The report on the investigation of the United Nations’ oil-for-food program — the international effort to oversee Iraq’s oil sales and alleviate suffering in that country following the first Persian Gulf War — excoriates the entire U.N. system for its failures. No one — not the the U.N. bureaucracy, its leadership, the U.N. Security Council or member states — comes off well in the five-volume, 1,000 plus-page report released this week.
Complaints range from poor administration to pure corruption. Coming a week before world leaders gather at the U.N. to debate the world body’s future, the report could not be more timely. Whether leaders will absorb those lessons is another question altogether.
The oil-for-food program was one of the largest humanitarian efforts in history and certainly the biggest ever attempted by the U.N. It was designed to help ordinary Iraqis survive the sanctions imposed on their country by the U.N. in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.
Created in 1996 amid reports of widespread malnutrition and health problems, the program oversaw all Iraqi oil sales. The U.N. had to approve all contracts involving proceeds from oil sales. Theoretically the program ensured that Iraqi oil revenues were used to help the Iraqi people and that President Saddam Hussein could not divert those funds to weapons programs. By the time it ended, the program accounted for $64 billion in oil sales and $37 billion in purchases by Iraq.
In one respect, it worked. The program helped support 90 percent of Iraq’s population of 26 million people, and while health conditions remained grim, it averted a disaster. And, given what the world now knows about Iraq’s weapons’ stockpiles, the program also prevented Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
But the investigation into the program has revealed incompetence, corruption, malfeasance and misfeasance. Poor oversight enabled Hussein to manipulate the program to reward friends who worked with him to undermine its intent. Baghdad structured contracts so that they produced $1.8 billion in kickbacks that ended up in Hussein’s pocket. That sum, though large, is dwarfed by the $8.4 billion in oil sales that occurred outside the oil-for-food program. An additional $2.6 billion in revenues were derived before the program went into effect, even though such sales were supposedly prohibited by the U.N.
All told, said the committee, $12.8 billion “sets out in quantitative terms the consequences of the United Nations’ failure to properly oversee the program and maintain the integrity of the sanctions regime.”
Part of the problem was the sheer scale of the effort. The U.N. bureaucracy was not set up to manage $100 billion in contracts. The report alleges that Mr. Benon Sevan, the program’s executive director, accepted kickbacks. U.N. leaders provided little guidance. According to the report, Mr. Sevan’s direct boss, U.N. Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette, was uncertain about her role and did not provide leadership and oversight. Her boss, Secretary General Kofi Annan, did not step into the breach. Upon the release of the report, Mr. Annan said he takes personal responsibility for the management failures. (The report absolves Mr. Annan from the actions of his son, who was accused of steering work to a company that he worked for.)
But the blame is not Mr. Annan’s alone. The Security Council, and the sanctions committee that oversaw the program, turned a blind eye to many transactions. They ignored smuggling because the recipients were friendly countries or because the companies involved were their companies.
And of course, there was Mr. Hussein, ready to exploit each loophole and take advantage of every opportunity. Mr. Paul Volcker, who served as chairman of the U.N. inquiry panel, got it right when he called the program “a compact with the devil and the devil had means for manipulating the program to his ends.”
The report has been released a week before world leaders gather in New York to debate the organization’s future. Clearly, business as usual will not work. The report makes it plain that an overhaul is necessary if the U.N. is to be able “to respond promptly and effectively to the responsibilities thrust upon it by the realities of a turbulent, and often violent, world.”
Some critics will argue that this episode proves that the U.N. cannot respond to those challenges. It is more accurate to say that the institution has been prevented from meeting those responsibilities. As the heads of state meet in New York, they must answer fundamental questions about the U.N. and its role in the world. This report on the oil-for-food program makes clear the questions that must be asked, and the consequences of a failure to answer them.
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