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From UN Immunity to License to Defraud

One of the most pernicious features of the United Nations is its diplomatic immunity. This is what lets the UN and its floating world of assemblies, agencies, diplomats and international staff get away with everything from running up $18 million in Manhattan parking tickets, to indulging in corruption, waste and abuse that carries no real penalty, even when outed in the press, or exposed in congressional hearings. When private companies embezzle millions, it's a reasonable bet -- at least in the U.S. -- that someone will face charges, and maybe do jail time. When more than half a dozen major UN agencies involved in the UN's Oil-for-Food program in Iraq stuffed their own administrative coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars meant to buy relief supplies such as medicine and baby milk, no one faced prosecution. The worst they got was an official tut-tut, and instructions for the agencies -- including, for instance, UNICEF, the World Food Program and the UN Development Program -- to cough up a small portion of the money.

True, diplomatic immunity has a time-honored place in important matters of actual diplomacy  (though at the UN, even that devolves quickly to such outrages as the annual visits of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Manhattan). But a great many of the more reasonable-sounding aspects of the UN have been over-run over the years by the astounding spread and sprawl of its globe-girdling bureaucracy. What began as a talking shop for diplomats in 1945 is by now a neo-colonial global empire, with its own envoys, outposts, and amorphous initiatives, moving money, personnel and equipment across borders, spending well over $30 billion per year of other people's money -- and draped in immunity. No big surprise that the UN is a chronic incubator of waste, fraud and abuse, which periodically erupts into scandal when details seep out. Yet pathetically little actually gets done about it, and very rarely is anyone punished.

All this makes UN-style immunity a highly attractive commodity. It's a de facto license to fiddle and defraud, if you can get it.