Last week, world leaders met in New York at the UN for this year’s World Summit. In addition to being the biggest annual event for the international body, this year also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the UN’s founding just after the end of World War II.
But there’s a cloud hanging over what should be a celebration. Since the Oil for Food scandal first broke in 2003, it has grown to implicate many senior UN officials, including Secretary General Kofi Annan’s son Kojo, and Benon Sevan, the former director of the program. The largest relief operation in United Nations history has turned into the biggest fraud in world history with billions of dollars embezzled from funds meant to help Iraqi citizens.
This is a huge embarrassment for the UN and the organization’s response has only exacerbated the problem. When the scandal first came to light, Annan reacted by implying that anti-UN forces in the US Government were engaged in a witch-hunt and that the whole thing was being blown out of proportion. When that failed to squelch the controversy, he appointed Paul Volcker to look into the mismanagement of the program. Annan and other senior UN officials repeated that now they were on the case and people should let the investigation run its course.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress set up its own inquiry to investigate the fraud and they began to complain that the UN was refusing to hand over relevant documents. In the months that followed it became obvious that the only investigation the UN would cooperate with was one they could control. Even the world body’s staunchest supporters were grudgingly admitting that the UN seemed more interested in stalling the process and managing the outcome than in getting to the bottom of the corruption. When an organization acts that defensively, it’s often because the corruption extends all the way to the top.
Then, just in time, the sixtieth anniversary rolled around and their reasons for slow-pedaling the process became perfectly clear. The plan was to minimize the negative impact of the findings by rolling them into a huge, positive event. With 170 heads of state gathered in New York to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the United Nations, the UN could bury its own recommendations for reform in its massive annual assessment reports and requests for additional funding. It also plans to release its final reports on Oil for Food soon after the World Summit, as if to say, “Well, we just reformed ourselves anyway, but for the record, here’s what happened.”
But even if the reports had been released in time to affect the reform process now underway, it wouldn’t change the fact that the whole UN-led inquiry was more cover-up than investigation. That an organization caught committing massive fraud would handpick its own auditor, choose which documents he receives and decide which officials and functionaries he can interrogate is bad enough. But to then have him submit his findings not to the public, the press or an independent body, but to the organization’s own leadership so they can decide what goes into the final report is manifestly absurd. When billions went missing after Enron’s bankruptcy, did Enron CEO Ken Lay lead the investigation? When Microsoft was caught breaking antitrust laws, was Bill Gates appointed as the impartial arbiter of his own company’s misdeeds?
A UN-administered investigation into a UN-administered money-laundering racket is as credible as O.J Simpson’s promise to find the real killers. Anyone interested in what happened during the Oil-for-Food fiasco should wait for the congressional investigation to release its report.
And for those who believe that no matter how corrupt the UN is, it still functions as a check on American power and should be supported anyway, consider this: The best-case scenario for an administration that favors unilateralism is Kofi Annan and crew staying on to head an unreformed UN. It would allow the U.S. Government to say, “Look, after getting caught perpetrating the largest fraud ever, the UN is so corrupt it can’t even hold its own people accountable for what happened on their watch. Why should we seek approval for our actions from an international crime syndicate?”
Those who believe that a strong and credible UN is important should demand a rigorous independent investigation into its corruption and severe penalties for its offenders. Anything less benefits the UN’s critics far more than its supporters.
Neglected Story of the Week: While not exactly underreported, there’s been a huge breakthrough in the six-party talks going on in Beijing over North Korea’s nuclear program. On Monday, the North Korean envoy agreed in principle to give up all nuclear weapons programs, rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and accept inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since 2002, when the Hermit Kingdom was caught breaking the previous agreement signed with the Clinton administration, they’ve complicated negotiations by insisting on their right to have nuclear weapons.
Even if this concession is just a negotiating ploy, the other parties will hold them to it, so it’s progress whether it was made in good faith or not. While the good news is tempered by North Korea’s history of contradictory statements and broken promises, it’s still a very encouraging development and raises hopes that a comprehensive deal could be signed soon.