For decades, the United Nations has wasted billions of dollars, achieved little and tolerated misconduct—the Oil-for-Food scandal and sexual exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers being just two examples.
U.N. failures have not led to serious reform, and its misdeeds have not led to serious penalties. Nevertheless, its bank accounts are endlessly replenished with American taxpayers contributing the lion’s share.
But the transnational bureaucrats who run the organization do respond to some outside influences. In particular, China’s rulers have been increasingly successful at commandeering multilateral agencies to further their unilateral ambitions.
I’m going to give you one example that I hope will clarify the depth and extent to which the United Nations has been demoralized—in the most literal sense.
Emma Reilly is an Irish human rights lawyer. In 2012, she was lucky enough—or so she thought—to get a job with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
About a year later, the persecution of minorities within the borders of the People’s Republic of China began to receive some attention. Witnesses applied for accreditation to testify in Geneva, where the OHCHR and the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are headquartered.
Reilly soon became aware that U.N. staffers, in violation of U.N. rules, were secretly providing Beijing with the names of those potential witnesses, including Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong dissidents and activists. Witnesses were subsequently threatened, imprisoned and tortured. One reportedly died while in detention. The families of witnesses were harassed.
Reilly reported all this to her superiors, including the high commissioner for human rights and the secretary-general. She provided documentary evidence.
Her superiors were outraged—not at those tipping off Chinese officials but at Reilly, for doing her job, which, as she put it, was “to report deliberate endangerment of human rights activists.”
But they didn’t fire her. Initially, she figured there were two reasons for that. One: They knew she was telling the truth. Two: The United Nations has pledged to protect whistleblowers. From then on, however, she was ostracized, treated like a traitor and given only busy work.
The OHCHR’s public response has been inconsistent. Spokesmen have denied handing over the names of witnesses, acknowledged that it was an ongoing practice and claimed it was only a “limited practice,” which has ended.
Reilly appeared before U.N. tribunals but without clear results. She told her story to diplomats and government officials. Some expressed concern, but none did anything.
In July of 2020, a U.N. ethics officer belatedly recognized Reilly as a whistleblower. Investigations against her proceeded anyway, based not on the allegation that she was lying but rather for having spoken publicly about U.N. activities without “authorization.”
In August, she wrote a letter to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, requesting a meeting and emphasizing “that this is not an employment dispute, but an issue of the protection of human rights defenders against reprisals, and the ability of U.N. staff to blow the whistle on the most serious misconduct.”
Thomas-Greenfield did not respond. Last week, Reilly was fired.
“My case is not unique,” Reilly wrote on the website UNintegrity.com. “The U.N. Administration cannot point to a single case of a public interest whistleblower who has been protected. Staff are fully and completely aware of that, so even most of the ethical staff members simply decide to turn the other way, knowing that their reports will not stop misconduct or lead to accountability, but merely signal the end of their own U.N. careers.”
She pointed out that “there is no freedom of information and no external oversight of the U.N.”
That’s one reason the organization’s decadence receives little attention in the dominant media.
Another reason is that many journalists, for ideological reasons, are loath to cast aspersions on international organizations. Much of the media disputed or ignored the extent to which the World Health Organization acted as an agent of China’s rulers—increasing the damage caused by the virus that escaped from China and spread worldwide.
The Trump administration withdrew from the WHO and cut off American funding. The Biden administration has rejoined and turned the dollar faucet back on, demanding no reforms in exchange.
The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been nominated for re-election by Germany and 16 other members of the European Union. The Biden administration has not registered disapproval. The election is slated for next May. Tedros is likely to be the only candidate on the ballot.
The People’s Republic of China sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council, along with Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Pakistan and Qatar. The main preoccupation of the UNHCR has long been to demonize and delegitimize Israel, the world’s most important Jewish community following the slaughter of European Jews in the 1940s and the mass expulsions of Jews from Arab countries in the years after World War II.
This just in: China has joined with Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and other egregiously unfree states to form a new U.N. caucus. They call it the Group of Friends in Defense of the United Nations. They claim that their members “suffer from unilateral coercive measures imposed by the U.S. and the E.U. … in violation of the international law and the U.N. Charter.”
When will American and European leaders recognize the significance of such developments and the strategic threat they pose? When will they counter efforts to subvert the United Nations and make the world safer for authoritarians, tyrants and human-rights violators? The case of Emma Reilly is a wake-up call. American and European leaders are sleeping through it.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for The Washington Times.