Kofi Annan's Conflicts of Interest Must Be Investigated

In a recent interview, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton described the UN as hopelessly out of touch and stuck in a Twilight Zone-style “time warp” where “there are practices, attitudes and approaches that were abandoned 30 years ago in much of the rest of the world.” [1] Bolton’s cutting analysis perfectly captures the latest controversy to hit Turtle Bay—Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s appointing German activist Achim Steiner as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) just months after Steiner helped award Annan $500,000. [2]

Steiner, whose four-year term of office will begin next month, was part of a nine-member jury chaired by a senior UN official that awarded Annan $500,000 last December. Annan’s initial decision to accept such a huge cash gift, as well as his subsequent appointment of a man who had played a key role in the award of that money, [3] gives the appearance of a major abuse of power. Both were extraordinary acts of political recklessness by a Secretary-General who has overseen some of the biggest scandals in UN history, from the Oil-for-Food and procurement scandals to peacekeeping abuses in the Congo and elsewhere. This latest scandal inevitably gives the impression that jobs at the world body may be traded for financial favors. As well, the Steiner appointment further reinforces the unflattering portrait of the UN as an unaccountable institution that acts without regard to public opinion or the concerns of its member states.

Annan’s prominent role in Steiner’s selection should be fully investigated by the newly established UN Ethics Office and by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). An investigation into the Steiner appointment would be an important test of the effectiveness and independence of the Ethics Office and the OIOS, an internal investigative body whose powers were largely curtailed during the UN’s administration of the Oil-for-Food Program.

Annan’s Cash Award

Kofi Annan was awarded the Zayed International Prize for the Environment [4] on December 19, 2005, and received a cash gift of $500,000 at a ceremony held on February 6 in Dubai. [5] The International Jury was chaired by Dr. Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, and included Achim Steiner (Director General of the World Conservation Union, or IUCN), Yolanda Kakabadse (former president of IUCN), Professor Mostafa Tolba (President of the International Environment and Development Centre), Yoriko Kawaguchi (former Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs), Sir David King (Chief Scientist of the British government), Professor Mario Molina (1995 Nobel Prize recipient), and two representatives of the United Arab Emirates. [6]

The conflict in this award should be apparent. The Zayed jury was chaired by a leading UN official (Toepfer), who awarded the person who appointed him to his current position half a million dollars. Dr. Toepfer words were fawning: “The jury was faced with many outstanding candidates for the Zayed Prizes. But when you look at the overall global impact on politics, business, science and civil society of Mr. Annan’s environment and sustainable development-related initiatives, we came to the conclusion that he is deservedly the global winner.” [7]

That Annan accepted this huge sum while serving as Secretary-General and drawing a salary partly paid by U.S. taxpayers demonstrated a stunning lack of judgment and undermined the integrity of his office. In the U.S. government, for example, this transaction would be seen as a highly suspect conflict of interest and, if exposed, would likely prompt the resignations of the official or officials involved. In the UN, however, this is just business as usual.

As an international public servant, the Secretary-General should not accept money from a UN member state or a private foundation, either as an award or as a gift. He should also completely disclose his personal finances, as do many Western politicians. The UN Secretary-General should abide by the same strict ethics and disclosure rules that apply to political figures in major democracies such as the United States and Great Britain.

In response to growing criticism of his acceptance of the award and Steiner’s subsequent appointment, Annan has just pledged to donate his windfall to humanitarian relief efforts in Darfur [8] and shelved his earlier plan to establish a foundation that “will focus on girls’ education and agricultural development in Africa.” [9] Annan’s office made its first announcement of the Secretary-General’s charitable intentions a few weeks after the Zayed award was made, [10] and this new gesture on Darfur comes nearly five months later. Whether Anan has personally benefited from any interest that accrued on the $500,000 award or any financial investments that may have stemmed from it remains unknown.

The Achim Steiner Appointment

Achim Steiner will succeed Klaus Toepfer at the helm of the United Nations Environment Program on June 15. His selection deserves close scrutiny.

According to the United Nations, the Secretary-General solicited nominations for the position of Executive Director of UNEP from UN member states on December 14, 2005. These nominations “were considered together with other nominations.” [11] Steiner’s name was not on the original list of candidates for the post but was added in January, weeks after the December announcement of the $500,000 award to Kofi Annan. Steiner was not nominated by any government, and the UN spokesman for the Secretary-General, Stephane Dujarric, confirmed under intense questioning from journalists that “Mr. Steiner was named by the Secretary-General, who feels very strongly in his credentials and his ability to lead UNEP.” [12]

A shortlist of five candidates was drawn up on March 1, 2006, after “a thorough review of the nominations was undertaken by the Secretary-General and his senior advisers.” Its members were Borge Brende (Norway), Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Echandi (Costa Rica), Shafqat Kakakhel (Pakistan), Rajendra K. Pachauri (India), and Achim Steiner (Germany).[13] After the candidates interviewed with a panel of senior UN officials and the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General (Mark Malloch Brown), Kofi Annan made his final selection and announced Steiner’s appointment on March 17.

