The Foreign Service Journal, September 2006

I n the second half of 2005, the United Nations teetered on the edge of implosion. This crisis was not brought about by great-power rivalries, U.S. unilateralism or north/ south divisions. The cause, rather, was the unadulterated corruption — old-fashioned bribery and extortion — on display in the secretariat, the General Assembly and some of the specialized agencies. It even reached into the Security Council. Secretary- General Kofi Annan escaped indict- ment and trial only because the Volcker Commission that investigated the “Oil For Food” scandal — the diversion of funds generated by U.N.- monitored sales of Iraqi oil that were intended to provide food and human- itarian aid to Iraqi civilians — did not possess the power to subpoena, indict and try. Had Annan been required to meet the Martha Stewart–Scooter Libby standard of justice — i.e., liabil- ity to a jail term for “lying to investiga- tors” — the outcome might well have been different. This discouraging state of affairs was remarkable both because of the breadth of the rot and the persistence of American elites in denying or ignoring the reality. Over the past two years, numerous verified reports have been published of widespread abuses by U.N. personnel involving sexual and financial extortion. There have been two consistent themes in these scandals: the use of U.N. office and status for self-gratification (anyone who has ever served in the Third World will recognize this phenome- non) and the apparent total lack of accountability within the U.N. sys- tem. (For a book-length analysis of the U.N.’s culture of corruption, see Pedro San Juan’s The U.N. Gang. Although written before the Oil for Food scandal broke, it is most illustra- tive.) Space is limited and the examples of wrongdoing are numerous, so I will not deal with sexual malfeasance here — beyond noting a rare example of gender equity at the U.N. in actions taken against a senior Dutch politician (male) and a senior Uruguayan staffer (female) both for sexual harassment. The former, a special representative of the secretary-general, was forced to resign, and the latter, his special rep- resentative to the Iraqi parliamentary elections, was suspended pending investigation. Instead, I will confine myself to describing some of the most egregious examples of corruption in the Oil for Food program and the U.N. procurement office; analyzing the denial of such problems by U.S. elites; and discussing the possibilities for reform. The Oil for Food Program Benon Sevan, the Cypriot national and U.N. official heading the Oil for Food program, accepted hundreds of thousands in bribes from the Saddam Hussein regime during his incumben- cy, according to the Volcker Commis- sion Report. The bribes were in the form of allotments to purchase Iraqi oil at below-market prices, which were then resold at a profit to the holder. The report found that Sevan steered oil allocations to AMEP, an oil trading company run by one Fakhry Abdelnour, who just happens to be a cousin of former U.N. Secretary- General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali, who presided over the creation of the Oil for Food program in 1995. Also on AMEP’s board is Efraim Nadler, Boutrous-Ghali’s brother-in-law. When Volcker’s investigators found an unexplained $150,000 in a bank account belonging to Sevan, he claimed it was a gift from his maiden aunt in Cyprus who had retired as a photographer for the government. Sevan’s claim regarding his aunt could not be verified because she was found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft soon thereafter (I am not mak- ing this up). Cypriot authorities ruled the death accidental. Other examples of dubious behav- ior involving the Oil for Food pro- gram include (but, as the lawyers say, are not limited to) the following: • The U.N.’s internal auditors sought to audit the program. Natural- ly, Sevan opposed this idea, and U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette decided against any audit. 16 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / S E P T E M B E R 2 0 0 6 Time to End the U.N.’s Culture of Corruption B Y T HOMAS D. B OYATT S PEAKING O UT There have been numerous verified reports of widespread abuses by U.N. personnel involving sexual and financial extortion.