Author: Rasna Warah
Publ: Lens&Pens Publishing, LLC
Lords of Impunity is a litany of deeply disturbing stories – stories of sexual abuse, mega corruption, hierarchies, cover-ups and denials, racism and white privilege, misleading statistics, manipulated famines and many more. An apt description of the goings-on in some banana republic would be the assumption but that would be way off the mark. This book is about the United Nations which is reputed to be the world’s moral conscience, whose colossal expenditure is provided by the world’s tax-paying citizens who in turn expect a measure of peace, security and justice.
Rasna Warah’s writing is the voice of a whistle-blower, by no means the first in this prestigious arena.
Innumerable UN employees before her have tried to obtain redress or justice for the wrongs they have highlighted and who have not only not been heard, but actually been ‘reprimanded, demoted, fired or blacklisted’. To my knowledge this is the first attempt to bring together the various transgressions, explain them in an easily readable format and record them in print.
I, a Kenyan citizen and a Nairobi resident, remember so well the pride and excitement we Nairobians felt when in 1996, a full-blown UN office was established here. Our worth as a country and a city had been internationally recognized. Warah had earlier joined the UNEP program in 1994 and in her own words, was ‘thrilled to be part of a team of passionate and dedicated young professionals’. As a qualified journalist, she took on the task of editor and writer in the UN-Habitat, and visited places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and others, until 2009 when she was forced out of the organization. She returned for a short stint when she co-authored and edited the State of the World’s Cities report.
Lords of Impunity has been published over seven years after Warah left the UN, it is, nevertheless, an insider’s exposure of the ‘rot and incompetence at the UN’. Many of the incidents noted in this book would seem incredible, if not far-fetched, save for the author’s meticulous referencing and citations, as well as the clear identification of the numerous complainants.
One wonders what catalysts the #MeToo and BLM Movements have been for the writing of this book but Part One delves into the realm of sexual abuse. As a woman myself, I doubt if globally there are any women who have never had to pretend that they had not seen, felt, heard, sensed or felt sullied by an inappropriate sexual advance. In today’s patriarchal world it is an integral part of the female existence. But it is quite shocking to read not only that is it quite wide-spread in the UN, but also apparently ‘acceptable’. High-ranking white women and coffee-serving women of colour have attested to the sexism and racism they have struggled with and how complaints have invariably met with a backlash.
Plunder of resources in the DRC or the antiquities of Iraq, the sexual abuse perpetrated by the UN peacekeepers, the food-for-oil and food-for-sex programs are just some of the scandals that plague the UN. Food aid is big business, famines are actually manufactured and statistics manipulated to meet this end, with no concern about the millions of lives which are devastated by the misleading information.
Meanwhile the UN remains relatively ineffective in the wars raging in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine and in the snowballing refugee crisis. It has failed to prevent gross human rights violations in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kashmir, Sudan and Myanmar.
The USA which pays the largest share of the UN’s expenditure dominates the UN decision-making process, and hence we see the UN’s inability to censure Israel’s blatant oppression of the Palestinian people, the illegal regime changes and warmongering by the US, and much more.
The culture of denial and secrecy which pervades the UN flourishes under the cover of the diplomatic immunity which the UN Charter bestows on it, making the organisation exempt from any outside scrutiny.
Warah acknowledges that the UN has had considerable achievements in the fields of human development and humanitarian assistance globally, and has saved millions of lives. She appreciates too the presence of a few, very few, colleagues and managers who were ‘committed to the [stated] ideals of the UN’.
In April 2015, Warah was one of nine former UN employees who sent a joint letter to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki- Moon calling for ‘an independent, external mechanism/body to look into and investigate cases of wrong-doing reported by UN whistle-blowers’. The letter contained harrowing complaints which had been met with silence and/or retaliation; needless to say, it too has been ignored.
Hence this book. The author has written it hoping that it may lead to some intervention geared to improving the UN structure. The ending chapters of the book highlight the major flaws, and suggest recommendations. But the question must be asked: ‘Is reform even possible?’ The UN, like all our international bodies, operates in the capitalist system – a system whose raison d’etre is profit through exploitation. There have been proposals to abolish the UN and create alternative institutions – it behooves us to learn more of the inner workings of this global body which impacts the lives of each and everyone of us. Warah must be commended for her courage and persistence in giving us a very credible insight into the UN and its untouchable impunity.