Revelations about the U.N. Oil for Food Program get uglier and uglier. Designed to allow Iraq to collect revenues to pay for humanitarian supplies such as food and medicine, it appears to have been manipulated by Baghdad to reward friends of the regime and enrich the country’s leadership. The damage has been magnified by allegations of corruption and negligence on the part of the United Nations. There needs to be a complete investigation of what went wrong with the Oil for Food Program, but caution must be taken to ensure that this does not become a witch hunt that needlessly tars the U.N. and settles scores in Iraq.
The Oil for Food Program was the product of the first Persian Gulf War. Stringent conditions were imposed on Baghdad after its army was driven from Kuwait. Failure to comply with the terms of the peace treaty drew international sanctions that exacted a harsh price on ordinary Iraqis. Shrewd manipulation by the Iraqi government turned international opinion against the allied powers, which were blamed for the hardships. To ease the pain, the U.N. authorized the Oil for Food Program in 1995. It went into effect a year later and was shut down late last year. During its lifetime, Iraq exported $69.5 billion of oil; those revenues were used to buy humanitarian supplies.
There were always suspicions that the program was not working as intended. Ordinary Iraqis continued to suffer — malnutrition and disease were rife — while Saddam Hussein continued to build ornate and grandiose palaces. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, the occupation authorities found evidence of how the program might have been abused. A number of investigations are now under way to ascertain exactly what happened.
The most important has been launched by the U.N. itself and is headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the former government in Baghdad collected more than $5 billion (and perhaps as much as $10 billion) in illegal revenues through the program by imposing surcharges on oil sales and collecting kickbacks on purchases of goods. Another U.S. agency has concluded that half the contracts it examined were overpriced by at least 5 percent. Reportedly, individuals and companies were favored with vouchers that entitled them to buy Iraqi oil; they were rewarded for their willingness to participate in the illegal schemes or for their support of Iraq’s efforts to lift the sanctions.
Mr. Volcker recently released a list of all 4,734 companies that traded in the program, although he cautioned that it merely names the companies that officially acquired oil without commenting on the legality of their action. Under the program, some 248 oil companies bought $64.2 billion in oil from Iraq, while 3,545 companies sold $32.9 billion in humanitarian supplies to Iraq. Russian, French, Swiss, British and Turkish firms bought about half the Iraqi oil. Companies from Russia, France and Egypt were the main suppliers of goods.
Mr. Volcker left individual names off his list, but a list compiled by Mr. Charles Duelfer, the man heading up the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, fills in the blanks. Among them are the U.N. official who administered the program as well as politically connected individuals in Russia and France. The inclusion of Mr. Benon Savon, the U.N. diplomat who oversaw the program, has fueled charges of negligence and misconduct against the U.N. He denies any involvement.
The origin of the documents is suspicious. They were first linked to Mr. Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who provided many of the Iraqi defectors who helped make the case for war against Iraq. There are fears that Mr. Chalabi is using them to eliminate rivals in Iraq and settle scores. And while France and Russia were sympathetic to Baghdad — the product of long-standing political and economic ties to the regime — U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan has said he doubts that is enough to explain those governments’ opposition to the war.
Nevertheless, Mr. Annan has said he wants to get to the bottom of the controversy as quickly as possible. Calling in Mr. Volcker — a no-nonsense man who would not accept a job that he could not complete to his satisfaction — is a sign of his seriousness. Mr. Volcker’s report is due late next year. It is imperative that he explain what happened and why. The U.N.’s credibility is at stake.
Many people want to blame the U.N. for mishandling the program and will use this controversy to further discredit the world body. But even if the allegations are correct, and “interested governments” undermined the U.N. effort, the problem lies not in the U.N., but in the governments that refused to let it do its job. This is yet another reminder that the U.N. is only as strong as its members allow it to be.
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