Global Policy Forum

UN Unprepared for "Mammoth Oil-for-Food Program"

February 16, 2005

The UN's Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette said the international body had been unprepared for the mammoth task of providing humanitarian relief for 24 million Iraqis and hoped it would never be given a job like the oil-for-food program again. Frechette said the responsibility of carrying out the program was equivalent to overseeing the entire import and export of goods for a medium-size country.

"We certainly have taken pride in the fact that the program has served to feed and provide basic necessities to people and that their own personal faith improved over the life of the program," Frechette said on Tuesday. "But we have also seen that the program has revealed some basic weaknesses in our own internal systems."

Speaking at a press conference in response to Paul Volcker's interim report following his investigation of corruption in the oil-for-food program Frechette said some of the weaknesses, especially in dealing with contracts, had been addressed before the report was issued on February 3rd, "but clearly, there were other weaknesses in that system, from which we are learning." The report criticized the U.N.'s system of awarding contracts, its failure to follow-up on recommendations made by auditors, and its policy of keeping documents from being analysed by the 191 member states.

"Personally, I hope to God we never get another oil-for-food program or anything approaching that kind of responsibility, which was tantamount to trying to oversee the entire import-export regime of a country of 24 million people, which was a tall order," she said. "If ever, God forbid, we were to be given that kind of responsibility in the future, we certainly would go about it differently and we certainly would apply the lessons that we are learning from the exhaustive investigations that are going on at the moment," she added.

In the report, Volcker questioned whether the U.N. Secretariat headed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan had the ability to monitor and follow-up on audit recommendations and criticized the U.N.'s watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). Last December, the General Assembly changed the procedures in order for member states to request copies of any OIOS audit or investigation. But according to Frechette, Annan plans on taking it further and will undertake a comprehensive review of "the rules and guidelines pertaining to access to United Nations documentation."

"Right now there is not a very clear set of rules on that issue, and the intention would be to do a comprehensive review and, hopefully, to arrive at a clear set of rules as to what is accessible and what is not, and to bring some clarity and consistency into the practice," she said. Frechette told reporters she believes the investigation report identified "a weakness in our management system that we intend to correct" pertaining to the issue of the U.N.'s ability to follow-up on audit recommendations.

Furthermore, in order to ensure that action will be taken on recommendations of internal and external audit and oversight bodies, the United Nations is setting up an internal oversight committee that would continuously monitor management responses and implementation, she said. "We expect to have this committee in place shortly," she said, adding that there would be at least one non-U.N. member "to ensure that we have the benefit of an outsider's view on how well our management teams are doing."

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