Humanitarian Graft
The Oil-for-Food scandal.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the (forthcoming) May 17, 2004, issue of National Review.

An unfriendly ghost roams the regulation-gray corridors and pine-paneled offices of the United Nations: The Iraqi Oil-for-Food scheme, terminated by the Security Council last November, has returned to haunt the beleaguered inhabitants of Amityville-on-the-East-River. If reports are true, Saddam Hussein stole more than $10 billion by exploiting a U.N.-administered program that was supposed to meet humanitarian needs in Iraq. Hundreds of foreign individuals, political parties, and companies illegally profited through back-channel deals with the Iraqi regime.

From the scheme’s beginnings in 1995, Oil-for-Food was ripe for the plucking by the unscrupulous. Administered by no fewer than ten U.N. agencies, and employing 4,600 people, it was a secretive, unaccountable program that supervised the flow of some $15 billion annually. Within such a sloppily designed organizational structure, systematic graft, bribery, and smuggling were inevitable. Yet the U.N. did little to stop the abuses.

The basic assumption underlying Oil-for-Food was absurd: Saddam was trusted to use the proceeds of selling Iraqi oil to benefit his people. It appears, unsurprisingly enough, that Saddam instead provided oil at bargain prices to favored clients, who kicked back a portion of their profits from arbitraging it on the open market to Baghdad, while he purchased foreign goods of dubious humanitarian utility (such as Mercedes-Benz touring sedans) at inflated prices from happy suppliers.

In January, a Baghdad newspaper, Al-Mada, published a provisional list of roughly 270 entities and individuals in 50 countries who allegedly participated in this racket, and Claudia Rosett has performed sterling service in further investigating the fiasco for the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and National Review Online. The list of those identified should raise some eyebrows. They include no fewer than 46 Russians (including “the director of the Russian President’s office”) and eleven Frenchmen (for instance, former interior minister Charles Pasqua), plus George Galloway, the radical British MP and unyielding anti-war propagandist. And let us not forget the PLO and the Russian Communist party, among many others named as beneficiaries of Baathist largesse.

A curious reference in the list to a “Sevan” is thought to implicate Benon Sevan, the U.N. official in charge of Oil-for-Food. Sevan denies the charge, though ABC News is citing Iraqi documents alleging that he passed his voucher for 7.3 million barrels of oil to a Panamanian company to deal with. Kofi Annan’s son, Kojo, was employed by Cotecna Inspections, a Swiss-based firm, as a “consultant” while the U.N. was reviewing bids from companies to inspect Oil-for-Food shipments. Cotecna, by a no doubt wholly remarkable coincidence, received the contract. As Balzac might say, ’tis a murky business indeed.

But it gets murkier still. If they were in receipt of Saddam’s patronage, the odd behavior of certain governments, companies, and individuals in the lead-up to the war becomes more explicable. If, moreover, the U.N. was as careless in discharging its duties as the (mounting) evidence suggests, then Annan presided over the greatest swindle in history. It was not a victimless crime, for the people of Iraq paid dearly for others’ greed. The monies received by the Baathist regime, in tandem with the diplomatic, philosophical, and political support its bought agents of influence guaranteed, lengthened its survival, heightened its haughtiness, and deepened its intransigence.

Under pressure, Annan has been obliged to assemble a team to investigate the alleged abuses. Its progress is fraught with uncertainty. How truly independent of the U.N. Secretariat will these investigators be? How wide-ranging their remit? How can they expect the full cooperation of possibly errant Security Council members, such as France and Russia, whose interests are at stake?

The investigation must be pressed to the fullest extent possible. If its discoveries confirm our suspicions, it will be clear not only that Annan is too compromised to continue in office, but also that the U.N. is too compromised to play a large role in the administration of Iraq.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review