The blindness of a father

Margaret Wente
The Globe and Mail
March 29, 2005

Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, is a deeply unhappy man these days. His call for sweeping reforms at the UN won him much applause from starry-eyed idealists, but that’s yesterday’s news. Today’s news is yet another bombshell report about the notorious UN oil-for-food scandal in Iraq. This one will finger Mr. Annan’s son, Kojo, who traded on his famous father’s name to line his own pockets while working for a Swiss company that earned big profits in the oil-for-food racket.

Mr. Annan is said to be so depressed about his son’s involvement that he might even quit. Today, he’ll have to explain that he had no idea what his son was up to, and that Kojo had repeatedly lied to him. Perhaps one day he’ll also explain why he continued for so long to defend the UN official who ran the $65-billion (U.S.) program. It would also be interesting to hear him explain how he presided over one of the biggest scams in history and never noticed a thing.

The oil-for-food program was set up to ease the world’s conscience over punitive sanctions against Iraq. The problem was, Saddam Hussein was allowed to run it. He chose the customers for Iraq’s oil, and he chose the suppliers. The suppliers charged extremely high prices, paid him huge kickbacks and, as often as not, delivered food and medicine that were worthless. The program was administered by the UN, which rubber-stamped every deal and has been passing the buck ever since.

Saddam used his lucrative oil contracts to buy friends of the regime, including foreign businessmen, politicians and journalists. He made sure the Russians did extremely well (they got $22.5-billion in contracts), and also the French ($7.3-billion). Alert readers may recall that Russia and France, which are permanent members of the Security Council, were implacably opposed to UN action against Saddam.

Iraq’s current ambassador to the UN says the oil-for-food program was worse than nothing, because it allowed the world to believe that we were actually doing something to help the suffering Iraqi people. Instead, the world was shoring up Saddam. “The people of Iraq got weaker and weaker, and Saddam and his regime got stronger and stronger,” he told the CBC’s Terence McKenna. Last year, Mr. Annan called in Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, to get to the bottom of the mess. Mr. Volcker’s first report, issued last month, was a scorcher. It found that no one had ever audited the program for graft. It found that Benon Sevan, the UN’s oil-for-food program director, had asked the Iraqis to route oil allocations to a company owned by a relative of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was UN secretary-general when the program began. Mr. Sevan failed to satisfactorily explain how he’d come by a windfall of $160,000. (He said it was a bequest from an aunt, who, it turns out, was a woman of extremely modest means.) The UN is currently paying Mr. Sevan’s legal bills with money from its oil-for-food commissions.

Mr. Annan described the first Volcker report as “especially uncomfortable reading.” Today’s will be worse. It will describe how Kojo Annan landed a consulting job with the Swiss company Cotecna at the tender age of 22. Cotecna received nearly $10-million a year from the UN to inspect aid shipments being sent to Iraq. Kojo denies he was involved in the oil-for-food part of Cotecna’s business. But he clearly traded on his father’s name, and collected far more money from Cotecna ($400,000 in all) than he’s owned up to. Kofi Annan met Cotecna executives at least four times without sensing a conflict of interest.

There’s no evidence that Kofi Annan was on the take or tried to rig the system. But his blindness to the abuses right under his nose is damning enough. The UN can’t stop the dying in Darfur. It can’t stop its own peacekeepers from raping teenage girls. And its bureaucracy did nothing as Iraqi children starved.

Mr. Annan, to his credit, knows that his beloved UN faces a crisis of legitimacy. But he’s the last man on Earth who can fix it.

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