The latest damning report on the United Nations oil-for-food program gives further ammunition to those who have been calling for the resignation of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They are right. The UN chief should go. He was the man in charge during the biggest financial scandal in UN history and he cannot avoid responsibility for it.
Mr. Annan said yesterday he would not quit ("hell no," was his reply when asked) and his supporters see no reason why he should. They note than he did not engage in any corrupt practice. So far, no evidence has been uncovered to show that Mr. Annan played any direct part in the multibillion-dollar swindle or profited from it in any way.
So why should one of the most respected, dedicated and reform-minded individuals ever to hold the top UN post depart now, when he is on the verge of introducing badly needed changes that would redesign, streamline and modernize the entire organization and reshape its role in world affairs? Because although the oil-for-food program was initiated before Mr. Annan took over, he was the one at the helm when the scandal unfolded practically under his nose. And because, as the report released yesterday makes clear, Mr. Annan failed in his administrative duty to exercise proper oversight of the $65-billion (U.S.) oil-for-food program or the UN official who ran it. He was also remarkably tone-deaf when it came to his son's business dealings and the potential they posed for serious conflicts of interest.
"As I had always hoped and firmly believed, the inquiry has cleared me of any wrongdoing," Mr. Annan declared yesterday. But it did not vindicate his actions -- or more accurately, his inaction -- and amounted to a scathing indictment of his management style.
The interim report, the second issued by the independent three-person panel investigating the scandal, focuses on how a Swiss company, Cotecna Inspection SA, came to win the lucrative UN contract in 1998 to inspect humanitarian goods destined for Iraq. Specifically, the committee examined whether the selection was free of impropriety and whether Mr. Annan's conduct in the matter was "adequate," considering that his son, Kojo, had worked for the company from 1995 until 1997, and was still on its payroll as a consultant. When the senior Mr. Annan did launch an investigation of the Cotecna deal, it failed to deal with the conflict-of-interest concerns or the suitability of the Swiss company, which was facing a criminal probe in Switzerland over money-laundering allegations.
Cotecna executives left no doubt that Kojo Annan was hired at the tender age of 22 because "of his perceived business connections and standing." His father knew about the job, but was kept in the dark or misled about his son's activities, including his subsequent intentions to do business with Iraq.
The oil-for-food scandal involved much more than the illegal enrichment of certain business people, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and others willing to turn a blind eye to the depravity of Saddam Hussein's regime in exchange for small slices of a vast oil pie. The UN program was designed to prevent ordinary Iraqis from suffering as a result of sanctions against the regime by allowing oil to be traded for humanitarian goods. Instead, the dictator and his henchmen siphoned off billions for themselves and for the military, while ordinary people suffered even more.
If the sanctions had been properly applied, the Iraqi regime's smuggling activities reined in, and the oil money earmarked solely for food, medicines and other relief, Mr. Hussein would have been squeezed financially and would have had trouble meeting the operating costs of his army and security apparatus. It's possible that under such circumstances, he would have been far less bellicose when Washington demanded inspections of his arsenal, and that the Bush administration would not have thought it so urgent to go to war.
Mr. Annan says he has no intention of resigning. If he were the leader of a democratic country, his constituents would be demanding that he step down. And if he were the chief executive of a publicly held corporation, his board of directors would have shown him the door long ago. If he truly cares about reforming his beloved United Nations, he will depart soon, because he no longer has the credibility needed for such a gargantuan task.