Politics & Policy

Den of Thieves

EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the December 13, 2004, issue of National Review.

U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan should either resign, if he is honorable, or be removed, if he is not. The mild-mannered Annan may not himself be corrupt. But he has presided over no less than the largest corruption scandal in the history of the world, Oil for Food. Never has the U.N. been more disrespectable or useless. Moreover, Annan’s response to the scandal has been inadequate to the point of disgrace. That he still holds his post is testament to the culture of impunity that pervades the organization.

Annan’s apparently congenital reluctance to move forcefully when necessity requires stems partly from his corporatist background: He has worked for the U.N. almost continuously since 1962. He is the original Organization Man, the first of the seven secretaries general to ascend to the top of the greasy pole from entirely within the U.N. He lacks the drive, and the desire, to tame the beast he inherited. Annan is a man willingly in thrall to his employer’s unaccountable and inefficient bureaucracy, and a servant of its patronage machine.

To this end–protecting the U.N.’s comfortable status quo and keeping the gravy train rolling along–he has hindered efforts to uncover the massive scale of the Oil for Food fraud, a fraud involving his own staff. Through Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who heads Annan’s “independent” commission looking into the Iraqi affair, he has apparently refused to release 55 internal audit reports and other key documents, such as interviews with senior U.N. staff, to a Senate investigative committee.

Though his commission lacks subpoena power, possesses little transparency, and labors under almost no external oversight–what else could be expected of a U.N. commission?–Volcker has promised to circulate a full, detailed report on the fraud next year. Already, however, five congressional hearings and three federal departmental investigations are discovering that the scandal is even larger than once believed: As much as $21.3 billion disappeared (double the original estimates), allegedly with the connivance of senior U.N. bureaucrats, foreign banks, and certain members of the Security Council. Some of this money was diverted into the pockets of the families of Palestinian suicide bombers; some of it was skimmed off to sympathetic agents of influence in the form of bribes; some of it was spent on purchasing munitions and illegal weaponry; and some of it, no doubt, is being used to fund the insurgency killing Coalition personnel in Iraq and, lest we forget, Iraqi civilians and officials as well.

The Oil for Food scheme was originally established to provide humanitarian aid for Iraqis suffering from Saddam Hussein’s manipulation of the sanctions regime to sway international public opinion. How unpleasantly ironic, then, that the very same scheme became part of that very same manipulation thanks to the very same people trusted to prevent that manipulation. One would think, if only to clear his own conscience, that Annan would use this opportunity to pursue any leads energetically and, for once, force the U.N. to clean house–from top to bottom and in full view of the public so that the secretariat might salvage at least some semblance of moral authority from this disaster.

In October 2003, in another irony, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the “United Nations Convention against Corruption.” At the time, Annan said, “Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately–by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice, and discouraging foreign investment and aid.” Wise words.

Annan seems intent on finishing his term of office, which ends in 2006. Two more years of defending his errant subordinates from exposure and possible criminal proceedings would be two years too many. Annan must assume responsibility for their malfeasance–and make way for a new secretary general who sees reform of the United Nations as his primary task.


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