By Bill Miller
What ever happened to the legal cornerstones of innocent until proven guilty and due process? These fundamental foundations of American jurisprudence have apparently been tossed aside and replaced with a media circus event that instead prefers to vilify UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the UN’s Oil-For-Food Program (OFFP). The cacophony of cries for Kofi Annan to resign over the Oil-for-Food Program’s alleged irregularities blatantly illustrates the sociological phenomenon of the “media herd mentality” where the UN bashers are piling on at an unprecedented rate, even among some of the mainstream media outlets.
If the truth were known, most of these journalists, who piously pontificate that they really just want to improve the UN, do not share that laudable goal. Their real aim is to humiliate, weaken and ultimately destroy the organization that they perceive—erroneously—to be detrimental to US goals, especially because most UN member states and people worldwide opposed the unpopular and unwarranted war in Iraq. These media gurus have little or no praise for the UN which has done Herculean work in combating SARS and polio, working with the US to combat terrorism, spearheading the Tsunami relief operation, and re-building Afghanistan (not to mention trying to put a partial facade of legitimacy on the war of choice in Iraq by helping to cobble together a legitimate election). The list has many of the reliable UN bashers such as Lou Dobbs of CNN, former NY Times columnist Bill Safire, the Heritage Foundation, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the new member of the choir, Senator Norm Coleman, (R-MN), Chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, who has been particularly acerbic and irrational, to mention only a few.
There are at least five Congressional committees tripping all over themselves to investigate this alleged scandal. Some political cynics believe that part of this zeal to investigate what happened to Iraqis oil money, (not US taxpayer money), is to pay back the UN for not supporting the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Several of these media and Members of Congress admit that there is no evidence of corruption or criminality against Annan; however, some of them keep up the mantra that he resign, which would leave the UN in turmoil and rudderless and deprive it, arguably, of the most effective leader it has had in its history.
Let’s step back and have a reality check of the Oil-For-Food Program (OFFP), in operation from 1996 until 2003, which allowed the Iraqi government to sell oil to reduce suffering and raise the standard of living for Iraqis by paying for food, infrastructure, medicine and humanitarian goods.
-- The OFFP was actually quite successful in feeding 27 million Iraqis; the average daily caloric intake of the people increased by 83% from 1,200 calories to 2,200 calories per person per day; and malnutrition rates decreased over 50% throughout most of the country. Most importantly, from the US standpoint, the combination of the sanctions and the OFFP kept Saddam Hussein in a box and deprived him of developing his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.
-- The responsibility of the OFFP was vested in the UN Security Council’s 661 Committee that approved the contracts that allowed sales and purchases. The UN staff, who actually reported several irregularities starting in 2000 with reports of illegal surcharges, was the lower echelon employees reporting to their bosses. Blaming the UN staff for this debacle is like blaming the low level whistle blower who has virtually no authority and power to confront someone who is committing a criminal act.
-- The US had scores of people monitoring the contracts, but not a single one had been stopped because of corruption, pricing irregularities, or kickbacks. The US, UK and the other 661 members were fully aware that Saddam was skimming funds, yet they chose NOT to take forceful action. The only option would be to choose the lesser of three evils: cut off the program, let more Iraqis die and experience an international public relations outcry; confront Saddam and possibly re-invade Iraq militarily; or continue the program and turn a blind eye, which is what they did.
-- Paul Volcker, the highly-respected former Federal Reserve Chair and head of the independent OFFP inquiry, recently stated that there were irregularities but nothing bordering on criminal activity and nothing that would produce a “smoking gun.” An internal UN audit also indicated that there was mismanagement, such as contractors overcharging (this sounds similar to the Halliburton situation in Iraq) the UN by several million dollars, but they found no irregularities or corruption on the part of the UN staff. Remember, it was the 661 Committee, not the UN civil servants, who had the oversight authority. Ironically, Volcker is getting considerable cooperation from the UN and is being stonewalled by countries such as Russia and the US, both of which apparently had several companies involved in the OFFP.
-- News media estimates of illicit profits of $20 billion are grossly exaggerated, with the number being closer to $1.7 billion, as reported by Charlie Duelfer, who was the US’s chief inspector in Iraq.
What should be done? The logical approach is to report ONLY the facts and let Paul Volcker continue the investigation, with a final report to be published in June. The OFFP irregularities are very serious charges that must be investigated thoroughly. However, the crusading UN-bashing media should just report the facts, not rumors and innuendoes, stop clamoring for Kofi Annan to resign (if every CEO who experienced mismanagement by his/her employees resigned, there would probably not be one governmental agency or private company spared this humiliation). Kofi Annan has vigorously pledged that any employee found to have done anything illegal will lose immunity and will be prosecuted.
Undoubtedly, the anti-UN crowd will continue to bash the organization over the OFFP since it is such an easy target and can be distorted so easily with ridiculous rumors and misinformation. President Bush was quite right to call for a full investigation and accounting of the program. The UN should be held accountable, all of the facts must be exposed, and the UN-bashers should stop demonizing an organization that they desperately need to help in Iraq and other trouble spots around the world.
Truly professional and responsible journalists that wish to inform the public will critically analyze the UN and the Secretary General and objectively report their successes and failures. As the old joke goes: if Kofi Annan were Christ like and walked on water, the next day’s headline would be “Annan can’t swim.” Unfortunately, for many of the media, it is truly a race to the bottom of the barrel.
Bill Miller is past Chair of the United Nations Association of the USA’s Council of Chapter Presidents.