The Accusations against the Oil for Food Program: The Volcker Reports

Article excerpt

THE SANCTIONS IMPOSED ON IRAQ FROM 1990 to 2003 were the most severe economic sanctions ever imposed in the name of international governance. Because Iraq was highly dependent on oil exports and highly dependent on imports, its economy was particularly vulnerable to comprehensive sanctions. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the massive bombing campaign destroyed much of Iraq's infrastructure, and the sanctions then prevented Iraq from rebuilding. Electrical generators, water and sewage treatment plants, telecommunications facilities, and much of Iraq's industrial production was devastated. The humanitarian situation, described shortly after the war by an envoy of the UN Secretary General as "near apocalyptic," worsened. By 1995, the malnutrition and deteriorating health of the Iraqi population were at a crisis. The Oil for Food Program (OFFP) was established in 1996 to allow some amount of humanitarian goods into Iraq to relieve the crisis. Although limited in scope, and compromised by the many political agendas at play, the Oil for Food Program nevertheless resulted in significant increases in nutrition and health, as well as some restoration of electricity and other critical public services. However, the last two years have seen an explosion of attacks upon the program, maintaining that it was corrupt. The most extensive and credible investigation was that conducted by the Independent Inquiry Committee, headed by Paul Volcker. The accusations against the Oil for Food Program, in turn, have served as a springboard for larger attacks on the credibility and effectiveness of the United Nations as a whole. In this essay, I will argue that those accusations of improprieties have been greatly overstated; and that the member states, including the United States, hold fully as much responsibility for smuggling and other illicit trade as the UN.


In January 2004, the Iraqi newspaper Al Mada published a list of persons and organizations that supposedly received "vouchers" from the Iraqi government to purchase oil. Included on the list was the UN's head of the Oil for Food Program, Benon Sevan, as well as liberal British MP George Galloway. In April 2004, the General Accounting Office published a report claiming that the Oil for Food program had been rife with corruption, and that through smuggling and kickbacks, Saddam Hussein had managed to acquire over $10 billion in illicit funds. What followed were a series of congressional investigations, that frequently included testimony from one of the most vitriolic of the journalists covering the issue, Claudia Rosett of the of the Wall Street Journal, as well as witnesses from the Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations; but rarely included scholars, or experts from liberal organizations. Journalists, particularly Rosett and William Safire, wrote numerous articles describing the OFFP accusations in grandiose terms, saying (among other things) that the accusations constituted "the largest financial rip-off in history." (1)

"A mountain of evidence has now accumulated to suggest the Iraqi people suffered from shortages of quality food and medicine not because international sanctions were too strict, but because lax or corrupt oversight at U.N. headquarters in New York allowed Saddam Hussein to exploit the system for his own purposes," reads a Wall Street Journal editorial. (2) Rep. Ralph Hall stated at a heating he chaired:

      By allowing such fraud and deception to continue and for
   U.N. employees to participate in it has probably resulted in the
   deaths of thousands of Iraqis through malnutrition and lack of
   appropriate medical supplies. We have a name for that in the United
   States, it is called murder. (3)

The members of Congress participating in the hearings, even moderate Republicans such as Christopher Shays, used the opportunity for considerable grandstanding. …