September 6, 2005

No One In Charge?

The Guardian:

The UN is guilty of "corrosive corruption", according to a long-awaited investigation published today into the handling of the multimillion-pound Iraq oil-for-food programme.

The 1,000-page report by Paul Volcker, former head of the US Federal Reserve, found "serious instances of illicit, unethical and corrupt behaviour within the United Nations"..."The inescapable conclusion from the committee's work is that the UN organisation needs thoroughgoing reform - and needs it urgently."

The Volcker commission (IIC) web site is here, although as of this writing I am unable to access the five-page "Preface" released Tuesday.

A Reuters article on the upcoming report says it calls for sweeping new financial controls:

"An adequate framework of controls and auditing was absent," said the report's preface, released on its Web site. "There were, in fact, instances of corruption among senior staff as well as in the field."...

Indeed there were, but then the Volcker commission looks to the top of the U.N. organizational chart...and finds no one there...

...But the report said a major problem was that no one was in charge -- neither the Security Council, meant to supervise the program, nor the U.N. secretariat, the semi-independent U.N. aid agencies and the General Assembly. Therefore when problems arose decisions "were delayed, bungled or simply shunned."

I'm sure Kofi Annan appreciates this charitable reading of the situation, finding him guilty only of "mismanagement", and the kid glove treatment is to be expected, since Annan appointed Volcker and oversaw the investigation (while funding it with $30 million of Iraqi oil revenues.)

But the "no-one-in-charge" finding doesn't comport with what we know about how the Oil-For-Food program was actually run. From Claudia Rosett's definitive Oil-For-Food primer, here is part of her description of Annan's oversight of the program. It should be noted that references to the "U.N. Secretariat", or simply "The Secretariat" refer essentially to the staff and operations of the Secretary General's office (as opposed to the Security Council or the General Assembly) which was of course supervised by Kofi Annan personally. (emphasis mine - DW)

Introduced as an ad-hoc deal, Oil-for-Food soon took on the marks of a more permanent arrangement. It was a project in which Annan had a direct hand from the beginning. As Under-Secretary General, he had led the first UN team to negotiate with Saddam over the terms of the sales under Oil-for-Food. The first shipment went out in December 1996; the following month, Annan succeeded Boutros-Ghali as Secretary-General.

Nine months later, in October 1997, Annan tapped Benon Sevan, an Armenian Cypriot and longtime UN official, to consolidate and run the various aspects of the Iraq relief operation under a newly established agency called the Office of the Iraq Program (but usually referred to simply as Oil-for-Food). Sevan served as executive director for the duration, reporting directly to Annan. The program was divided into roughly six-month phases; at the start of each phase, Sevan would report and Annan would recommend the program’s continuation to the Security Council, signing off directly on Saddam’s "distribution plans." ...

...If final responsibility lay anywhere at all, it lay with the Secretariat. It was this body that fielded a substantial presence in Iraq (the U.S., apart from weapons inspectors ejected early on, had none), employing at the height of the program some 3,600 Iraqis plus 893 international staff working in Iraq for the nine UN agencies coordinated by the Oil-for-Food office; another 100 or so were employed back in New York. The Secretariat was the keeper of the contract records and the books, and controller of the bank accounts, with sole power to authorize the release of Saddam’s earnings to pay for imports to Iraq. The Secretariat arranged for audits of the program, was the chief interlocutor with Saddam, got paid well for its pains, and disseminated to the public extremely long reports in which most of the critical details of the transactions were not included...

...Are we supposed to conclude that, in order to deliver this amount of aid, the UN had to approve Saddam’s more than $100 billion worth of largely crooked business, had to look the other way while he skimmed money, bought influence, built palaces, and stashed away billions on the side, at least some of which may now be funding terror in Iraq or beyond?

No, something was at work here other than passive acquiescence. At precisely what moment during the years of Oil-for-Food did the UN Secretariat cross the line from "supervising" Saddam to collaborating with him? With precisely what deed did it enter into collusion? Even setting aside such obvious questions as whether individual UN officials took bribes, did the complicity begin in 1998, when Saddam flexed his muscles by throwing out the weapons inspectors and when Oil-for-Food, instead of leaving along with them, raised the cap on his oil sales? Did it come in 1999, when, even as Saddam’s theft was becoming apparent, the UN scrapped the oil-sales limits altogether? Or in 2000 and 2001, when Sevan dismissed complaints and reports about blatant kickbacks? Did it start in 2002, when Annan, empowered by Oil-for-Food Plus, signed his name to projects for furnishing Saddam with luxury cars, stadiums, and office equipment for his dictatorship? Or did the defining moment arrive in 2003, when Annan, ignoring the immense conflict posed by the fact that his own institution was officially on Saddam’s payroll, lobbied alongside two of Saddam’s other top clients, Russia and France, to preserve his regime? Certainly by the time Annan and Sevan, neck-deep in revelatory press reports and standing indignantly athwart their own secret records, continued to offer to the world their evasions and denials, the balance had definitively tipped.

Annan’s studied bewilderment is itself an indictment not only of his person but of the system he heads. If anyone is going to take the fall for the Oil-for-Food scandal, Sevan seems the likeliest candidate. But it was the UN Secretary-General who compliantly condoned Saddam’s ever-escalating schemes and conditions, and who lobbied to the last to preserve Saddam’s totalitarian regime while the UN Secretariat was swimming in his cash.

Annan has been with the UN for 32 years. He moved up through its ranks; he knows it well. He was there at the creation of Oil-for-Food, he chose the director, he signed the distribution plans, he visited Saddam, he knew plenty about Iraq, and one might assume he read the newspapers. We are left to contemplate a UN system that has engendered a Secretary-General either so dishonest that he should be dismissed or so incompetent that he is truly dangerous—and should be dismissed.


Previous Wizblog posts on Oil-For-Food

Volcker Independent Inquiry Commission web site

Posted by dan at September 6, 2005 11:55 PM