A wild thought passes through my mind, which is that maybe Benon Sevan is in fact innocent! Innocent of receiving money directly from his buddy Fakhry Abdelnour, the Egyptian whose company (AMEP–Africa Middle East Petroleum) wanted some Iraqi chits to permit oil purchases. Benon Sevan was certainly not innocent of using his influence in behalf of his friends and of failing to blow any whistles when suspect contractors were designated to oversee the oil-for-food program, a cover-up for easing the life and enhancing the fortunes of Saddam Hussein. The U.N. had evolved into a bureaucracy besotted by people who were contriving to get around the freeze on the full production and sale of Iraqi oil.
There is one concrete item that Paul Volcker’s commission of inquiry brought out. During the period being examined, Benon Sevan received gifts totaling $160,000 from–not Saddam, not Abdelnour, not Amir Muhammed Rashid, the former Iraqi oil minister. But from an aunt. An aunt greatly devoted to Sevan, we plausibly assume, though she is dead and can’t be questioned. She was a photographer who lived in Cyprus. Now, many transactions can amount to $160,000. For instance, two transactions, added together, of $80,000 each. But the Volcker commission focuses on a figure of–$160,000; paid by Abdelnour to Saddam Hussein as an illegal surcharge for oil purchased.
So it’s odd, but there is no evidence that the aunt in Cyprus gave another $160,000 to Abdelnour. And anyway, those would have been discrete benefactions. Sevan says he is entirely innocent. High U.N. officials who worked with him for many years before his retirement express worry and annoyance that Sevan should have got himself so embedded in the sticky oil-for-food situation, but it isn’t likely that he will be yanked from his retirement in Cyprus, deprived of his diplomatic immunity, and charged with grand larceny.
No, the debacle of oil-for-food demonstrates the difficulty in managing, without leakage, a sum like the extraordinary $64 billion involved. That is the value of the oil that Iraq was permitted to sell in order to raise money to feed hungry Iraqis and to look after medical and other needs. The component parts of the operation—which took place under the supervision of the United Nations—begged for exploitation. There were a myriad of people anxious to get the coupons for that oil, because it was being merchandised at a price lower than the price of oil in the world market. A reporter for the New York Times summarizes the handling of the matter. “Iraq did not sell oil to just anyone. Under the guidance of Taha Yassin Ramadan, an Iraqi vice president, and the Revolutionary Command Council, headed by Mr. Hussein, a large portion of the oil allocations were handed out to a select group that included businessmen, politicians, journalists and diplomats who were perceived to be sympathetic to Iraq.” The friendly people negotiated the sale of $64 billion in oil. It beggars the imagination that anything on such a scale, going through so many hands, could have got safe, hygienic passage from Iraqi oil wells to bread for kids.
Mr. Volcker’s commission has put off for months the completion of its investigation. What we can say at this point is that, quoting the news item, the “United Nations’ largest relief effort was riddled with political favoritism and mismanagement.”
“I am reluctant to conclude that the U.N. is damaged beyond repair,” commented Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee. “But these revelations certainly point in this direction.” Senator Norm Coleman of the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigation wants action taken against Mr. Sevan, just to begin with.
But whatever steps are taken concretely, they aren’t–based on the evidence of the Volcker commission–going to tell us very much that we don’t already take for granted, namely the attractions of larceny. If what happens is the demystification of the United Nations as a vessel of incorruptibility, then that belated introduction to reality is welcome. It doesn’t tell us what exactly a renewed relationship with the U.N. should stress. It doesn’t even tell us what has happened to all that money Saddam accumulated, some of it with the connivance of UN. officials.