An Overdue Look at U.N. Corruption

Finally, more than two years after Saddam Hussein’s regime toppled, the United Nations is getting serious about corruption in its oil-for-food program, a well-intentioned but badly administered humanitarian gesture that had the perverse effect of prolonging his hold on power.

The international agency’s new top management officer, Christopher Burnham, a former top State Department official and Marine officer, has ordered a complete investigation and a review of procurement practices.

A commission under former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker has been investigating the oil-for-food program up until now and, even without subpoena power and relying on voluntary cooperation, what Volcker has turned up has been damning enough.

This past week the commission accused the former head of the oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, a Cypriot, of soliciting and accepting bribes to direct Iraqi oil vouchers to favored companies.

The commission also charged that former U.N. procurement officer Alexander Yakovlev with accepting as much as $1.3 million in kickbacks from contractors. Adding credence to the charge was that Yakovlev was almost simultaneously pleading guilty to wire-fraud and money-laundering charges in connection for selling insider information on U.N. contracts.

The suspicion is that Sevan and Yakovlev were not alone in this and that an aggressive investigation would lead to other corrupt officials in the United Nations and its member governments. Indeed, without pressure from Congress, the probe might not have gone this far.

The continuing investigations should concentrate not only on flushing out the guilty but also on how the $65 billion oil-for-food program could have been properly run. The money was intended to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people, but much of it found its way to Saddam, his family, his Baath party and his brutal security apparatus. Sadly, that may not be the last time the United Nations will have to enforce a sanctions program against a belligerent dictator. Next time it should be done right.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose son may have profited personally from an oil-for-food deal, surely hoped that the world’s interest in the corruptly run program would collapse along with Saddam. But that cannot be allowed to be the case, both for the integrity of the United Nations but also as some measure of justice for the Iraqi people who were the real victims of the corruption.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)