the target of it a lot of times, and they get a great deal of criticism. In the case of the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, one sort of incident or sort of anecdote I can share was that in his first press meeting, he made this case to us that we’re, in a way, entering a partnership to work together to promote the goals of the United Nations. He was the former foreign minister of South Korea, and his whole pitch to us was the importance of harmony—that’s the way he saw his role as the secretary-general. He’s a diplomat, so it’s natural, but I think to a lot of the reporters, it just sends a kind of discording note, and I think it reflects a different way of viewing the role of the press.

You’ve been talking about communications at the UN, and you mentioned that you thought there still was a problem at the UN about passing out jobs to certain nationalities. Can you explain that a bit more?

Let’s say you want to hire the head of the agency that deals with responding to humanitarian crises. Do you go out into the humanitarian world and look for someone, do you look for an executive? No, you go to one country that has basically a lock on this position, the United Kingdom, and every time that that job opens, it goes to generally someone put forward by the British prime minister. It doesn’t mean that they’re not good at their job, it doesn’t mean that they’re not efficient—they may do a great job, but it’s really not like you’re looking at the entire talent pool.

You could say the same thing about the secretary-general. The memberships focus on the notion that it should come from Eastern Europe because Eastern Europe has never had it, that it should rotate to different parts of the world—not that you should look at the best person.

There is a UN Security Council panel that oversees the implementation of sanctions against North Korea and makes sure North Korea doesn’t develop its nuclear weapons program to a degree that it hasn’t achieved already. There are representatives of the permanent members of the Security Council—China, the US, Russia, Britain, and France—and that gives them enormous political clout to steer the discussions about how the UN implements sanctions, and it often has a political connotation to it. The person who is on that panel from China is going to be in a lot of trouble if they do not reflect some of the Chinese government’s views. I think the Americans tend to have people on that position who are more experts in the field that are not government officials, but they are there because their government selected them for that, or put them forward for that position.

This year there was what I thought was rather a remarkable development, in which the Secretary-General actually fired the head of a UN Mission in the Central African Republic. Does that signal a new level of responsiveness and action by a secretary-general? Did you as a reporter covering the UN know about that? Are you hearing about other such situations, or is it still as closed as it once was, the funnel of information out to the press?

I think dramatic gestures like that are unusual if not unprecedented. I don’t remember another special representative of the secretary-general being fired over an issue, over really any issue like this, so that was quite extraordinary. It certainly reflected a desire by the UN to show that it is taking this issue far more seriously than it has in the past.

The next question I would ask myself is, “Does this represent a break from the past or does this reflect damage control and a short-term fix to demonstrate that the UN is serious about an issue, but not to really bring about fundamental change in the way that the UN addresses issues like exploitation of children by some UN peacekeepers?”

One of the issues that has troubled a lot of reporters and others who are human rights advocates is that in the past, it’s been very difficult to learn very much information about who is responsible for sexual exploitation of civilians—what country they’re from. The UN only now is publishing that information about what country they come from. It was impossible, or very difficult to—on the basis of the public information that the UN published—write a story on it because you couldn’t make sense of it. It was too thin, too little information to really make an informed judgement about how the UN is dealing with issues of sexual abuse.

As a former reporter for the Washington Post and now as a reporter for Foreign Policy, you’ve been particularly effective at exposing the failures in the internal oversight process of the United Nations. You basically have called the UN out over and over again. Has it gotten any better?

There’s been a changing of the guard over the last couple of months, and I have no idea how that’s going. I think it would be too early to make any judgements about it. What I do know is that the UN has something called the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and basically it’s their version of an inspector general’s office. They’re responsible for policing the UN internally. They’ve always had limited authority—their budget comes from the UN secretary-general’s office.

They often need to go to department heads to get funding to do an investigation into their division, and also there is a kind of collegial nature to the relationship between the under-secretary general for internal oversight and the other under-secretary generals, the other cabinet members of the secretary-general. So there’s always been a question as to what degree that office is independent, and then beyond that there’s a question of how well it’s functioned, and I don’t quite understand why, but it has a long history of just having a very destructive internal managerial culture.

One of the things that I wrote about was a fight before the previous head of OIOS left, Carman Lapointe, a Canadian. She had basically grown so frustrated with her staff who were in charge of doing investigations that early in 2015, she sent a letter to the secretary-general’s office asking that her entire top five members of the investigation team be entirely fired all at once and that she be able to remake it from scratch. At the same time, all of her investigators were complaining, including in public meetings with UN membership, that their boss was unconscionably biased and too close to the government, to the United Nations leadership, and had sacrificed their independence. So you had these festering, internal battles going on between the investigators, the head of investigations, and then when you went down lower, you would find that the entire staff had broken up into these different feuding groups that were all trying to destroy one another. There were in one period, I think over the year 2015, 50 internal formal grievances filed by staffers in the New York office. There were I think about 33 members of that team, so think about that. That’s a pretty big number.

Finally, I remember the very first press conference that Ban Ki-moon gave—we were both there—in which he said that climate change would be his number one priority. Then you had Copenhagen in his first term, which was a disaster. Then you had Paris in the second term, which was a success. Can you draw a conclusion from that? Has his second term been a better experience for Ban Ki-moon and for the world than his first term was?

I go about this in a different way. I think that his second term has been better in terms of the optics, in terms of the perception that the world has of him. He spent a great deal of time in his first term focusing on trying to cultivate quiet diplomatic relations with governments known for human rights abuses. He did this in Burma and in Sudan, where he tried to establish a relationship with the leader of Sudan who is now an indicted war criminal with the ICC, and he had great confidence in his persuasive abilities.

There was a feeling among the press that he had very little to show, and that the relationship had actually diminished the UN’s moral role. So he took a lot of flak for that—he was criticized a great deal in his first term. He was seen as not charismatic, not great in English, not a great communicator, someone who worked very hard, very committed, but we beat up on him a lot.

I think that with the second term, particularly with the Arab Spring, he has struck a popular tone in terms of siding with the forces of democracy. It was a story that I think resonated with him personally being from a country that was once under military rule and being part of a democratic transition. So I think that that was a role that enhanced his standing in terms of public perception. But I’ve never had the sense that he really has much, that he’s much of a player on the Arab Spring or on a lot of these issues, that the optics have been good for him, that he’s said the right things. I’m not sure that he’s been a real shaper or someone who has gotten out in front of this and maybe positioned the UN in the most sophisticated the way possible.

Climate change was one of those issues that when he was criticized for not being very successful at doing personal conflict resolution or mediation. His staff would always say, “Oh, he’s focused on the big issues of the future,”—the global commons, and climate change was the most important element of that. Frankly, we didn’t see very much. I mean Copenhagen looked very bad, it looked like a total failure. It looked like he had invested a lot of personal capital in this, and he had very little to deliver.

Now, climate change and the debate on it has changed. It’s not seen as a futile discussion to have had. It’s not clear to me that he’s been a particularly decisive personality in shaping the international debate. He certainly has kept it on the agenda, talked about it all the time, and I think he deserves credit for that. The big decisions have been made by the governments of the US and China; agreements early on that utterly changed the debate and forced other big powers to start coming to the table and really talking seriously about a deal on climate change. So, in a way, Paris and the agreement was a great success. I don’t know that Ban was the one that everybody pointed to as the star of the show. I know [then French Foreign Minister] Laurent Fabius got a lot of credit for banging heads. Obviously the US, China, India—countries with big energy stakes in the negotiations—were more pivotal in terms of making the hard decisions one has to make, but I think it’s played well for him and I think that he’s positioned them well on it.