Oil for memories

Claudia Rosett
The Wall Street Journal
April 21, 2004
Having helped sustain and humor the tyranny and fraud of Saddam Hussein for years via the massively corrupt Oil-for-Food program, the United Nations has for the past year been seeking a new role for itself in Iraq.

Presiding over the legitimation of a new Iraqi government, which seems to be the current grand ambition, is not a good place for the U.N. to start. At the very least, a project of such complexity, requiring the highest possible degree of integrity, needs to wait until the various investigations now in motion, or about to begin, have reported back. We need some better explanation of how the U.N., charged with overseeing the $100 billion-plus Oil-for-Food program, allowed Saddam to filch at least $10 billion, peddle influence possibly with the U.N. itself, set up front companies, procure clandestine arms, fund the regime’s murderous security services, and so on. It would also be valuable to have some clear idea of how the U.N. proposes to reform its own deeply entrenched patterns of privilege and secrecy, to prevent its future collusion in such abuses, or in other wrongdoing to which the current system of patronage and confidentiality now lends itself.

Before the U.N. again goes about the business of trying to supervise anyone else, It would be vital to see real reforms not simply discussed but genuinely carried out. Although, given the pace and zeal with which such U.N. figures as Secretary-General Kofi Annan, or the veto-wielding French and Russian missions, approached the prospect of even inquiring into Oil-for-Food, any genuine reform at the UN could take a while. Perhaps by the time the grandchildren of today’s youth in Iraq are running for office in routinely democratic elections, the U.N. will have rearranged itself as an institution qualified to advise them on the process.

But in the meantime, is there anything the U.N. might usefully do in Iraq?

Well, yes. There’s one thing that leaps to mind. It has to do with Saddam-generated cash still on tap at the U.N., and a project in need of funding in Baghdad that would genuinely help spell the beginning of a healthy, post-Saddam identity for Iraq.

Recall that during the Oil-for-Food program, which ran from 1996-2003, the U.N. Secretariat collected some $1.4 billion in commissions from Saddam, to cover the costs of administering Oil-for-Food. It turns out, as U.N. Controller Jean-Pierre Halbwachs confirmed to me earlier this month, that left over from these commissions, the U.N. Secretariat still has in its coffers some $100 million. This, Mr. Halbwachs explained, is at the moment being held against potential liabilities arising from the terrorist bombing last August of the U.N. offices in Iraq.

Given that the independent report last October on the U.N.’s security systems in Baghdad found the entire U.N. security apparatus “dysfunctional,” and given that the dysfunction was so egregious that the U.N. recently fired the official in charge, it seems strange to reserve that $100 million to help the U.N. potentially cover the cost of its own grievous mistakes. That money was meant to help provide for the betterment of the 26 million citizens of Iraq, not insure the U.N. against its own malfunctions.

As it happens, Iraq-born architect Kanan Makiya was in New York recently seeking funds for the project of building a memorial and a holocaust museum in Baghdad, the better to help Iraq’s people understand and come to grips with the atrocities of Saddam’s regime. The project would include the cataloguing and preservation of millions of pages of documentation, and the presentation of evidence about the decades of abuse that took place, from which Iraq must still recover. Mr. Makiya is director of the Iraq Memory Foundation (, which is trying to assemble this project. His proposal states: “The Iraq Memory Foundation is not a project intended to apportion blame or play politics. First and foremost it is designed to allow future generations of Iraqis to glimpse the inner sanctum of the atrocities that were perpetrated during the period of Ba’athist rule from 1968 until 2003.”

For a location, Mr. Makiya has already secured the site in Baghdad of the infamous huge crossed swords, built by Saddam to celebrate “victory” in the Iran-Iraq war. The plan, says Mr. Makiya, is not to remove the monument, but to build a museum and memorial of the Iraq holocaust at the very location – an Iraqi version of “Never Forget.”

It is hard to think of someone better qualified to convey this message than Mr. Makiya, a former exile who returned to Baghdad after Iraq’s liberation. In exile he devoted himself to uncovering the truth of the Baathist atrocities, and tried to tell a world – including the U.N. – that largely did not want to hear. In such works as “Republic of Fear,” “Cruelty and Silence,” and “The Monument,” a book about the site he is now proposing for the memorial, Mr. Makiya over the past quarter century was already at work unearthing what documentation he could, and explaining, eloquently, the cruelties of Saddam’s totalitarian state. It was a system, he notes, that had in common with the terrorists of our time “an almost complete reduction of all politics into violence.”

For this project, Mr. Makiya is seeking, ultimately, an endowment of some $40 million. That’s less than half what is still sitting in the Secretariat’s own Oil-for-Food account, and it is hard to imagine a more appropriate use of this money than to help Iraqis document, preserve and confront the full truth of Saddam’s abuse. In the interest of fairness, the U.N. might also want to turn over a portion of the remaining $60 million or so for a memorial in northern Iraq, where Saddam used chemical weapons to murder thousands of Kurds, and another portion to southern Iraq, site of so many of Saddam’s mass graves. It would be the philosophical beginning of restitution for U.N. collusion with Saddam, and of genuine re-legitimization for the U.N. in Iraq.

Of course, the U.N. may want to be sure that the money is well spent, and properly accounted for. Mr. Makiya would be glad to engage in fully transparent bookkeeping, disclosed to the public and done in accordance with top international standards. All around, it’s the kind of project the U.N. would do well not only to support, but even to emulate.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute.

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