What’s Good for the United Nations . . .

           In perusing the Office of Government Ethics report on Executive Order 13490 (the “Ethics Pledge”), I was struck by one waiver that the administration has granted.  Under Section 2 of the E.O., all covered appointees are prohibited from participating in certain matters related to their former employers or clients.  In the case of Stephen J. Rapp, appointed by President Obama as Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, this turns out to be a problem.  Ambassador Rapp’s previous employment was with the United Nations, where he had been appointed by the Secretary General to serve as independent prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a tribunal set up to address war crimes in that country. 

            As explained in a September 8, 2009 memorandum from the State Department’s designated ethics official, Rapp’s ambassadorial duties would involve participation in many matters prohibited by Section 2.  He is expected to be in “constant contact with United Nations and Sierra Leone Court officials at all levels regarding particular matters [such as] communications with respect to operations of the Sierra Leone Court and other United Nations-affiliated courts; oversight of those institutions on behalf of the United States Government on such matters as appointment of judges, prosecutors, and other senior officials and on personnel and budgetary matters; information sharing; cooperation of member-states; arrests of fugitives; ongoing cases for violation of International Humanitarian Law; disposition of prisoners; U.S. diplomatic efforts on behalf of the tribunals; and other issues related to U.S. support for the courts.”  Accordingly, application of Section 2 would prevent Rapp from adequately performing his duties as Ambassador at Large. 

            To solve this problem, the State Department granted Rapp a waiver from the strictures of Section 2, allowing him to participate in matters related to the United Nations and the Sierra Leone Court.  The designated agency official explained: 

It is my determination that the literal application of the restriction in this situation would be inconsistent with the purposes of the restriction.  Because the United Nations is an international organization consisting of many countries, including the United States, and the Sierra Leone Court is a tribunal tasked with creating a forum for the trial of violations of international humanitarian law, the interests of these organizations are generally consistent with the interests of the United States.  The United States provides significant funding to both the United Nations and the Sierra Leone Court and is the largest single contributor to both.  Also, because neither organization is organized for the purpose of generating a monetary profit, there is no concern that you would take official action motivated to increase the revenues of either of these organizations.  I therefore believe that as Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, you will not leave the public with the appearance that your actions are influenced by the interests of your former employers, rather than by the interests of the United States

            There are at least two fundamental problems with this reasoning.  First, if one accepts the asserted premise, namely that the interests of the United States and the United Nations are “generally consistent,” the conclusion would be that the United Nations should not be considered a “former employer” within the meaning of the Executive Order.  However, the Executive Order excludes only entities of “the Federal Government, State or local government, the District of Columbia, Native American tribe, or any United States territory or possession.”  It noticeably does not exclude international organizations, foreign governments or nonprofits.  It is presumably not within the purview of the designated ethics officer to substitute his determination about what former employers present a conflict issue for that of the Executive Order. 

            Second, the notion that the interests of the United States are more “generally consistent” with those of the United Nations than with the interests of the typical former employer is ludicrous.  It is true that the United States is a member of the United Nations, but so are Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Libya, and North Korea, just to name a few countries whose interests have been known to diverge from ours.  Even our closest allies have potential conflicts of interest which in some respects may be more serious than those of any domestic U.S. employer.  (This is why, for example, lobbyists for Canada still have to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act and British citizens are prohibited from contributing to U.S. political campaigns).  Needless to say, there have been numerous historical examples of conflicts between the United States and the United Nations, including on issues relating to war crimes and the International Criminal Court

            During his 1953 confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense, the then-President of General Motors was quoted (not quite accurately) as saying “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”   Surely the statement that “what’s good for the United Nations is good for the country” is no more defensible.