The UN’s Oil for Bribes Program

The U.N. oil-for-food program, intended to feed the Iraqi people, proved both corrupt and ineffectual as has now been amply documented in an investigation headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.

His panel estimated that Saddam Hussein raked in $12.8 billion through kickbacks, smuggling and sanctions-busting as a consequence of “the United Nations’ failure to properly oversee the program and maintain the integrity of the sanctions regime.”

The panel found that the United Nations was incapable of administering a program of the scope of oil-for-food and, barring substantial institutional reforms, shouldn’t try. The actual corruption, in the sense of money changing hands, within the world agency seems small considering that it was a $100 billion program. Only three officials have been charged, including Benon Sevan, the head of oil-for-food, who is alleged to have taken a paltry $160,000.

But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his top aides were willfully ignorant of the disorganization in the program and dismissive of clear evidence that Saddam was taking kickbacks to award oil-sales contracts to favored companies in countries _ Russia, France, China _ he sought to influence.

A committee set up by the Security Council, on which those same three nations sit, to oversee oil-for-food not only tolerated the corruption but thwarted proposals to reorganize the program to stop it.

In any well-run organization, Annan would resign, but that’s unlikely to happen. Whatever his failings, Annan is popular with the member nations and any U.S. attempt to force his resignation would likely fail over the agency’s refusal to support the war on Iraq, and the backlash would endanger more important U.S. objectives such as seeing the Volcker committee’s recommendations adopted. However, barring some transcendent achievement in the next year or so, Annan has forfeited another term after his current one expires in December 2007.

World leaders are gathering in New York to consider fundamental changes to the U.N. charter and a rethinking of the world body’s goals. Annan could do much to redeem his legacy if he could also win approval of the Volcker committee’s recommendations for managerial and organizational reform, particularly creation of an independent audit agency. A little honest bookkeeping and oversight, and the oil-for-food debacle need never have happened.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)