Veteran Norwegian politician Erik Solheim is now responding to harsh criticism that’s erupted over his extensive and expensive travel as head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The former Norwegian government minister in charge of environmental issues faced UN employees this week and reportedly accepted some of the blame, but not all.
Oslo-based newspaper Aftenposten reported Friday that around 100 employees at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi were called in to a meeting on Wednesday to hear Solheim’s version of a damning report by UN auditors. They have accused Solheim of having far too little consideration for budgets, regulations and even the climate and environment that he’s in charge of protecting on an international level. His near-constant flying around the world collides with efforts to reduce the carbon emissions generated by air travel, and the auditors also have asked that he refund some of his travel costs in cases where they weren’t specifically work-related.
Aftenposten reported that he promised to correct all errors that end up in the auditors’ final report. Solheim was given the chance to comment on the draft version of the report from UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and he said he already has paid back the equivalent of around NOK 50,000 (USD 6,250).
He reportedly contends, however, that the UN’s own system is also at fault, claiming that better administrative control systems would have helped avoid such mistakes. Aftenposten reported how that response, in an email Solheim sent to employees, was viewed by others in the UN system and at UNEP’s office as an attempt to shove the blame over to staff. It was branded by a former top UN official, Maria-Luisa Chavez, as “irresponsible” for management to make such a conclusion. She hopes that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres holds Solheim responsible for his actions, not only regarding his travel expenses but also for putting the blame on UN employees.
Solheim, a former diplomat and UN envoy to Sri Lanka, has only spent about 20 percent of his time at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, traveling around 80 percent while also spending time in Paris, where he formerly lived while working for the OECD, and at home in his native Norway. His 529 travel days between May 2016 and March 2018 have cost the UN just over NOK 4 million (USD 500,000).
Solheim has also been accused of failing to issue or follow clear guidelines for taking the climate and environment into consideration when planning travel. His many trips have also upset political colleagues in Norway, where Solheim once headed the Socialist Left party (SV) that advocates pro-climate and environmental policy and measures.
“The UN’s climate organization is getting criticism for not have good enough environmental guidelines itself,” wrote Kim-André Åsheim, finance policy adivser to the party’s delegation in Parliament. “If that’s true, it’s a scandal.”