The role of the United Nations in promoting unproven allegations of a hack on Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, has come under scrutiny as experts question why two “special rapporteurs” seemed to lend credibility to a flawed investigative report.
The allegations that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hacked the cellphone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, quickly denied by the Saudi government, were published by Western media as based on a “UN report.”
This UN report was in fact a report produced by two UN special rapporteurs, Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, who based their report on an investigation commissioned by Bezos’ team from the Washington-based consultancy FTI Consulting.
These UN special rapporteurs are not paid UN staff and act independently, confirmed multiple UN sources. “Special rapporteurs are independent experts who report, in this case, to the UN Human Rights Council. They are not UN staff and do not report to the Secretary-General,” said Farhan Haq, the Deputy Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General.
But critics have questioned why UN special rapporteurs decided to publish allegations based on a report commissioned by Bezos, and whether they were qualified to do so.
“It was completely unprofessional,” said Middle East expert and author Ali Shihabi.
“First of all, this is not an issue that would warrant their attention. They are supposed to focus on the sort of weaker elements of society that need their help, not the richest, most powerful mogul in the world,” he said.
Other commentators have shared Shihabi’s concern that Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, may have used his influence to get the UN and the media to spread unproven allegations. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. raised the possibility of Bezos spreading “a dubious narrative of international intrigue as a possible distraction.”
Shihabi also criticized the rapporteurs’ lack of expertise.
“Secondly, they have no expertise in that area, so they were using the UN brand to give legitimacy to something that they are ill-equipped to opine on. They are not the UN, they are rapporteurs, they do not earn a salary, they are like sort of volunteer consultants,” he added.
Cyber security experts have poked holes in the FTI Consulting report upon which the UN special rapporteur report was based, citing the lack of any evidence of malware and the inability of either investigation to decrypt a key piece of software.
Yet despite the lack of expertise, the rapporteurs were seemingly able to lend the allegations the authority of the UN brand.
UN sources confirmed that the position of the UN special rapporteurs allows them to use UN branding and logos without officially being UN employees who earn a salary.
“Ms. Callamard speaks for herself and she speaks as an independent expert,” added Haq, when asked by email about Callamard’s subsequent report and comments made regarding the Bezos hacking claims.
“Special rapporteurs carry UN passports but usually are unpaid ($1/year). They thus are not full-time. They are always very senior and appointed by the Secretary General,” added Thomas Weiss, co-director of the Future UN Development System, a project of The City University of New York’s international studies institute.
“[The Secretary General] is always is very careful about consulting principal parties as to the acceptability of such experts. That said, they usually are more outspoken than full-time UN international civil servants who worry more about promotions, careers, etc. Many of these special rapporteurs have, in fact, been quite outspoken – Richard Falk on Palestine, for example,” Weiss told Al Arabiya English.
This outspokenness has divided opinion. Callabard, one of the two rapporteurs in the report, was lauded by the Guardian as “the unflinching UN official taking on Saudi crown prince.”
But Shihabi attributes Callabard’s motivations to promoting her own “personal brand” and suggests she had benefited from the limelight and authority given by the UN brand, which the media then picked up.
“The media, in a way, conspired with it, because it ran headlines saying ‘United Nations, United Nations, United Nations,’ and they are not the United Nations … It’s a misuse of a platform and the media colluded with it,” noted Shihabi.
“I think the Saudi government should complain to the Secretary General and say that the human rights office in Geneva should be answerable. And now I think there will be pressure to come out and apologize,” he added.