December 1, 2005

Whole Lotta Shreddin'

Much more original U.N. reporting from Claudia Rosett in two new articles this week. She's tracking the newly formed Alliance of Civilizations, a whole new bureaucracy into which Kofi Annan has recycled a couple of U.N. officials already badly tainted by corruption and scandal. But the group's goals seem modest enough considering this august leadership team...

According to a statement issued by Annan in July, the Alliance is supposed to “overcome prejudice, misconceptions, misperceptions, and polarization” and assemble by late next year an action plan meant “to promote effective responses to emerging threats to world peace.” But in the short term, the Alliance has so far been mainly busy hiring its own secretariat on an initial budget of $3.7 million, and preparing for the first meeting of its ‘High-level Group” this weekend in Majorca, Spain.

Beyond its hazy mandate and vague chain of command — both similar to some of the flaws in U.N. methods criticized by Paul Volcker’s investigation of the Oil-for-Food scandal — the most striking things about the Alliance are the close aides Annan has used to organize and supervise the venture.

Two names in particular stand out: Iqbal Riza, Annan’s former chief of staff from 1997 to 2004, and Giandomenico Picco, a longtime U.N. senior staffer who returned to the organization as a part-time personal envoy of the secretary-general and then as a special adviser, under a contract that does not expire until January 1. Riza was badly tarred in the Oil-for-Food scandal and its subsequent investigation; Picco has been involved in an equally high-profile conflict of interest arising from the multimillion-dollar scandal in the U.N. procurement department that is still under investigation...

...Riza’s close ties with Annan go back at least to the early 1990s, but were clearly underlined when he became the secretary-general’s chief of staff in 1997, a position in which he was deeply involved in the management of the now disgraced Oil-for-Food program. He abruptly left that job early this year after Volcker’s investigation revealed that on April 22, 2004, the day after the U.N. Security Council authorized an investigation into Oil-for-Food, Riza had approved the shredding of mountains of documents in his office pertaining to the early years of the program, from 1997 to 1999. The shredding took months. These were files that Volcker had specifically ordered the Secretariat to preserve as having “potential relevance” to the investigation.

Then her WSJ contribution (alternate Wednesdays are not often enough) is a plea for attention to the alarming fact that Paul Volcker's Oil-For-Food investigative commission may be about to begin shredding their massive evidence archives before we even ascertain the questions, much less know the answers in this scandal. Ms. Rosett says that in many ways, Volcker barely scratched the surface of the corruption:

let us turn to the $39 billion or so in U.N.-approved payments by Saddam to his chosen Oil for Food relief suppliers. When Sen. Norm Coleman's investigators last year estimated the amounts scammed by Saddam out of this relief money, they came up with a total of some $7 billion--almost four times larger than what Mr. Volcker reports. Why the big difference? Saddam used a variety of scams, and Mr. Coleman's investigators took into account most of them, while Mr. Volcker focused on only two--illicit transportation fees, and the $1.8 billion in standardized kickbacks to Saddam--which he was able to measure fairly precisely. Basically, if Mr. Volcker could not attach precise numbers to a graft scheme, he did not try to measure it at all--even if the amounts involved almost certainly totaled billions. Notably, after puzzling over one of the biggest flows of suspect relief money, Mr. Volcker concluded in a comment buried on page 299 of his 623-page Oct. 27 final report that "this matter likely warrants further investigation and review."...

...Another odd oversight in the Volcker report is the glaring lack of follow-up on suppliers--especially ones that were, according to Mr. Volcker, based in places such as Cuba and Afghanistan--that, as far as Mr. Volcker could determine, paid no kickbacks. That could mean they were just companies so honest, selling goods so desirable, that in these cases Saddam simply forsook his crooked ways. Or it could mean Saddam for more worrisome reasons was so eager to transfer money to these companies that he did not even bother to demand a kickback. These companies include U.S. suppliers of food and equipment, a drug manufacturer in Cuba; and a company listed by Mr. Volcker as operating out of both the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan, some of that during the years in which Osama bin Laden, courtesy of the Taliban, was resident there, planning the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.

The likeliest explanation of Saddam's growing zest to overpay for relief, and his apparent benevolence toward select companies in places not generally famed for their shopping centers, is that both these tendencies offered Saddam ways to transfer purloined relief money to suppliers who were in a position not only to sell him rice, soap and medicine, but to do sanctions-busting favors for Saddam--such as procure illicit goods, forward money to secret bank accounts, or send it onward to people whom Saddam wished to support. Arms dealers and terrorist groups come to mind. All that would have been possible, under cover of these U.N. contracts, no less. Saddam's suppliers under the U.N. program included companies based in or linked to such financial havens as Liechtenstein and Switzerland; such arms-trafficking hubs as Russia, China and Belarus; and such trouble spots as Syria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and--as Mr. Volcker notes in passing--Cuba and Afghanistan.

The willingness of our Congress to threaten to withhold U.N. funding is apparently our only leverage to prevent Annan from starting up the shredders.

And in keeping with that U.N. mission to “overcome prejudice, misconceptions, misperceptions, and polarization”, Anne Bayefsky is reporting that "country-specific criticism" is definitely out of fashion these days at the U.N. :

The debate over country-specific resolutions -- resolutions which specifically name states that violate human rights standards -- now rages at the General Assembly. The issue is also in the center of a debate over the attempt to reform the UN Human Rights Commission. UN representatives of dictators far and wide are yelling foul; "naming and shaming" is just plain unneighborly, uncooperative behavior. Talking is a better way of resolving genocide, rape, and torture. Any attempt to do more is an imperialist plot.

UPDATE 12/2: Talks on a terrorism treaty break off at the U.N., increasing the chances of a cutoff of U.S. funds to the U.N. budget.

Posted by dan at December 1, 2005 11:42 AM