Claudia Rosett in the NY Times provides an interesting background on the United Nations involvement in Iraq - Oil, Food and a Whole Lot of Questions:
President Bush's call to lift economic sanctions against Iraq could mean the end of the United Nations oil-for-food program, which has overseen the country's oil sales since 1996. Not only are France and Russia likely to object, but they may well support efforts by Secretary General Kofi Annan to modify the oil-for-food system, which is due to expire on May 12, and give it a large role in rebuilding the country. Whatever Mr. Annan's reasons for wanting to reincarnate the operation, before he makes his case there's something he needs to do: open the books.Uh oh! Watch the roaches scatter.
The oil-for-food program is no ordinary relief effort. Not only does it involve astronomical amounts of money, it also operates with alarming secrecy. Intended to ease the human cost of economic sanctions by letting Iraq sell oil and use the profits for staples like milk and medicine, the program has morphed into big business. Since its inception, the program has overseen more than $100 billion in contracts for oil exports and relief imports combined.Can you say compound interest? I knew you could! And I wonder what bank is handling the dough?
It also collects a 2.2 percent commission on every barrel - more than $1 billion to date - that is supposed to cover its administrative costs. According to staff members, the program's bank accounts over the past year have held balances upward of $12 billion.
As for the program's vast bank accounts, the public is told only that letters of credit are issued by a French bank, BNP Paribas. Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, entitled to goods funded by 13 percent of the program's revenues, have been trying for some time to find out how much interest they are going to receive on $4 billion in relief they are still owed. The United Nations treasurer told me that that no outside party, not even the Kurds, gets access to those figures.Of course, there is the spending side as well:
About a year ago, in the name of expediency, Mr. Annan was given direct authority to sign off on all goods not itemized on a special watch list. Yet shipments with Mr. Annan's go-ahead have included so-called relief items such as "boats" and boat "accessories" from France and "sport supplies" from Lebanon (sports in Iraq having been the domain of Saddam's Hussein's sadistic elder son, Uday).But they have service with a smile!
The quantities of goods involved in shipments are confidential, and almost all descriptions on the contract lists made public by the United Nations are so generic as to be meaningless. For example, a deal with Russia approved last Nov. 19 was described on the contract papers with the enigmatic notation: "goods for resumption of project." Who are the Russian suppliers? The United Nations won't say. What were they promised in payment? That's secret.
I was at least able to confirm that the shipment of Russian TV equipment approved in February was not delivered before the war started. A press officer told me that batch didn't actually get to Iraq because United Nations processing is so slow that "it usually takes three to four months" before the purchases start to arrive.
Bureaucratic lags notwithstanding, putting a veil of secrecy over tens of billions of dollars in contracts is an invitation to kickbacks, political back-scratching and smuggling done under cover of relief operations. Of course, with so little paperwork made public, it is impossible to say whether there has been any malfeasance so far ? but I found nothing that would seem to contradict Gen. Tommy Franks's comment that the system should have been named the "oil-for-palace program."But why go on? The Iraqis don't need the UN hustlers skimming off the top and goofing around as half-assed middlemen. If the UN won't lift the sanctions, we should ignore the UN.
Actually, we should do that permanently.