April 19, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

Stale Kofi

Yet more scandal at the United Nations? Secret deals, millions in bribes, leading to billions in global kickbacks? What to do?

Have no fear, reform is here. The United Nations has already put in place a sweeping set of improvements, with Secretary-General Kofi Annan reorganizing and streamlining the world body to bring about, according to a U.N. reform dossier, “a culture of greater openness, coherence, innovation and confidence.” A blue-ribbon panel has “set more stringent standards for judging the performance of peacekeepers, in the field and at Headquarters.” And there is now a system for dealing with U.N. staff, that “gives more precedence to merit and competence and less to tenure and precedent.”

All of which sounds terrific. Except that the reforms cited above, heralding the new era of openness, coherence, competence, integrity and improved peacekeeping are all plucked from a U.N. dossier released almost three years ago, in June 2002. These reforms were shepherded through by Mr. Annan starting in the late 1990s, with the help of his handpicked special adviser, Undersecretary-General Maurice Strong.

In the course of telling the press on Monday that he “cannot recall a single instance” of contact or discussion with officials responsible for the scandal-plagued Oil for Food program, Mr. Strong did confirm that he has been friendly for years and had a business relationship back in 1997 with a Korean, Tongsun Park. Mr. Park achieved prominence in the 1970s as the go-between who shuttled hundreds of thousands in bribes from the regime of former South Korean dictator Park Chung-Hee to assorted members of the U.S. Congress, in the scandal that became known as Koreagate.

Even if Mr. Strong had the best of intentions, his decision as a high-ranking U.N. official to be involved in any business relationship with the star bag man of Koreagate suggests seriously odd judgment. That should have been obvious even before U.S. federal prosecutors charged Mr. Park last week with accepting some $2 million from Saddam Hussein to convey yet more millions to two (so-far unnamed) high-ranking U.N. officials in an effort to shape the 1996-2003 Oil for Food program to facilitate Saddam's sanctions-busting embezzlement of billions meant for the people of Iraq.

Since the U.N.'s self-described dawn of integrity three years ago (one of several such sunrises since Mr. Annan became secretary-general in 1997), we have seen the sex-for-food scandal in the Congo, featuring the rape of minors by U.N. peacekeepers, which continued well after press disclosures last year prompted a U.N. internal investigation. We have seen theft at the World Meteorological Association, scandal in the U.N. audit department, the resignation over sexual harassment charges of the refugee high commissioner Ruud Lubbers, turmoil within the Electoral Assistance Division, and allegations of corruption involving the U.N.'s Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization. We have seen rebellion by the U.N. Staff Union against “senior management, and a raft of resignations by senior U.N. officials who nonetheless linger on the premises on official salaries of a dollar a year, plus the various perquisites and connections the place affords.

Biggest of all, we have seen the former Oil for Food relief program for Iraq blow like Krakatoa. The program's executive director, Benon Sevan, has been accused by the U.N.-authorized inquiry, led by Paul Volcker, of engaging in a severe conflict of interest. Among other items, Mr. Sevan was found to have been receiving large mysterious payments from his pensioner aunt in Cyprus. The U.N. Secretariat sent out secret hush letters to major U.N. Oil for Food contractors, Saybolt and Cotecna, hired by the U.N. to inspect Saddam's oil and food deals. Congressional investigators and Mr. Volcker's team have since discovered that not only was there far too little inspecting required by the U.N., but that the awarding of U.N. contracts to both parties was done in violation of the U.N.'s own procedures.

We have learned step by step–via details unearthed by the press, not conflict-of-interest disclosures by the U.N.– that the secretary-general's own son, Kojo Annan, received payments during the course of the program from one of the Oil for Food contractors on the receiving end of last year's U.N. hush letters, Switzerland-based Cotecna Inspections SA. Last month the Volcker inquiry, in an interim report, said these payments routed through various conduits might have totaled more than $480,000.

We have seen signs that Saddam, via Oil for Food, corrupted officials and businessmen worldwide–though apart from legal investigations in the U.S., this aspect of the scandal in countries such as Security Council member states Russia, France and China, not to mention such crossroads of Saddam's commerce as Switzerland and Syria, has barely been scratched.

Now we have the charges by U.S. prosecutors that Koreagate's Tongsun Park shuttled millions in bribe money from Saddam Hussein to two high-ranking U.N. officials, referred to in the complaint as “U.N. Official #1” and “U.N. Official #2.” Outside the U.N., the hunt is on to discover the identities of this duo.

And how is the U.N. handling the possibility that some of its high-ranking officials may be under investigation for sitting on illicit millions in secret payoffs from a former totalitarian regime under sanctions? In any private company, or any democratic government, this would fill top management not only with dismay, but with an urgent mission to ransack the place to the rafters, immediately.

At the U.N., there has been no sign of any such urgency. At a press briefing Monday, Kofi Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, when asked for details that might help identify the accused officials, told reporters to go check the library (where reporters were told the materials needed were not on file). Mr. Eckhard further advised that “a deputy attorney general has issued a sealed indictment. So let's let that process run its course.”

On the rest of the Oil for Food scene, Mr. Annan has advised us all to wait for the findings of the Volcker investigation, authorized more than a year ago, but not planning to issue a final report until this summer. Meanwhile, Mr. Annan himself raced before the cameras just two hours after Mr. Volcker's most recent interim report, March 29, to declare himself “exonerated.”

Mr. Annan is now planning another U.N. reform jamboree this September. Brace yourself.

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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