The UN Secretary-General and his advisers wielded an extraordinary degree of control over both the initial short-listing of candidates and the final decision. As well, the selection process was less than open and transparent and apparently included little or no consultation with UN member states over the final decision. The timing of Steiner’s nomination, coming so soon after the announcement of the award to Kofi Annan, combined with the UN’s unwillingness to provide adequate details about Steiner’s nomination, is a major cause for concern.

Key Recommendations

The United States funds a significant portion of UNEP’s budget, providing an estimated $10.1 million in 2006 and a projected $9.5 million in 2007. [14] On behalf of American taxpayers, who fund 22 percent of the UN’s budget and hold the organization in little esteem of late, Congress should demand full accountability and transparency on the part of the United Nations.

The House and the Senate should pass resolutions urging a full UN investigation into all conflicts of interest involving the Secretary-General and express their support for proposals and actions that would make the world body more accountable:

A UN Inquiry. The UN’s much-vaunted new Ethics Office should appoint an independent investigator to examine both the $500,000 award to Annan and any potential conflict of interest involving the appointment of Achim Steiner as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program. In addition, the UN Office of Independent Oversight Services (OIOS) should open its own formal investigation and interview all UN officials involved in Steiner’s appointment.

Financial Disclosure. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his Deputy Secretary-General, Mark Malloch Brown, should immediately make publicly available complete financial disclosures.

Congressional Oversight. Achim Steiner’s selection and the $500,000 award to Annan should be subjects of close congressional scrutiny, drawing the attention of both the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Oversight and Investigations.


As Kofi Annan limps into his final few months as UN Secretary-General, questions mount about his judgment and personal integrity. Annan has talked piously about accountability and transparency and the supposed winds of change sweeping through the UN, but his own leadership has been imperial in style and hugely dismissive of criticism. A secretive culture of impunity still dominates the upper echelons of the UN Secretariat.

If the UN is serious about fundamental, far-reaching reform, its elites must lead by example. Annan should submit to full, independent inquiries into the selection of Achim Steiner as head of the UN Environment Program as well as his own decision to accept a $500,000 cash award.

1. Alec Russell, Interview with John Bolton, The Daily Telegraph, May 1, 2006, at

2. Steiner is currently Director General of IUCN (the World Conservation Union), an organization the UN describes as “the world’s largest environmental network with over 1,000 members, including states, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations in 140 countries.”

3. The Steiner appointment, and the conflict of interest that it poses, was first reported by Fiona Harvey, Mark Turner, and Hugh Williamson in “Newly Appointed UN Chief Helped Award $500,000 Prize to Annan,” Financial Times, April 29, 2006. See also Benny Avni, “After Awarding Annan $500,000, German Is Given Top UN Post,” The New York Sun, May 1, 2006.

4. The award is given every two years and was established by Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, in honour of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan. First awarded in 2001, previous recipients have included the British Broadcasting Corporation and former US President Jimmy Carter.

5. The award was first reported by Claudia Rosett, in “Cash for Kofi: The UN Secretary General Wins a Half-Million Dollar Prize in Dubai,” The Weekly Standard, February 27, 2006. See also Claudia Rosett, “What a Bunch of Winners,” National Review Online, May 3, 2006.

For more on the Zayed awards ceremony, see “Sheikh Mohammed Awards Zayed Prize for Global Leadership for Environment to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,” Middle East Company News Wire, February 7, 2006.

6. “International jury Awards Secretary-General Top Zayed Prize for Global Environmental Leadership,” UN Press Release, December 19, 2005, at

7. Ibid.

8, “Annan Drops Plan to Use Prize to Launch Foundation,” Reuters, May 8, 2006.

9. Press Conference given by Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary General, New York, April 10, 2006.

10. Annan first announced his plans for a charitable foundation on February 6.

11. United Nations Environment Programme, Shortlist of Candidates for Post of Executive Director, at

12. Press Conference given by Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary General, New York, May 1, 2006.

13.United Nations Environment Programme, Shortlist of Candidates for Post of Executive Director, at

14.U.S. Department of State, FY 2007 International Affairs Budget Request, International Organizations and Programs, at


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