July 20, 2005 | New York Sun

All the Secretary-General’s Men: the Tangled Web of U.N. Cronyism

Reforming the United Nations is a tall order at the best of times. Today it stands no chance at all unless it starts by removing the network that during Kofi Annan's more than seven years as secretary-general has already helped him “reform” the world body – twice.

Ever since oil-for-food documents began spilling out of post-Baathist Baghdad more than two years ago, offering a glimpse of the United Nations' inner workings, scandal has been erupting throughout Mr. Annan's secretariat. Top officials have been tainted, one after another, by cover-ups, conflicts of interest, and in one case allegations of outright graft, the latter involving circumstances serious enough to provoke investigation not only by the United Nations itself, but by Congress and both local and federal prosecutors.

A number of high-ranking friends of the secretary-general have left the U.N. The most recent instance is the departure from the U.N. executive offices – for now – of Canadian businessman Maurice Strong, who has served for years as a special adviser to Mr. Annan on such vital matters as good governance and U.N. reform, and also as the secretary-general's personal envoy since 2003 to the Korean peninsula.

Mr. Strong's interest in good governance did not extend to the intersection of his own family matters with U.N. business. In April, following the issue of a federal complaint alleging that millions had been funneled by Saddam Hussein to lobby two unnamed high-ranking officials via Tongsun Park, who had been involved in the 1970s U.S. congressional scandal known as Koreagate, Mr. Strong admitted that Mr. Park had invested substantial funds in a company owned by Mr. Strong's son. Mr. Strong denied any wrongdoing. But with the spotlight suddenly on his personal affairs, it also came out that against U.N. rules, he had hired his stepdaughter, Kristina Mayo, to work at his U.N. office. Following these disclosures, Mr. Strong stepped away from his post, Ms. Mayo resigned, and the United Nations this week confirmed that Mr. Strong's contract recently expired and has not been renewed.

Is he really gone? Scarcely had a U.N. spokeswoman, Marie Okabe, confirmed Mr. Strong's departure than Mr. Annan's office put out a summary statement that the secretary-general “values Strong's advice and expertise and believes he has worked with distinction. Following the results of the inquiry, the United Nations would see if he could play a role.” Mr. Strong told the Wall Street Journal this week that he will keep working on Korea and will “make my advice available as it may be useful to the U.N.”

Mr. Strong held a highly influential role as executive coordinator for Mr. Annan's first major reform of the United Nations, in 1997 – helping to shape the system that in 2002 needed yet another reform package. This produced the current Secretariat, now widely seen as so tarnished that Mr. Annan and many of his same old team members have been hustling to launch a third reform this September.

Among the contributions of the Strong-coordinated 1997 reform was the consolidation of the then-new, ad hoc, limited, and temporary oil-for-food program into a major U.N. department, to which Mr. Annan named his longtime colleague Benon Sevan as executive director, initially described as reporting directly to the secretary-general.

Under that arrangement, oil for food between 1997 and 2003 mushroomed into the worst scandal in U.N. history. Oil for food's secrecy, lax oversight, and general setup allowed Saddam to graft billions out of U.N.-administered Iraqi oil revenues meant for humanitarian relief, while lobbying the Security Council under cover of lucrative U.N.-approved oil-for-food deals. The United Nations has been either unable or unwilling recently to confirm Mr. Sevan's whereabouts, but he continues to enjoy diplomatic immunity because Mr. Annan has retained him as an “adviser” on a $1-a-year U.N. salary.

Mr. Annan's 1997 reforms also created the post of deputy secretary-general, to which in 1998 Mr. Annan appointed a Canadian, Louise Frechette, who has served as Mr. Annan's no. 2 since then. By her own account earlier this year, Ms. Frechette at times served as Mr. Sevan's immediate boss, acting as go-between for Mr. Annan. From details cited in a February 3 interim report by the U.N.-authorized inquiry into oil for food led by Paul Volcker, midway through the program Ms. Frechette helped Mr. Sevan block attempts by U.N. internal auditors to send potentially damning secret audit reports on oil for food not just to the secretary-general's office, but directly to the Security Council. Mr. Annan has now put Ms. Frechette in charge of coordinating the next U.N. reform.

