Published on Monday, April 12, 2004 by the Inter Press Service
Iraq Oil-for-Food Program Blame Game Heats Up
by Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Secretariat, accused of nepotism and corruption in overseeing Iraq's multi-billion-dollar, oil-for-food program, is expected to name an independent commission this week to investigate the widespread charges of abuse.
Critics say the world body's credibility rests on the outcome of the probe, but other observers argue it is the reputations of the "big five" of the U.N. Security Council that are at stake since they were responsible for overseeing the program
U.N. Associate Spokeswoman Marie Okabe told reporters Monday the delay in naming the panel was caused by Secretary-General Kofi Annan's careful search for ''the highest caliber of persons'' to serve on the commission.
The charges of corruption first surfaced several months ago in a Baghdad newspaper that published the names of businessmen, political leaders, heads of state and even a U.N. official who were apparently privy to kickbacks received by the former government of President Saddam Hussein.
The 'New York Times' and the 'Wall Street Journal', which have relentlessly pursued the story, have singled out U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Benon Sevan for criticism.
Sevan, who was the last U.N. official to head the program, has denied the accusation in the Iraqi newspaper that he received either ''oil or oil monies from the former Iraqi regime''.
According to the Times, nearly three-quarters of the suppliers of food and medicine to Iraq jacked up their prices to pay the 10 percent kickbacks to Iraqi oil exporters -- while U.N. officials turned a blind eye.
These suppliers included contractors from the Middle East, Europe and, more importantly, from countries that comprise the five permanent (P-5) members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.
Economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq immediately after its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.
But the hardships it caused average Iraqis forced the United Nations to create a program in 1996 under which oil revenues were used to provide much needed food, medicine and humanitarian supplies to the country.
The program was monitored and supervised by a committee of the 15-member Security Council known as the United Nations-Iraq Sanctions Committee.
Since the program was under the supervision of the P-5, some U.N. officials say blame should also fall on the Security Council for failing to prevent or expose the kickbacks, if any.
Others caution that none of the accusations have been proven, to date.
''It can take no one by surprise if a 60-billion-dollar venture has not escaped the scars of inefficiency, misuse and even graft,'' says Hans Von Sponeck of Germany, a former assistant secretary-general and U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.
Von Sponeck, who managed the distribution of goods under the oil-for-food program during 1998-2000, said the proposed panel should be able to shed light on the extent to which this was the case, ''if indeed it was''.
Until then, he told IPS, ''responsible journalism should refrain from passing judgment''.
The General Accounting Office (GAO), a watchdog body of the U.S. Congress, has estimated the Hussein regime succeeded in ''skimming'' some 4.4 billion dollars from transactions involving both sales and purchases. An additional 5.7 billion dollars worth of oil was smuggled from Iraq outside the oil-for-food program, it alleged.
The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in Baghdad has also announced plans to launch its own investigations into the program
''I know there is a lot being dumped on the U.N. Secretariat, which is not fair,'' Annan told reporters last month. ''I am not saying that the Secretariat may not have made some mistakes, but I think there are lots of issues, and the panel that we put together should be able to clarify".
Annan has said the investigation cannot succeed without the active cooperation, not only of members of the Security Council but of all U.N. member states, particularly those that had business dealings with Iraq.
The secretary-general has also responded to the charge that one of the companies benefiting under the program had employed his son, Kojo.
Although he admitted that his son worked for the Swiss company, Annan said he had nothing to do with the contracts committee that was responsible for awarding Iraqi contracts.
The Times and the 'Wall Street Journal' have said the ''scandal'' has challenged the ''credibility'' of the United Nations, and made a mockery of its attempts to preach ''good governance'' and ''transparency'' to developing nations.
Speaking before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Republican Senator Richard Lugar said the alleged corruption was not solely of Hussein's doings.
''He required members of the United Nations Security Council who were willing to be complicit in his activities, and he required U.N. officials and contractors who were dishonest, inattentive or were willing to make damaging compromises in pursuit of a compassionate mission,'' he said.
''The damage to U.N. credibility from corruption in the oil-for-food program is harmful to U.S. foreign policy and to efforts aimed at coordinating a stronger global response to terrorism'', Lugar added.
Democratic Sen Joe Biden told the panel he welcomed Annan's decision to call the inquiry. ''It's critically important for the integrity and efficiency of the United Nations that we get to the bottom of the story''.
But Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, who monitors day-to-day political developments in the world body, told IPS that U.N. ''credibility'' is certainly not at risk.
''It's the members of the Security Council, most significantly the United States and its allies, who were responsible for approving all contracts in the oil-for-food program,'' she pointed out.
''This is one more in a long series of efforts by Washington to divert responsibility for its own failures to blame the United Nations instead,'' Bennis said.
Von Sponeck said Annan made a wise decision in calling the commission. ''I am sure he will equally wisely select persons of known integrity and political neutrality.''
''We must remember that the oil-for-food program has been the largest humanitarian program ever carried out by the United Nations,'' he added.
''Thousands of dedicated international and Iraqi U.N. staff have done their best during the six years of the program's existence to bring some relief to the Iraqi civilian population living under a dictatorship and economic sanctions."
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service