Iraq's Odious Debts

U.N.’s big debt to Iraq

Joe Barton
The Washington Times (Commentary)
August 26, 2004

It was supposed to be oil for food in Iraq, but the largest humanitarian program ever launched by the United Nations turns out to have been grease for friends – Saddam Hussein’s friends.

“We should have spoken out when we came across indications that the Iraqi government was demanding kickbacks as the cost of doing business,” said U.N. official Michael Soussan. “We should have spoken out when members of the Iraqi government made intimidating threats against our staff. We should have spoken out when the Iraqi government delayed or sabotaged our humanitarian program in Iraqi Kurdistan. . . . We should have spoken out on a range of issues, but we did not.” Documents compiled within the Iraqi Oil Ministry indicate that Saddam created a system of bribery and kickbacks to bilk his own people, and perhaps more importantly, that the United Nations let him get away with it. Now it is time for the United Nations to live up to its duty by repaying the Iraqi people the $4.4 billion that Saddam skimmed from the program for which it was responsible.

It’s not as if U.N. officials did not know, even if they didn’t know how much. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which I chair, has looked into this twice, both times finding fresh evidence of problems in allowing Saddam to control the oil-for-food program. Now we know that the problem was greater than anybody suspected and, in fact, it appears to have profited people with ties to the United Nations.

Nobody doubts that the oil-for-food program achieved some of its goals. The Government Accountability Office says that from 1996 to 2000, the average daily food intake increased from 1,300 to 2,300 calories in Iraq. Nor is it clear that many at the U.N. fully understood the extent of the alleged graft. But that’s the problem: U.N. officials didn’t want to know.

How come? In one spectacular case, it may have been blindness for profit. The U.N. bureaucrat who ran the oil-for-food program from his office in New York – he recently submitted his retirement papers – is reported to have somehow made $3.5 million by selling Iraqi oil.

Here’s how we think it worked. Chits for Iraqi oil apparently were given, either as presents or in payment for services, to influential people. According to a list assembled by the Oil Ministry in Baghdad, the favored recipients included the Russian Communist Party (137 million barrels), the Palestinian Liberation Organization (4 million barrels), the minister of forests in Burma (5 million barrels), and an English parliamentarian (19 million barrels). In all, some 270 companies, institutions and individuals allegedly received vouchers.

A New York Times account described the Hotel Rashid lobby as the place where vouchers turned into cash: “That was where the oil traders would gather whenever a journalist, actor or political figure would arrive in Iraq and openly praise Mr. Hussein. Experience taught them that the visitor usually returned to the hotel with a gift voucher.”

Meanwhile, Saddam tightened the screws on his countrymen in various ways.

According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, Kurds were denied a new hospital for the city of Sulaimani, home to 750,000 people. They were also denied funds for a diagnostic and oncology facility for Iraqi Kurdistan, preventing proper cancer treatment in the province, and they received just 2,000 of the 100,000 disposable surgical gloves requested for the maternity hospital in Sulaimani. Instead, the Office of Iraq Police, with approval of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Office, allocated $20 million for an Olympic stadium being built by Uday Hussein, Saddam’s now-dead son. “That was the sad result. . . . No hospitals for the Kurds, money for Uday,” said the Kurdish official.

In testimony to Congress, Claude Hankes-Drielsman, an adviser to the Iraqi Governing Council, said that Saddam “bought support internationally by bribing political parties, companies, journalists and other individuals of influence. This secured the cooperation and support of countries that included members of the Security Council of the United Nations, the very body that received over $1 billion in fees to administer the oil-for-food program.”

Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker has assembled a well-regarded team and is conducing what I hope will be a thorough investigation to uncover how things went this far wrong.

I have no doubt that there is much evidence yet to discover, but the weight of that amassed so far is staggering. This is not about our role in the United Nations. That argument can come later. This is about the United Nations being held to account for a failure that it at least permitted and probably encouraged.

The Iraqi people are still owed the food, medicine and supplies that their oil paid for, but they never got. The member nations paid dues to the United Nations for honesty and integrity they never got. The United Nations started and operated the oil-for-food program, and its obligation to the common people of Iraq lingers even if its program does not. If the Volcker investigation confirms that a top U.N. executive either was bribed to look the other way or was too incompetent to notice billions of missing dollars, the organization is morally obliged to repay the Iraqi people the money that was stolen from them, without double-billing its member nations to pay for it.

Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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