UNcorruptible?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

MOVING RAPIDLY from the general to the specific, the commission investigating the U.N. oil-for-food scandal in prewar Iraq published a detailed account this week of how two U.N. officials -- Benon Sevan, the director of the oil-for-food program, and Alexander Yakovlev, a procurement officer -- directly benefited from corruption. Within hours, Mr. Yakovlev pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud and money laundering, and admitted receiving several hundred thousand dollars in bribes. By contrast, Mr. Sevan denied any wrongdoing and maintained that he had been demonized by unnamed enemies. "The real oil-for-food scandal," he declared, "is in the distortion and misrepresentation of the accomplishments and the record of the program by now well-established U.N. bashers."

It is true, of course, that the investigating panel led by Paul A. Volcker is not a legal body, and could not force Mr. Sevan to cooperate, which he refused to do. Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence against him is substantial: Among other things, bank statements show unexplained quantities of cash flowing into his New York bank account between 1998 and 2003, after Mr. Sevan's request that senior Iraqi officials give a contract to a company controlled by two of his friends (both of whom, curiously, are related to Boutros-Boutros Ghali, the former U.N. secretary general).

What is most worrying about Mr. Sevan's insistence that he is nothing more than a victim of "well-established U.N. bashers" is that others still seem to feel some sympathy with that point of view. On Monday, Mark Malloch Brown, the chief of staff to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, repeated one of his boss's favorite metaphors, chastising the media for focusing "on the little black dots" of corruption rather than the "extraordinary network" of people and companies who made the oil-for-food program such a "success."

The U.N. bureaucracy has come a long way in recognizing the need for deep institutional reforms. Yet Mr. Annan's failure to understand that the oil-for-food program was corrupt at its heart -- or perhaps at its head, given the evidence about its director's behavior -- is disturbing. The oil-for-food program -- along with the other forms of sanctions-busting effectively condoned by the United States and others -- was designed to allow Saddam Hussein's government to enrich itself at the expense of Iraq's people. It was a deeply disturbing example of how the United Nations' humanitarian impulse can sometimes go badly wrong. As long as any part of the institution or its defenders continues to believe that the oil-for-food disaster was an insignificant affair dreamed up by U.S. lawmakers and their friends in the media, it's hard to see how any reform, however beautifully structured on paper, will achieve much in practice. Reform begins with an end to self-delusion.

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