Ms. Frechette also has a connection to the Volcker inquiry now investigating the same oil-for-food program she helped Mr. Annan supervise. While serving as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1990s, she reported to a former Canadian deputy minister, Reid Morden, who is now executive director of the Volcker investigation.

Canadian connections stand out again by omission in the second Volcker report, issued March 29,which examined business ties between the United Nations and Kojo Annan and what the secretary-general might have known about his son's involvement in these matters. Notably absent was any mention that Mr. Strong, a Canadian, while serving as Kofi Annan's special adviser with the rank of U.N. undersecretary general, joined the board of a private company, Air Harbour Technologies, on the same day in December 1999 that Kojo Annan became a fellow director. While no wrongdoing has been alleged in this regard, the Volcker committee, in producing a report devoted prominently to Kojo Annan's U.N. ties, made no mention whatever of this shared business interest.

Then there's Mr. Annan's longtime colleague and former chief of staff, Pakistani-born Iqbal Riza, who resigned his post effective in January, shortly before the Volcker committee disclosed in its February 3 interim report that after the U.N. inquiry into oil for food began, Mr. Riza's office spent months shredding documents Mr. Volcker had ordered be preserved. These documents pertained to the period in which major U.N. oil-for-food contracts were being awarded to firms including Cotecna Inspection, which had a long business relationship with the secretary-general's son.

Mr. Riza has not left the United Nations, however. As in the case of Mr. Sevan, Mr. Annan has retained Mr.Riza on a $1-a-year salary, as a “special adviser.” This week Mr. Annan's office announced the formation of a new U.N. program to promote world peace, the Alliance of Civilizations, with which Mr. Riza will be “dealing.” In this new role, he will be joined by another longtime U.N. fixture, Italian Giandomenico Picco, who in a 1997 Christian Science Monitor article endorsed Mr. Annan's first reform as a “sweeping” package, which Mr. Picco predicted would succeed because of Mr. Annan's ability to manage personnel.

Helping to arrange these changes is Mr. Annan's new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, who previously ran the U.N. Development Program. It recently came out that Mr. Malloch Brown is renting a house for $10,000 a month from billionaire George Soros, who collaborated extensively on projects with the UNDP under Mr. Malloch Brown. Mr. Malloch Brown has stated he does not consider his housing arrangement a conflict of interest.

These tales represent a sampling of how Mr. Annan's United Nations – both post- and pre-reform – does business. What waits in the wings? There are reports that the Volcker committee is now looking into the secretive, Geneva-based U.N. Compensation Commission, which for years has been tasked with paying out billions in Iraqi oil revenues to parties claiming compensation as victims of Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Most of the UNCC's $19.2 billion in payouts flowed from oil for food. During the first few years of oil for food, the UNCC was led by a Haitian, Jean-Claude Aime. No one has accused Mr. Aime of any wrongdoing, but he might have some insights to offer about his previous superior officer, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who launched oil for food in 1996, just before Mr. Annan took over. Mr. Aime that same year served as chief of staff for Mr. Boutros-Ghali, whose cousin, Fakhry Abdelnour, owned the company African Middle East Petroleum, on behalf of which Mr. Sevan has been accused of soliciting oil allocations from Saddam.

None of this network of connections is frivolous. Mr. Sevan was selected by Mr. Annan to run the biggest U.N. program ever, overseeing more than $110 billion of deals done by a tyrant under U.N. sanctions. Mr. Strong was not tapped by Mr. Annan to tweak gender awareness either at Turtle Bay or in Pyongyang; he was an adviser influencing major efforts to reshape the United Nations and an envoy dealing with the crisis point of a nuclear armed totalitarian North Korea. The document-shredding Mr. Riza, the Sevan-supervising Ms. Frechette, and now the house-renting Mr. Malloch Brown all enjoy the dignity, clout, and immunities that come with high office at the United Nations.

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.



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