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Investigating the U.N.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page A24

IT IS HARDLY shocking to discover that competition has arisen between Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is leading the Senate investigation into corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program, and Paul A. Volcker, who is leading the United Nations' own investigation into the allegations. Not surprisingly, the staffs of both inquiries want to ferret out the same documents and speak to the same people. Even less surprising, the United Nations has better access to its own documents and people. Mr. Volcker says he is reluctant to share that access or to lift anyone's diplomatic immunity until his investigation is complete. Mr. Coleman has accused him, in effect, of hiding information from the Senate.

Mr. Volcker has given no reason for suspicion that he does not intend to carry out the most thorough investigation possible or that he will not eventually reveal documents and make any final report public, as he has promised. He should be granted a reasonable amount of time to gather information. Certainly it is far too early to dismiss Mr. Volcker's investigation altogether or to call for the resignation of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, as Mr. Coleman did last week. That sounds to us like U.N.-bashing for political gain rather than responsible criticism.

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It is also misleading to portray the oil-for-food program as a slush fund for Saddam Hussein while ignoring the far larger riches he reaped through illicit trade that was entirely unrelated to the United Nations. Most of the billions amassed by Saddam Hussein for weapons and palaces during the 1990s came through sanctions-busting trade in oil and other goods with such countries as Jordan, Turkey and Syria. The United States knew about this business but either condoned it, as in the case of Jordan, or did little or nothing to stop it. The oil-for-food program at least ensured that most of the revenue from Iraq's official oil sales was used to purchase food and other humanitarian supplies for Iraqi citizens. If Congress wishes to assign accountability for Saddam Hussein's ability to pay the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, it would make more sense to investigate why and how the non-U.N. trade was tolerated.

The importance of the U.N. investigation lies in holding accountable officials who may have been corrupted, regardless of the scale of the crime or the connections of the official. In particular, the nature of the relationship of Mr. Annan's son to a Swiss company hired to oversee the oil-for-food program needs to be clarified; the shifting accounts provided so far by U.N. officials compound what were already legitimate and troubling questions. There is also an issue of consequences: If Mr. Volcker uncovers evidence of corruption or criminal incompetence, it isn't clear what happens next. Is the United States going to file criminal charges against U.N. employees, who have diplomatic immunity, working at the U.N. Secretariat in New York? That seems unlikely. Will their own countries do it? That seems even less likely.

If they choose to ask constructive questions, rather than score political points, Mr. Coleman and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.), can help ensure that the U.N. internal investigation is rigorous and that its findings are followed up on. Still, the most important task is Mr. Volcker's. For the United Nations to maintain the credibility it needs to carry out the important tasks delegated to it, the organization's integrity must be beyond doubt. A failure of accountability will only leave the organization susceptible to U.N.-bashing of a far more serious nature.

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