Global Policy Forum

That Cloud Over the United Nations

New York Times
October 14, 2004

So much flak has been thrown at United Nations programs to constrain Saddam Hussein's oil revenues and weapons purchases by those charging corruption that the average citizen must be reeling in confusion. The report issued last week by Charles Duelfer, the chief United States weapons inspector, indicates that Iraq generated $11 billion in illicit revenue, imported forbidden military equipment and bribed companies, individuals and government officials around the world to support its efforts to end sanctions. The emerging scandal is already under multiple investigations in this country, in Iraq and at the United Nations. But nothing that has surfaced so far suggests that the sanctions were failing in their main purpose, that the Bush administration's precipitous invasion was necessary or that the United Nations is fatally hobbled by corruption or incompetence.

The sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first gulf war banned all Iraqi oil exports and prohibited imports of military value, including both conventional arms and "weapons of mass destruction." As the Iraqi population's suffering became apparent, the United States supported a program that allowed Iraq to sell oil. The proceeds went to a special account and were doled out by U.N. officials to buy food, medicine and other civilian items. That now-maligned program not only saved the lives of countless Iraqis, but it also kept the sanctions alive politically for years, right up until the invasion.

Now it seems clear that Iraq evaded the sanctions in two important ways. Mr. Hussein managed to sell oil outside the program, mostly by smuggling it to neighboring countries like Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Egypt. He also managed to import some conventional arms and components. None of these imports were related to nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. The sanctions, backed by the presence of weapons inspectors, did their main job.

Mr. Duelfer has expressed his personal opinion that the sanctions could not have been sustained indefinitely, and many Republicans now use that argument to justify the invasion. But any erosion of support for sanctions occurred before 9/11. Then the sentiment against Iraq hardened, and pricing rules in the oil-for-food program were tightened. Despite President Bush's claim that Mr. Hussein was gaming the program to get rid of sanctions, there was a diminishing likelihood that the sanctions would have been lifted anytime soon.

The most disturbing news so far points to the possible corruption of U.N. officials. Iraq was allowed to sell its oil under the U.N. program to any buyer it chose. One allegation is that Iraq would set a below-market price on its oil, thus allowing the recipient to resell it at a higher price and pocket the difference. This money may have been intended to encourage recipients - private individuals, companies and politicians - to favor ending the sanctions. Among the reported beneficiaries is the U.N. official in charge of running the oil-for-food program. Secretary General Kofi Annan has wisely asked the respected Paul Volcker to head an investigation.

A more difficult issue is posed by the behavior of U.N. Security Council members. Prominent figures in Russia and France were reportedly made the main beneficiaries of Iraq's largesse, presumably in the hope that they would influence their governments to favor Iraq. But these nations were sympathetic to Iraq from the start. And the accused French and Russians legitimately complain that the Duelfer report listed their names before any guilt had been established, while the names of American companies and individuals who got oil vouchers were kept secret, emerging only in news reports.

Security Council members ought to conduct their own investigations - and cooperate with Mr. Volcker's - to ascertain whether Iraqi oil money poked holes in the sanctions that all member nations were supposed to uphold. It's important to track down any corruption so future international efforts have the highest level of confidence. At the same time, however, everyone needs to remember that on the most critical count, sanctions worked.

More Information on the Iraq Crisis
More Information on the Oil-for-Food Programme


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.