“Cover-up” may sound farfetched, given the number of hearings and investigations now zeroing in on the United Nations Oil-for-Food scandal. The Iraq Governing Council began its own inquiry back in March. The U.S. Congress has scheduled three hearings this month, the first of them taking place today (Wednesday) before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the U.N. itself, where more than 100 audits over the course of the seven-year program apparently managed to miss more than $10 billion in smuggling and graft, Secretary-General Kofi Annan finally gave in last month to demands for an independent inquiry, and is now convening a team of investigators.
But when it comes to Oil-for-Food, there seem to be a lot of inquiring minds that don’t want to know. Nor is the itch for ignorance confined to those most directly in the line of fire: the vast number of U.N.-approved contractors who paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein; the U.N. staff who will now be investigated; the executive director of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, alleged to have had his hand in the pot; or even the U.N. auditors–whatever they did with their time.
No, the bigger problem is the prevailing notion–and it seems to prevail all the way up to the White House–that the U.N.’s image must somehow be kept pure enough so that it can soon (June 30) replace the Coalition Provisional Authority in post-Saddam Iraq as the primary outsider involved in Iraqi daily affairs. The fear, in New York and Washington, repeated by many a source speaking strictly on background, is that if we ever get to the bottom of this U.N.-funneled geyser of graft, it might discredit the U.N. too badly to allow it yet another influential role in Iraq.
Since Annan’s epiphany last month, that “It is highly possible that there has been quite a lot of wrongdoing,” the whitewashing has begun. The chief vehicle for this effort looks likely to be the U.N.’s own investigation, which will now be carried out under terms devised by none other than Kofi Annan himself–the same Kofi Annan who presided over this cornucopia of corruption in the first place.
On the face of it, the impending U.N. investigation sounds satisfactory. According to the “terms of reference”–meaning the ground rules proposed last month by Annan and welcomed by the Security Council–the investigators are to have “unrestricted access to all relevant United Nations records and information” and to all U.N. personnel, “regardless of their seniority.” They will check into such matters as whether U.N. staff or contractors took bribes “in the carrying out of their respective roles in relation to the Programme,” and determine whether the accounts were kept “in accordance with the relevant Financial Regulations and Rules of the United Nations.”
All that’s left to do is wait for Annan to name the members of the panel. Within three months, they will then submit to Annan, in quintuplicate, a summary and underlying report. These materials he will share with the public, up to a point–that point involving various judgments about “the rights of staff members” at the U.N., as well as anything the investigators might decide to keep confidential.
That’s interesting, as far as it goes. In the event that any U.N. employees did happen to pocket the office paper clips, take bribes strictly through official U.N. channels, or leave the commas off some of the thousands of U.N.-processed contracts through which Saddam Hussein skimmed billions out of the Oil-for-Food program, Annan’s ground rules may quite possibly nail a few wrongdoers.
But when the entire investigation is done, even if brilliantly performed under these guidelines, there will still be no accounting for the gross failures that allowed the U.N. to devise, implement, approve, and expand this monstrosity of a program until the transition had been made from food-for-children to palaces,-sports-stadiums,-smuggling,-and-kickbacks-for-Saddam-and-his-worldwide-network-of-cronies. When Annan sifts through the underlying report (in quintuplicate) there will still be no explanation of why top U.N. officials (including Annan himself)–charged not with cleaning the copy machines, but with protecting the integrity of the institution and serving the public interest–chose instead to shrug, gloss over Saddam’s gross abuses, blame others, deny, stonewall, and finally come up with an investigation focused mainly on paper clips.
In a letter last week to Annan, Rep. Henry Hyde (R., Ill.), who will preside at an Oil-for-Food hearing later this month, wrote that the program “represents a scandal without precedent in U.N. history.” Hyde’s suggestion to Annan was: “Your response to these allegations must be equally unprecedented.”
Hyde is onto something big. Oil-for-Food is important not simply as a stellar story of fraud, but for what it highlights about pervasive flaws in the structure and habits of the U.N. There is first the problem of responsibility: When something goes wrong, as we are now witnessing, the Security Council blames the Secretariat, and the Secretariat blames the Security Council. If something goes very badly wrong, then there is finally an investigation, maybe one or two people get fired, but there is no change of paradigm. Perhaps that’s the only arrangement by which the U.N. can hold together. If so, we need to absorb the message that the U.N. is an institution that should never be trusted to carry out missions requiring integrity or responsibility. (Engendering a free society in Iraq, for instance.)
Then there’s the U.N. custom of secrecy, usually explained by U.N. officials as a matter of deference to the “sensitivities” of member nations. How convenient. Chronic secrecy is a policy best geared to serve those who have the most to hide: the tyrants, the crooks, and the cheats (which, not coincidentally, turned out to be precisely the stew served up by Oil-for-Food). In setting up Oil-for-Food, the U.N. deferred greatly to the sensitivities of Saddam, protecting the privacy of his totalitarian regime and his business partners–which included the commission-collecting U.N. itself. Had the details of the contracts been made public all along, had the accounts and the famous 100-and-then-some audits been released, often, there would have been at least a better chance of keeping Oil-for-Food honest.
None of this will be addressed by the independent U.N. investigation. Instead, once Annan has sorted through the findings and sifted out whatever is judged by U.N. standards to violate the “rights of staff members,” we are all too likely to emerge with a U.N. just as irresponsible, unaccountable, and secretive as when it spawned Oil-for-Food, back in the mid-1990s. (Though the paperwork may, for a while, be kept in better order.)
Hope must turn, then, to the congressional hearings, and the investigation of the Iraq Governing Council. On the congressional front, staffers have been struggling to get a grip on Oil-for-Food, a program that was simply so vast, so complicated, and for so long so busily confidential, that it will be miraculous if they are able to piece it together thoroughly enough to lever any motion toward real reform at the U.N. The only serious point of leverage, actually, is U.S. funding, which provides about 22 percent of Annan’s core budget. In the case of Iraq, the U.N. in return for this delivered a decade of busted sanctions, culminating in financial collaboration with a murderous tyrant, topped off by a knockdown fight in the Security Council pitting the U.S. and the U.K. against Saddam’s U.N.-approved clientele, all topped off by Oil-for-Food. And, oh yes, now we have the U.N.’s offer to return to Iraq–to confer legitimacy.
Quite likely, the best chance of a report that is both fully informed and frank lies with the investigation, in Baghdad, under the authority of the Iraq Governing Council. Early on, the Iraqis understood the need to look into Oil-for-Food–while Annan, who for almost seven years ran the program, was still professing his doubts that anything might have been wrong. But in the current climate of complicated worries about discrediting the U.N., it should come as no surprise that the Iraqi investigation recently hit a bump. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, in its own version of U.N.-style procedure, at this late date suddenly required the IGC-hired investigating team to drop their work in order to write a proposal, bidding for the right to carry out the investigation already well underway. In response, an adviser to the IGC, Claude Hankes-Drielsma, sent a letter to the CPA, noting: “I would certainly hope that the independent report commissioned and approved by the Iraq Governing Council will not become a political football either through confusion or interference.” It seems the IGC investigation will now be able to go forward. That would be a very good thing, especially in the way of helping the Iraqi people decide just how much legitimacy they themselves would like to confer upon the U.N.