Iraq's Odious Debts

Independent oil-for-food probe will separate allegation from fact, Annan says

UN News Service
June 17, 2004

Secretary-General Kofi Annan today stressed the comprehensive nature of an independent inquiry into allegations of corruption within the now-defunct United Nations Oil-for-Food programme for Iraq, and urged critics to allow the panel to reach its conclusions before pronouncing judgement.

Mr. Annan made his comments at UN Headquarters in New York after being asked about a recent column by William Safire in The New York Times.

In that article, Mr. Safire said Mr. Annan had mentioned in a recent conversation that the probe would have access to an internal report on a competitor who had complained about an oil-for-food contract going to Cotecna Inspections.

From 1999 to 2003, Cotecna was under contract to the UN to check the goods imported by Iraq under the programme. The Secretary-General’s son, Kojo, was briefly connected with that firm but his ties there ended in 1998.

Responding to questions today, the Secretary-General said he had not spoken to Mr. Safire on the record and clarified that there was no internal report of a complaint. “It was a private conversation,” he said, adding that he had been referring only to a 1998 press report regarding Cotecna.

“I am afraid that conversation has been quoted selectively, and I don’t think it is fair,” he said.

The Secretary-General, who has named the independent commission headed by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, urged patience.

“There are allegations which are being looked into by the Volcker commission, and they will do a thorough job, and when I say thorough, I mean thorough,” he said. “They will cover Cotecna. They will cover the oil allegations against UN staff members. They will cover the whole gamut.”

In addition to calling into question the basis of Mr. Safire’s assertions, the Secretary-General criticized those who treat allegations as fact. “We need to be patient and allow the investigation to go forward, and I think some are being very impatient and jumping to conclusions without facts, without evidence,” he said.

“It is a bit like lynching actually,” he said.

Begun in 1996 as a temporary measure to ease the pain of international sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein, the UN programme enabled the country to use a portion of its oil revenues to purchase humanitarian relief. The effort was monitored by a committee which included representatives from all 15 countries on the Security Council. Until its termination in November 2003, the relief effort succeeded in providing food and other aid to 27 million Iraqis, achieving notable successes including the eradication of polio and a drastic cut in child malnutrition.

The Secretary-General set up the independent inquiry in April in response to press allegations of corruption. He has pledged to deal severely with any staff member found guilty of wrongdoing.

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