When the main report of the United Nations probe into its own former Oil-for-Food program hits the street Wednesday, the toss-up is whether the results of the investigation, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, will be the exposé the program–and the U.N.–have badly needed, or the cover-up some have feared. Coming the week before Secretary-General Kofi Annan presides over a gathering of more than 170 heads of state in New York, assembled to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the U.N. and possibly approve a still-fluid version of its badly needed reform, Volcker’s report could carry even more weight than its expected length of some 1,000 pages might suggest.
One reason for that is the secrecy that still cloaks Oil-for-Food. Since Secretary-General Kofi Annan was forced 16 months ago by bombshells in the press and pressure from Congress to authorize an “independent inquiry” into the U.N. relief program for Iraq, the U.N. has deflected almost all questions about Oil-for-Food, referring them onward to Volcker’s Independent Inquiry Committee. The Volcker committee, in turn, has monopolized U.N. documentation, deflected virtually all questions and condoned the secretary general’s policy of muffling U.N. staff, all in the name of what both Volcker and Annan have described as getting to the bottom of the scandal. Since May, Volcker has gone through the U.S. courts to prevent a defecting member of his investigative team, Robert Parton, from going public with information contained in boxes of evidence presumed to contain damning details pertaining either to Annan, or to the behavior of the Volcker committee itself.
Now comes the grand unveiling of the main report, which will be known mainly through instant rehashes of its executive summary, until a hardier band take the needed time to digest the complete mega-document. But the early signs that there will be full disclosure or genuine assignment of responsibility–with serious consequences–are not promising. In a preface to the report, released Tuesday, the Volcker committee says it plans to disclose “serious instances of illicit, unethical and corrupt behavior within the United Nations.” But the thrust of this preface from there is to blame all and sundry: the general assembly, the security council, and the secretariat. To blame all is in the end to blame none–at least not at the top.
Signs, too, are that Annan has already seized on this report as the exoneration he prematurely claimed last March, when the Volcker committee released interim findings that Annan had failed to adequately inquire into the business dealings of his own son, Kojo Annan, with a major U.N. Oil-for-Food contractor. That interim judgment then excused Annan from serious blame on grounds the committee had found no evidence he influenced the contract. One of the three commissioners of the Volcker inquiry, Justice Richard Goldstone, already leaked word last month that investigators have found not a “tittle” of evidence implicating Annan in foul play related to his son’s business activities.
Excusing the Chief?
The problem here is that whatever the truth about the secretary-general’s family ties to U.N. business, he was responsible for a great deal more than simply that particular U.N. contract. Even after the many scandals broken so far, a full account of the U.N.’s management of Oil-for-Food–starting with Annan’s starring role as head of the organization–would be an eye-popping thriller, and probably the healthiest thing to hit the U.N. since its founding. Oil-for-Food was not a bookkeeping exercise. It involved oversight of Saddam Hussein, an oil-rich war-mongering tyrant who gamed every angle of one of the most corruption-prone relief programs ever devised. Out of more than $110 billion in oil sales and relief purchases supervised by the U.N., Saddam by some estimates grafted out anywhere from $10 to $17 billion. While the U.N. praised the program, Saddam used his ill-gotten money not only for palaces, but to rebuild despite U.N. sanctions his networks of secret bank accounts, illicit political payoffs and arms traffic–and squirreled away billions that congressional investigators say may be funding terrorism today.
But if the preface to Volcker’s report is any guide, readers will find themselves slogging through such stuff as: “The Secretary-General–any Secretary-General–has not been chosen for his managerial or his administrative skills, nor has he been provided with a structure conducive to strong executive control and oversight.” In other words, as the preface also states, although the U.N. charter “designates the Secretary-General as Chief Administrative Officer,” the Volcker committee believes his real role has become that of “chief diplomatic and political agent of the United Nations.”
That leaves us with a secretary-general who is apparently excused from competent management, but also failed to alert the world to such vital political matters as Saddam’s attempts to corrupt the U.N.’s own Security Council via Oil-for-Food deals–information obvious from records the U.N. kept secret from the public, but not from Annan.
In a BBC interview released this week, Annan expressed regret that the U.N. ever engaged in administering relief for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “Honestly, I wish we were never given that program, and I wish the UN will never be asked to undertake that kind of program again.”
Annan seems to have forgotten his own role in urging from 1997 on that Oil-for-Food become not cleaner, but bigger and ever more directly managed by his own secretariat. It was Annan who picked as head of the program his longtime colleague Benon Sevan, the U.N. lifer who Volcker has already charged with taking bribes from Saddam. It was Annan who stocked his list of special advisers with two men now embroiled in Oil-for-Food investigations, former French ambassador Jean-Bernard Merimee and Canadian tycoon Maurice Strong.
Nor does Annan even now seem to have learned the real lessons of the Oil-for-Food trainwreck. The same BBC interview brought us Annan pushing his pet proposal that the rich nations of the world give an automatic 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product for aid, much of it presumably to be funneled through the United Nations. Such amounts would run into the hundreds of billions, dwarfing even Oil-for-Food, and through the same fingers that Annan piously assures the BBC he wishes would never touch such lucre again. And like Oil-for-Food, which drew its funding straight from Saddam’s oil revenues, this plan for relief would generate vast sums without any need for the U.N. to justify why it needs every dollar–which is once again, a recipe for corruption.
After all the scandal, all the investigating by Volcker, and all the passionate words about reform, the likely product of this report is Volcker chastising but excusing Annan, and Annan excusing himself, on grounds–as he told the BBC this week–that “I don’t think any institution can go through the scrutiny, the scrubbing we’ve gone through and come out squeaky clean.”
–Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.