May 4, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Kofi’s Break

Kofi Annan is not a crook. Or, to be more precise, the United Nations Secretary-General has not been convicted of criminal activity.

It is possible that the investigations now underway will establish that he had no direct involvement in the transformation of the UN's Oil-for-Food program from humanitarian relief into the biggest financial swindle in world history. It is even possible that he was ignorant about what was taking place in a project that he shaped, presided over and expanded — and, by the way, one from which his own son profited.  

If that's so, however, Mr. Annan has to be the most negligent and incompetent manager ever to lead a major international organization.

Yet through the cloud that hangs over Mr. Annan, a ray of sunshine has found its way to him. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, that prestigious Ivy League seat of learning, has invited Mr. Annan to serve as this year's commencement speaker. And that's not all: In what can only be seen as an expression of wacky collegiate humor, the university also will award Mr. Annan an honorary – yes, honorary – doctorate of law – yes, law.

I suppose one could say, “Oh what the heck! So a few billion dollars fell through the cracks. It's only money!”  But that would not be correct. Oil for Food (OFF) was meant to ensure that the international sanctions imposed on Iraq targeted Saddam Hussein — not innocent Iraqis. Because the program was corrupted, not only did Saddam end up with plenty of funds to build palaces and buy weapons; more distressingly, money that was meant to buy food and medicine was diverted. As a result, Iraqi children died and their grieving parents were robbed — by Saddam with UN connivance. 

I suppose one could still say, “Oh fiddlesticks. OFF was one UN program out of dozens. In other ways, Mr. Annan has been the very model of a modern Secretary-General.” But that, too, would not be correct. The United Nations, almost eight years after Mr. Annan assumed leadership, is embroiled in more scandals than at any time since its founding. As serious as OFF – in a different way — is the scandal involving UN peacekeepers in Africa sexually abusing the women and children they were sworn to protect. The exploitation continued even after press reports had forced a UN internal investigation.

Nor does Mr. Annan deserve high marks for the work he did before becoming Secretary-General. As head of UN peacekeeping operations, he failed to raise alarms over rising ethnic violence in Rwanda. As a result, the Rwandan genocide took place on his watch. The mass murders at Srebenica and Darfur also occurred during his tenure in top UN jobs. 

And straight out of a George Orwell novel has been the UN Human Rights Commission — a body where the worst human rights violators gather to criticize others.

There have been other scandals as well – too many to detail here and perhaps some we'll never know about: A UN survey last year showed that a significant portion of Mr. Annan's staff fear retaliation if they call attention to management failings.

So, recently I wrote to Dr. Gutmann to share these concerns about her decision to honor Mr. Annan. To do so, I argued would be an embarrassment to the institution she leads. 

Leslie Laird Kruhly, the “Secretary of the University,” responded on Dr. Gutmann's behalf. She said she was “sorry to learn” I disagreed with the choice of a commencement speaker. Nonetheless, she added, “I believe that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is deserving of this honor” in recognition of “his career of devoted service to the goals of development, international peace and security, human rights, and the rule of law.” 

That he has failed to make progress toward these goals is, apparently, irrelevant. What lesson might graduating seniors draw from that? That there is nothing wrong with failing as long as you convince people you're “devoted”?

She then told me that “Dr. Gutmann's administration has passionately committed itself to protecting intellectual freedom. We believe that a great University must never compromise on its devotion to free speech.”

What has intellectual freedom and free speech to do with the appropriateness of honoring a man who has presided over mass corruption – well beyond the wildest dreams of anyone at Enron – while turning a blind eye to genocide, organized sexual abuse and long lists of human rights violations? Who knows? Who cares? Apparently, no one at the once-great University of Pennsylvania.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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