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United Nations

Globe-trotting UN environment chief resigns after ‘mind-blowing’ US$500,000 travel bill

  • UN audit body had questioned the need for such extensive travel
  • UNEP deputy director, Joyce Msuya of Tanzania, will temporarily replace Erik Solheim
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 4:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 4:38pm

UN environment chief Erik Solheim has resigned following widespread criticism of his excessive expenses on official global travel.

The former Norwegian diplomat, politician and environment minister announced on the UN Environment Programme’s website that he would step down Thursday after receiving the final report of the audit of his official travel by the UN’s internal watchdog on Saturday.

Its findings were not disclosed.

But The Guardian reported in September that a draft internal UN audit found Solheim had spent almost US$500,000 on air travel and hotels in just 22 months, and was away from the organisation’s Nairobi base 80 per cent of the time.

A UN staff union leader called some of the revelations “mind-blowing” and a prominent climate scientist accused Solheim of “obscene CO2 hypocrisy”.

The Guardian also quoted the audit as saying this was a “reputation risk” for an organisation dedicated to fighting climate change – and it said countries unhappy with Solheim’s spending were withholding needed contributions to the UN agency, known as UNEP.

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UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has accepted Solheim’s resignation.

“The secretary general is grateful for Mr Solheim’s service and recognises he’s been a leading voice in bringing the world’s attention to critical environmental challenges,” Dujarric said.

“He has led advocacy at the highest levels of government, business and civil society to drive the transformational change needed to make a real difference in the lives of people and promote the cause of environment.”

Asked for Guterres’ reaction to “the scandal” that led to Solheim’s resignation, Dujarric said: “The secretary general is pleased to see that UNEP is committed to implementing the recommendations … on the travel office” made by the UN watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services.

Dujarric said UNEP’s Deputy Executive Director Joyce Msuya of Tanzania would serve as acting executive director while Guterres launches a search for Solheim’s replacement.

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Solheim expressed hope that his resignation, “after deep reflection and in close consultation with the secretary general”, proves to be in the best interest of UNEP “and the wider UN”.

Solheim urged UNEP staff to take pride in the agency’s achievements, pointing to India’s phasing out of single-use plastics, the growing list of countries ratifying the Kigali Amendment on limiting the use of hydrofluorocarbons that are depleting the ozone layer, and “the remarkable signing of an agreement by 12 countries guaranteeing environmental rights in Latin America and the Caribbean” as well as others.

In a farewell tweet, Solheim said: “I am sad to be leaving @UNEnvironment as we have achieved so much together. I will continue to champion the cause of the environment!”

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian