At a special session chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, the United Nations Security Council voted Tuesday to end the Saddam-era sanctions on Iraq, as well as the remnants of the Oil-for-Food program. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was there, as well as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. In the way of such meetings, there was plenty of speechifying, with each of the five permanent and 10 rotating members delivering orations on the occasion. There were congratulations to the Iraqis on how far they’ve come, as well as advice, prescriptions, and urgings about stability, security, the Iraqi people, “the region, and the international community.”
Notably missing was even a single word of apology for UN complicity in the massive corruption of Oil-for-Food. You remember Oil-for-Food — the 1996-2003 relief program in which the UN took on the job of overseeing all oil sales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and promised all proceeds would be supervised by the UN to ensure the money was spent on humanitarian aid for the people of Iraq. What came of this setup, in which the UN oversaw more than $110 billion worth of Iraqi oil and relief deals, was a bonanza of billions in kickbacks and illicit fees paid to Saddam’s regime, under cover of thousands of UN-approved contracts. Those illicit billions were skimmed out of oil revenues that were supposed to help the people of Iraq. This dirty business helped fortify Saddam’s murderous regime, and padded the pockets of a great many of his business partners.
Plenty of blame goes to the UN Secretariat, run during all but the first month of Oil-for-Food by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan — whose hand-picked head of the program, Benon Sevan, was later alleged by a UN-authorized inquiry to have “corruptly” derived “personal pecuniary benefit from the Oil-for-Food Programme” via “cash proceeds” from lucrative Oil-for-Food contracts. The UN-authorized inquiry, led by Paul Volcker, devoted hundreds of pages to the mismanagement, derelictions and abuses that went on in the Secretariat, which had the hands-on responsibility for dealing with most of Oil-for-Food’s dirty details.
But the Security Council, which doubled as the Iraq sanctions committee, also bears plenty of blame. The Security Council authorized the program, approved contracts and — as we now know, after many post-mortem investigations and congressional hearings — had its own internal wrangles, in which the U.K. and U.S. made private protests over the obvious corruption, but failed to stop the fiesta of graft — in which Saddam was ordering up such stuff as milk from Russian oil companies and Chinese weapons manufacturers.
Today, the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council are a different batch from those who milled through the Council during Oil-for-Food (a group that toward the end included such stand-out collaborators with Saddam’s sanctions-busting graft as Syria). But the permanent five — the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — were, of course, along for the entire ride. And of that Perm Five, the two top business partners of Saddam were Russia and France. China also did quite well out of Saddam’s deals; the Volcker inquiry noted that China would have surpassed France as a purchaser of Saddam’s kickback-laden oil contracts, except that China made a lot of its purchases via a London subsidiary. For that matter, two of the current rotating members, Turkey and Lebanon, did substantial business under Oil-for-Food, and neither has made any visible attempt to pursue the allegations of graft raised by the UN inquiry.
Russia and France, with China tagging along, were also the Security Council members who, along with Kofi Annan, were virulently opposed to evicting Saddam. Had their wishes prevailed, there might have been none of the progress for which the Security Council on Tuesday congratulated the people of Iraq. Instead, both Saddam and an array of French, Russian and Chinese contractors might have carried right on, skimming cash from oil proceeds meant for sick and hungry Iraqis.
It’s not just the people of Iraq, the erstwhile beneficiaries of Oil-for-Food, who are owed an apology for this performance. It’s people everywhere, who are asked to trust in the good offices of the UN, and accept the doings and decisions of the UN Security Council, and its chosen administrator of the Secretariat, the Secretary-General. Apparently, diplomacy at the UN Security Council flies high above such niceties as “We’re sorry.” Or perhaps the Security Council members that during the Iraq-sanctions era raked in the most from Saddam’s Oil-for-Food franchises don’t see anything in that to regret? With the UN now supposed to serve as the nexus for sanctions on Iran and North Korea, that’s not a comforting thought.