Annan must show the UN can lead by example
A report released yesterday on the corruption-plagued oil-for-food programme for Iraq made the pertinent observation that Kofi Annan was chosen to be United Nations secretary-general for his diplomatic skills rather than administrative ability, and that it shows.
An independent panel headed by Paul Volcker, former chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, found that through his mismanagement Mr Annan must share the blame for the disappearance of billions of dollars. But it cleared him of involvement in serious instances of illicit, unethical and corrupt behaviour within the UN.
Mr Volcker said Mr Annan had not been provided with a structure conducive to strong executive oversight and control and the blame for the scandal had to be shared by the security council and member states. The result was 'a grievous absence of effective auditing and management controls', including corruption among senior UN staff, which was exploited by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and others to make billions out of a humanitarian crisis.
The US$67 billion oil-for-food programme aimed to provide food and medicine for Iraqis while keeping sanctions on the Hussein regime. Mr Annan was involved in negotiations with Iraq for the sale of oil to fund the purchase of humanitarian goods and staunchly defended it in the face of efforts by the US and others to undermine the scheme. But massive fraud took place under the noses of UN supervisors, with oil being sold illegally through an elaborate voucher system.
To counter a slew of US congressional investigations, Mr Annan set up the inquiry under Mr Volcker.
The former central banker's report comes just a week before Mr Annan hosts a UN summit of world leaders to discuss sweeping reforms he is sponsoring to make the world organisation relevant to the challenges of the 21st century. These changes must now include an internal shake-up. He should give unqualified backing to the 'thorough administrative reform' called for by the Volcker panel.
The UN's standing has already been weakened by its failure to reach broad agreement on the definition of terrorism and the use of pre-emptive military force, and an overhaul of the decision-making security council. It is overly bureaucratic and indecisive. The lack of accountability exposed by the oil-for-food scandal adds significantly to the erosion of its moral authority. As Mr Volcker says, administrative reforms should be tackled at the summit. 'To settle for less ... will further erode public support and dishonour the ideals upon which the UN is built,' he says.
Those ideals are worth striving for. The multilateral approach to resolving global problems embodied in the original vision of the UN is still the only moral and effective way to a more secure world. But the organisation must lead by example.