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Editorial

Naming U.N. Names

Saturday, February 5, 2005; Page A18

THE FIRST and most important point to make about the preliminary report on corruption in the United Nations' oil-for-food program is that it is not a whitewash. Despite dark hints that Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who led the investigation, was too chummy with the U.N. bosses, Thursday's report did name names. Most notably, it accused Benon Sevan of having received the rights to purchase millions of barrels of discounted oil from Iraqi officials while he was serving as the director of the oil-for-food program. Suspicions that Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, would try to sweep the story under the carpet also have not proven correct. Mr. Annan has announced that he will pursue disciplinary proceedings against Mr. Sevan and other U.N. officials.

The question now is what, if anything, these findings say about the United Nations itself. Congressional critics who see something unique or unusual in this report of U.N. corruption should look harder at the behavior of American, British and other companies in Iraq during that period: The vast majority of the oil smuggling had nothing to do with the United Nations and everything to do with the Western companies and governments that were benefiting, one way or another, from the Iraqi sanctions. More to the point, U.N. Security Council members, including the United States, turned a blind eye to allegations of corruption while it was going on, and they may have even used it to benefit U.S. allies in the region. Mr. Volcker has said that he has found more openness and willingness to share documents about these issues in the United Nations than in some corners of the U.S. government.

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It is also true, however, that the oil-for-food scandal should provide a lesson for those who continue to believe that the United Nations can or should play a larger political role than it does today. The U.N. serves many useful and necessary functions, including the coordination of international relief. Peacekeeping troops flying the U.N. flag can help monitor cease-fires in regions where there is a genuine peace to keep. But this is an organization that is severely limited in its capacity to manage complex financial and political programs, both by its necessarily politicized hiring practices and by its lack of funds. It is not an organization that can operate well in war zones such as Bosnia or Congo, or in deeply corrupt countries such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The U.N. oil-for-food report should not be used as yet another excuse for U.N.-bashing by citizens of countries whose governments behaved at least as badly in prewar Iraq. At the same time, it should force those in this country and around the world who believe that international organizations will soon take the place of nation-states to think twice.


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