Some of the words were stern. Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker lectured the U.N. Security Council, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan in particular, that Annan and members of the entire organization need to change the way they operate or face a worldwide loss of support from the public.
If Kofi Annan had any integrity he would resign today. On his watch the United Nations was host to perhaps the largest corruption scandal in history. This scandal went all the way to the top of the organization and into his own family. But don’t expect genuine accountability.
The oil-for-food program — designed to allow Iraq to trade oil for food and medicine during a period of economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war — was run so corruptly, according to the commission Volcker headed, that Saddam Hussein managed to pocket about $1.7 billion in kickbacks, and his regime captured some $11 billion in oil-smuggling profits.
Benon Sevan, former head of the oil-for-food program and a close Annan associate, is accused of receiving about $150,000 in bribes. He has resigned but has gone to his home country of Cyprus to avoid facing the music. A former U.N. procurement officer has pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering, and another faces similar charges. Volcker’s report cites lax procedures at nine U.N. agencies and an atmosphere of “waste, inefficiency, and corruption, even within the United Nations itself.”
While naming some second-level officials involved in corruption, the report stops short of finding outright personal corruption by Kofi Annan or other top officials, though it criticizes them for lax — well, pretty much invisible — oversight and responsible stewardship. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of John Bolton, the controversial U.S. ambassador, to capitalize on the scandal to pursue a few reforms in the direction of accountability, reform is unlikely.
“There may be cosmetic changes,” said Ted Carpenter, vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “But corruption runs to the core of the institution.”
That’s not surprising, given that the U.N. is an association of governments, all of which are adept mostly at fleecing taxpayers and avoiding accountability. Being twice removed from any actual citizen who might have a chance to hold it accountable, the U.N. will solemnly promise to fix things, then continue on its merry way.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the institution will become so discredited that citizens pressure the U.S. government to stop funding the U.N. Even that seems unlikely, however.