Global Policy Forum

Annan to Probe UN Oil-for-Food


By Shawn Mccarthy

Globe and Mail
March 23, 2004

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is pushing for an investigation into the United Nations handling of the oil-for-food program and the alleged diversion of $10-billion (U.S.) from the program by Saddam Hussein's government.

Faced with potentially explosive hearings into the affair by a U.S. congressional committee, Mr. Annan said yesterday he is moving quickly to establish an independent commission that will review the work of UN staff as well as look at wider allegations of corruption. Mr. Annan needs Security Council blessing to proceed with the inquiry and UN officials believe the council has little choice but to approve it.

Media reports have implicated UN administrator Benon Sevan, saying that recently discovered Iraqi records revealed that he had ties to a company that received illicit oil-for-food vouchers from the former Iraqi government. Mr. Sevan, who is to retire in April, has vehemently denied the allegations.

Mr. Annan said yesterday that he is eager to get answers, though he has been criticized for not moving more quickly and decisively on allegations that surfaced nearly a year ago. The Secretary-General ordered an internal audit in February after Iraqi records implicating his senior bureaucrat surfaced. But critics have complained about a potential whitewash and now Mr. Annan is promising an independent inquiry.

"It's a very complex issue and I hope once they have been able to do their work it would be very clear who was responsible for what, and where does blame lie," he told reporters yesterday.

"I am not saying that the secretariat [of the oil-for-food program] may not have made some mistakes. But I think there are lots of issues, and the group we put together should be able to clarify."

Late Friday, Mr. Annan wrote the 15-member Security Council asking for its support in looking beyond the role of the UN bureaucracy in the alleged scandal and focusing as well on the actions of others, including Russian, French and Chinese companies that allegedly benefited from the scheme. The United States has already indicated its support for an inquiry and is putting pressure on other members to agree.

UN officials believe the allegations are politically motivated and orchestrated by elements of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and American hardliners who are hostile to the world body. They acknowledge, however, that they cannot disprove the allegations.

The Security Council launched the oil-for-food program in 1996 so Iraq could raise funds for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. Iraq sold more than $67-billion worth of oil before the program was ended by the U.S. invasion last year.

According to the rules laid down by the Security Council, the Hussein government was allowed to choose its own suppliers and oil traders. Under the program, the Security Council established a separate committee made up of member states, the so-called "661 Committee," to approve all contracts issued by the Iraqi government.

Mr. Annan has suggested that committee, more than the UN secretariat, was responsible for policing the process. Last week, the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of the U.S. Congress, reported that the Hussein government forced contractors to kick back more than $10-billion from the program between 1997 and 2002.

Republican Henry Hyde, chairman of the House of Representatives committee on international affairs, has said he will hold hearings on the oil-for-food program in April. Mr. Hyde wants to shed light on "what appears to have been serious oversights, failures and management failures by the UN," a Republican committee staffer, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said yesterday in an interview.

Hawks in the United States have seized on the allegations as proof that the world body cannot be trusted to take on the more robust role in Iraq, which Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and many foreign leaders have urged.

More Information on the Iraq Crisis
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Oil-for-Food Programme


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