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Resign? Hell No!

Now that the Volcker inquiry has exonerated U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, it's time to root out the real culprits in the Oil-for-Food scandal.
 
 
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“Hell no!” said Kofi Annan when asked whether he would resign after the Volcker Report effectively cleared him of using any influence on behalf of Cotecna, the company where his son Kojo worked. It was good to see Annan in fighting mode instead of adopting the long-suffering Job-like posture favored by the U.N. when the White House chooses to tests its faith with plagues of deranged conservatives and ambassadors.

Apart from turning the other cheek, the other grave sin of the U.N. is its naïve assumption that its American interlocutors are susceptible to rational arguments, evidence, and similar devices of logic. But hell hath no fury like an American conservative cheated of his prey, and so the right-wing media refuses to admit that former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s conclusion -- “there is no evidence of wrongdoing” -- is in fact a “not guilty" verdict.

Many of his persecutors have already insulated themselves from reality by preemptively calling the Volcker Inquiry a “whitewash,” even as they condemn the use of residual Oil for Food funds to pay for it -- money that rightfully should have been used to feed starving Iraqi children. One would be tempted to lend them a handkerchief to wipe the crocodile tears of these good samaritans if only they were as eager to complain about other travesties, as, say, the $30 billion or so that were sequestrated in reparations from the Oil For Food fund to pay compensation for the first Gulf War. Or the five percent of Iraqi oil revenue that is still being deducted from all Iraqi oil sales to pay reparations to Kuwait. Or the eight-plus billion dollars left in the Oil For Food fund that was handed over to the Coalition Provisional Authority after the invasion, and which the U.S. administration admits (quietly) has never been accounted for properly -- but a lot of which we know ended up in Halliburton’s coffers on no-bid contracts.

Not one of these critics has raised a peep at this looting of the Iraqi people’s patrimony.

All That Money, So Little Crime

Kofi Annan should have given the whole baying crowd the finger from the beginning instead of launching this massive and expensive inquiry to scour lint from the U.N.’s navel. Sixty million dollars later, the Volcker panel has so far made the following sensational discoveries: Oil for Food chief Benon Sevan received $160,000 that he claims but cannot prove came from his deceased aunt; Dileep Nair of the Office of Internal Oversight Services -- an agency that makes the Keystone Kops look professional -- used some $200,000 in Oil for Food funds to hire a compatriot; and Kojo Annan did not declare $200,000 of his earnings from Cotecna.

And then there's the seemingly incriminating fact that Iqbal Riza, Annan’s chief of staff, "allowed" his secretary to shred three years worth of files. An amazing coincidence indeed that his secretary should make such a request just as the Security Council requested Annan's office to preserve all relevant documents. But Riza -- like other U.N. officials of his generation -- is not a big fan of transparency. It's likely that he simply assumed that secrecy would be the best way to deal with media scrutiny -- even when there was nothing to hide.

Each of these findings suggest mere improprieties rather than illegal abuses of power, according to Volcker -- in other words, almost nothing to justify this egregious waste of resources. It's a bit like the FBI handing Al Capone a parking ticket after a two-year stakeout in Chicago.

Let the Games Begin

On the other hand, the best part of this inquiry is yet to come and it may still be money well spent. At the same press conference where he exonerated Annan, Volcker promised that his final report will deal with the broader aspects of the Oil-for-Food scandal, i.e., the involvement of the Sanctions Committee, Security Council and governments of the member states.

The upside is that Volcker may confirm what the rightwing is loathe to admit -- that the Oil-for-Food program, which is now irredeemably tainted as “inefficient” or “corrupt” or “scandal-ridden,” was actually very successful in fulfilling its two major aims: feeding Iraqis while starving Saddam’s war machine. It is the reason why there were no WMDs in Iraq and why the United States asked it to continue its activities after the invasion.

But Volcker's other potential revelations are likely to be just as if not more embarrassing. The final report will almost certainly show that Republican and Democrat administrations alike were complicit in the oil trade between Iraq and U.S. allies Turkey and Jordan. (It can't be called smuggling if the Security Council and the U.S. Congress both knew and condoned it at the time.)

No wonder former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Danforth, as good as warned the U.N. against implicating the two nations in his parting remarks. U.S. bullying, however, can change the fact that the Sanctions Committee was warned about Saddam Hussein’s double pricing scheme and did little about it, even though every contract went to Washington and was minutely scrutinized by a welter of committees there. Year after year, the U.S. secretary of state requested an exemption for Jordan and Turkey from facing U.S. reprisals for buying oil from Iraq – and each time the turkeys in Congress said “Aye.” And after all squealing from the right on the UN accountability and transparency, it will be interesting to see how much access the Volcker Inquiry is allowed to have to U.S. documents and personnel to investigate these facts.

Where's Yer Spine

The Volcker inquiry, in fact, represents a valuable opportunity for Annan and the U.N. Secretariat to finally get some payback for being left swinging in the wind by the nations truly responsible for siphoning billions of dollars of revenue to Saddam.

Sadly, the U.N. is still too polite to come out swinging at the Number One member state. The organization is temperamentally unsuited to defending itself, as revealed by its volte-face over paying legal bills for Sevan – a man who has become the target of a witch-hunt because of his official position as head of the Oil For Food program. The U.N. first did the right thing by offering to pay legal expenses for Sevan, but then succumbed to a media lynch mob and quickly reneged on the deal.

The decision entailed a certain amount of hypocrisy on Annan's part. When asked by the inquiry why he did not conduct a more thorough investigation in 1999 – when the first hint of impropriety regarding Cotecna emerged – Annan’s reply was drafted by an expensive firm of Washington lawyers, Williams and Connolly. Their response: Annan had consulted the former head of Price Waterhouse, Joseph Connor (the head of U.N. management effectively nominated by the United States) and Hans Corell, then Annan’s USG for legal affairs and head of OIOS for their advice; they told him not to bother. Since Annan did not have to pay from his own pocket to defend himself for carrying out his official duties, it was only fair that the same courtesy should have been extended to Sevan.

In civilized countries, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and even those who are eventually found guilty are allowed proper legal representation.

Where the U.N. Secretariat should have stuck its ground, it instead offered to withdraw diplomatic immunity from anyone under prosecution in connection with the scandal. Given that Sevan will be tried in the United States – where prosecutors just have to say “Iraq” and the “United Nations” often enough for a jury to find the poor guy guilty of masterminding Sept. 11 – the decision spells nothing but trouble for him.

The truth is that the U.N. is unlikely to develop a spine any time soon. So it’s up to us, the people, not to let a bunch of faith-based conservatives determine or divert the agenda of a body that belongs to the world – not La Verkin, Utah, the capital of flaky U.N. haters.

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for AlterNet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation , and Salon.