Concerning the global extravaganza of graft that was the United Nations Oil-for-Food program, Kofi Annan’s line was to blame everyone but the UN itself. “If there was a scandal,” was how he tried to spin it when asked about corruption in his own secretariat. Apparently, U.S. federal prosecutors see it differently. This morning, jointly with the Manhattan DA’s office, they announced the indictment in New York’s Southern District of Annan’s handpicked head of the former Oil-for-Food program, Benon Sevan, on charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Also charged is Ephraim Nadler (a.k.a. “Fred Nadler”), a brother-in-law of former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. If that sounds like the UN might be prone to problems at the top, keep going. The web of fathers-sons-sisters-brothers-and-wives is stunning; and there is of course the mystery of the death of Benon Sevan’s pensioner aunt, whom Sevan claimed was the source of the $160,000 that the Feds allege he took in Oil-for-Food pay-offs, and who perished after falling into the elevator shaft of her Cyprus apartment block, just as Oil-for-Food investigations were taking shape in early 2004.
Sevan, who denies any wrong-doing, slipped out of New York in 2005, but has been living in plain sight on Cyprus, where I found him settled into his late aunt’s penthouse apartment when I paid a surprise visit there last March.
This indictment comes nine years after Sevan allegedly took his first payoff on Oil-for-Food deals, and follows years in which top UN officials denied, stonewalled, dismissed and in some cases lied about the extent of abuse within the UN itself. Billions in taxpayer dollars, as well as enormous amounts of trust, are lavished on this institution by our own government. The question today is not only whether Sevan, now facing an Interpol warrant, might decide to cooperate with the laws of the U.S., where — while working at UN headquarters in New York — he is alleged to have banked stacks of Iraq-begotten cash. The larger questions are why Annan and his top aides and advisers felt they could with impunity deflect blame from their own failings and from the UN itself, and why, apart from perhaps Sevan, they have gotten away with it.