Roger L. Simon

Nervous Time at the UN

In her run-up to Wednesday’s Volcker Committee mega-report on oil-for-food — Exposé, At Last? — Claudia Rosett is skeptical that the investigation will prove anything more than a grandiloquent whitewash. It’s hard to argue with her – and I won’t (not that I would even want to). She certainly has the early evidence (the report preface) on her side, not to mention the attitude of Kofi’s recent interview with his friends at the BBC. Claudia describes that event this way:

In a BBC interview released this week, Annan expressed regret that the U.N. ever engaged in administering relief for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “Honestly, I wish we were never given that program, and I wish the UN will never be asked to undertake that kind of program again.”

Annan seems to have forgotten his own role in urging from 1997 on that Oil-for-Food become not cleaner, but bigger and ever more directly managed by his own secretariat. It was Annan who picked as head of the program his longtime colleague Benon Sevan, the U.N. lifer who Volcker has already charged with taking bribes from Saddam. It was Annan who stocked his list of special advisers with two men now embroiled in Oil-for-Food investigations, former French ambassador Jean-Bernard Merimee and Canadian tycoon Maurice Strong.

Nor does Annan even now seem to have learned the real lessons of the Oil-for-Food trainwreck. The same BBC interview brought us Annan pushing his pet proposal that the rich nations of the world give an automatic 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product for aid, much of it presumably to be funneled through the United Nations. Such amounts would run into the hundreds of billions, dwarfing even Oil-for-Food, and through the same fingers that Annan piously assures the BBC he wishes would never touch such lucre again. And like Oil-for-Food, which drew its funding straight from Saddam’s oil revenues, this plan for relief would generate vast sums without any need for the U.N. to justify why it needs every dollar – which is once again, a recipe for corruption.

After all the scandal, all the investigating by Volcker, and all the passionate words about reform, the likely product of this report is Volcker chastising but excusing Annan, and Annan excusing himself, on grounds – as he told the BBC this week – that “I don’t think any institution can go through the scrutiny, the scrubbing we’ve gone through and come out squeaky clean.”

Ah, treachery! as the late Ross Thomas would say. Claudia’s cynicism certainly seems justified.

But wait. Ironically, the AP, of all places, appears to be taking the whole thing more seriously. Maybe this report will have some teeth. Their Nick Wadhams summarizes:

The preface of the report makes four broad recommendations:

_Create the position of a chief executive officer, to ensure hiring decisions are based on talent rather than “political convenience.”

_Establish an Independent Auditing Board to fully review U.N. programs and hiring.

_Seek more effective coordination between U.N. agencies.

_Make sure the U.N. Security Council is clearer about the purpose and criteria for U.N. operations that it authorizes.

Sounds good at first glance, doesn’t it? But something rather obvious is missing, something even rudimentary intelligence would tell us is the sine qua non for battling and ending corruption – simple economic transparency… permanently opening the UN’s books for the citizens of the world who pay for it.

It’s not there.

Oh, well.