UN task force urges overhaul of Assembly president’s office

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A U.N. task force recommended a major overhaul of the General Assembly president’s office on Tuesday following the embarrassing arrest of an ex-president accused by U.S. authorities of turning the post into a “platform for profit” by accepting over $1 million in bribes.

A sharply critical report by the task force said the General Assembly president’s office operates in an environment of “significant loopholes and blind spots,” with a lack of financial oversight, “insufficient transparency and accountability measures,” and no code of ethics. It paints a picture of an operation with no continuity that changes every year with the arrival of a new president of the 193-member world body at the start of their one-year term.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ordered a review after the arrest last October of John Ashe, who served as assembly president from September 2013-September 2014. U.S. prosecutors allege he accepted bribes from a Chinese real estate mogul and other businesspeople who have also been arrested to pave the way for lucrative investments. Ashe, a former foreign minister of the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbados, has pleaded not guilty.

The task force said the allegations against Ashe have “tarnished the image and reputation” of the United Nations and urged the General Assembly to undertake major reforms of the president’s office.

It made 18 recommendations including calling on the world body to adopt a code of conduct for presidents, requiring disclosure of all funds received by the president’s office from all sources, ensuring that private individuals and businesses that want to make contributions are screened, and establishing a new post to provide continuity between presidents.

The task force also suggested the appointment of an oversight body to review the handling of financial and staffing issues.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the president of the General Assembly is not a United Nations employee and the U.N. only funds about five positions in the president’s office. Its operating budget has remained static since 1998 except for adjustments for inflation, and now stands at $326,000.

This means all additional financial and staff needs of the president have been met by voluntary contributions of money, personnel, airplanes for travel and other in-kind services from various donors including governments, U.N. bodies, foundations and non-governmental organizations, the task force said.

Ban said in a letter transmitting the report to the current assembly president that he agrees with the task force’s conclusions and recommendations. He has also ordered an audit, which is due shortly.

The current assembly president, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, has already instituted some reforms. He said in a statement that an assembly committee would discuss the report on April 7.

While the post of General Assembly president had been considered mainly ceremonial, the task force said it has expanded and changed over the past 10 years to being “highly substantive.” But it said “there has been no corresponding change in the support and backstopping arrangements for the office and the provisions of the United Nations regular budget resources.”

The lack of transparency and the absence of a system of checks and balances, which exist elsewhere in the United Nations, “impacts on the nature and level of accountability of the president and the office and presents a risk to the organization,” the task force said.

Because there are no reporting requirements, it said, the General Assembly doesn’t know “the total magnitude of financial resources” used by the president — nor the size of his staff.

It said the allegations against Ashe offer the opportunity for U.N. member states “to strengthen the transparency, accountability and effectiveness” of the president’s office so that it operates “beyond reproach.”

“The task force believes that this is an opportunity that the organization cannot afford to miss,” the report said.