UN Oil for Food 'Scandal'

By Gordon, Joy | The Nation, December 6, 2004 | Go to article overview

UN Oil for Food 'Scandal'


Gordon, Joy, The Nation


The CIA's Duelfer report may have confirmed the gross falsity of the WMD claims invoked by the Bush Administration to justify its war against Iraq, but it has also triggered a feeding frenzy in the growing attacks against the United Nations. In January the Iraqi newspaper Al Mada published a list of people and organizations, including UN personnel, who supposedly received vouchers from the Iraqi government to purchase oil. In April the General Accounting Office (since renamed the Government Accountability Office) published a report claiming that the Oil for Food (OFF) program had been rife with corruption and that through smuggling and kickbacks, Saddam Hussein had managed to acquire more than $10 billion in illicit funds. A series of Congressional investigations followed, featuring conservative witnesses who pilloried the UN for incompetence, corruption and general unfitness. In the latest hearings chaired by Republican Norm Coleman, the committee staff claimed that Saddam's access to illicit funds totalled over $21 billion--twice the sum claimed by the CIA--and that the money went to terrorists around the world, not to mention (rather astonishingly) the post-Saddam insurgency.

If it is true that Benon Sevan, former head of the OFF program, accepted illicit oil vouchers, then that may well constitute fraud (although the evidence cited against him so far has been tenuous). But it would also have been in direct violation of clear UN policies--hardly an indicator of institutional corruption. Rarely mentioned, either at the hearings or in the press coverage, was the fundamental distinction between the policies established by the Secretariat and the UN agencies and those that result from decisions of particular member states within the highly politicized Security Council. For example, the CIA report says that the bulk of the illicit transactions were "government to government agreements" between Iraq and a few other countries, for trade outside the OFF program. According to the report, they resulted in income to Iraq of $7.5 billion.

The largest of these arrangements was with Jordan--revenue from which totaled about $4.5 billion. This trade arrangement was the single largest source of Iraqi income outside the OFF program. From 1990 until the OFF program began in late 1996, "Jordan was the key to Iraq's financial survival," according to the report. Why didn't "the UN" do something about it? Because the Security Council--where the United States was by far the single most influential member--decided in May 1991 that no action would be taken to interfere in Iraq's trade with Jordan, America's closest ally in the Arab world.

Likewise, the maritime smuggling that took place under the nose of "the UN" in fact took place under the nose of something called the Multinational Interception Force, a group of member nations that responded to the general invitation of the Security Council for nations to interdict Iraqi smuggling. The "UN" Multinational Interception Force turns out to have consisted almost entirely of the US Navy. The commander of the MIF was at every point, from 1991 to 2003, a rear admiral or vice admiral from the US Fifth Fleet. The United States contributed the overwhelming majority of ships--hundreds in fact. Britain provided the deputy commander and some naval forces and other countries contributed a few ships. …

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