Security Council approves independent probe of U.N. oil-for-food program
With the full weight of the Security Council behind him, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker opened an independent investigation Wednesday into allegations of corruption and kickbacks stemming from the U.N.'s humanitarian program in Iraq.
His three-member panel will hire and oversee a team of investigators, accountants and legal advisers expected to pore through hundreds of pages of U.N. contracts awarded over the years to international companies that did business with Saddam Hussein's regime.
But Volcker's panel will have no subpoena authority and will need to rely on voluntary cooperation from foreign governments, U.N. staff, members of Saddam's former government and current Iraqi leaders who claim they have evidence that dozens of people, including top U.N. officials took kickbacks from the oil-for-food program.
The Security Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the independent investigation of the program that U.S. lawmakers have said allowed billions of dollars in illegal oil revenue to flow to Saddam Hussein.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Wednesday that he took seriously allegations that U.N. officials had taken money and he expected the investigation to uncover the truth. He wouldn't comment directly on new reports that several unnamed U.N. officials could be implicated for taking kickbacks from the program.
Annan launched an internal inquiry in February but canceled it in March to allow a broader, independent examination.
"I want to get to the truth and I want to get to the bottom of this so I am happy they are taking on this assignment," Annan said.
Volcker, who will lead the three-man investigative panel, insisted on the resolution setting out the inquiry's aims before he would agree to head the probe.
"A full, fair investigation, as conclusive as we can make it, is in the long-term interest of the U.N. -- that's the only reason I'm here," Volcker said at a news conference. "Whatever it shows, if it shows something bad in the U.N., (then they'll) clean it up."
Yugoslav war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone of South Africa and Swiss criminal law professor Mark Pieth will work with Volcker.
The U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, estimated in March that the Iraqi government pocketed $5.7 billion by smuggling oil to its neighbors and $4.4 billion by extracting illicit surcharges and kickbacks on otherwise legitimate contracts.
The allegations of possible U.N. corruption first surfaced last January in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada. The newspaper had a list of about 270 former government officials, activists and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales that were part of the U.N. program.
The resolution supporting Volcker's investigation calls on the U.S.-led coalition now running Iraq, the Iraqis themselves, and all 191 U.N. member states and their regulatory authorities "to cooperate fully by all appropriate means with the inquiry."
Russia had initially opposed Volcker's request for a Security Council resolution on grounds that a council statement was enough. Asked whether he was satisfied with the resolution adopted Wednesday, Volcker said it included "the vital sentence" calling on all states to cooperate. "That's the guts of it," he said.
"Important accusations have been made about the U.N., accusations about the administration of the program, accusations about activities outside the U.N. that need to be resolved," Volcker said. "The U.N. is an important institution and these questions, once raised, I think have to have a deliberate and full investigation and an answer."
Annan said he hoped the outcome of the investigation, expected to get underway immediately, wouldn't taint the U.N.'s reputation in Iraq.
However, there was no indication Annan would send U.N. humanitarian workers back into the volatile country any time soon.
"We are monitoring the security situation. We hope attempts to reduce the violence will succeed (but) until that is done, security is a constraint for us," he said.
Under the oil-for-food program, which began in December 1996 and ended in November, the former Iraqi regime could sell unlimited quantities of oil provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War.
Saddam's government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them, and who could buy Iraqi oil -- but a U.N. committee monitored the contracts.
Several U.S. lawmakers conducting their own investigation have expressed skepticism about the U.N.'s ability to create an independent panel that could implicate some of its own high-ranking officials.
Volcker said he had already spoken with several members of Congress and looked forward to their cooperation.
[Source: UN, The Associated Press, 21Apr04]
War in Iraq
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