When you read the words “United Nations,” what comes into your mind? Perhaps it’s an august phrase, such as “international community,” or a lofty image, such as the blue U.N. seal. In the first presidential debate, President Bush spoke of “going to the United Nations” as if it were a tiresome relative. (“I didn’t need anybody to tell me to go to the United Nations. I decided to go there myself.”) Sen. John Kerry often talks about the United Nations as if it were a forgotten American ally.
Yet the United Nations is not a person, or an ally, or a concept. Unlike, say, Britain or Sri Lanka, it isn’t even a country with a government to which people are elected. Nor is it a company whose employees are accountable to shareholders. Instead, it is a collection of political appointees whose activities are, by ordinary government or business standards, subjected to shockingly little oversight.
Certainly, given how much importance is sometimes attributed to the United Nations, it is odd how little notice has been taken of what may be the worst U.N. scandal ever. Tucked away in arms inspector Charles Duelfer’s report on Iraqi weapons — this is the report mostly remembered for its “no weapons” conclusion — are allegations that the United Nations’ oil-for-food program had, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, degenerated almost entirely into a money-laundering scheme. Remember: This was a program set up for humanitarian reasons. It was supposed to help ordinary Iraqis obtain food and medicine, despite economic sanctions. But not only did it help generate some $11 billion that went directly into secret Iraqi government bank accounts — that’s how Saddam Hussein built all of those palaces — it provided massive bribes, in the form of “oil vouchers,” to a long list of Hussein’s friends and advocates around the world.
A version of this list did appear in an Iraqi newspaper some months ago. Yet because Duelfer’s version comes directly from the Iraqi oil ministry archives, it deserves closer scrutiny. While some of the oil companies on the list may have been legitimate purchasers of Iraqi oil, there are some more peculiar names as well: the Russian, Belarusan and Slovak Communist parties; the Nigerian ambassador to Iraq; the Iraqi-French Friendship Society; and one “Mr Sifan (UN),” who is none other than Benon Sevan, the U.N. official who was in charge of running the oil-for-food program itself.
It isn’t easy to find a sufficiently startling domestic parallel to this revelation (though Sevan has denied the allegations against him). I suppose it’s the rough equivalent of being told that the head of the IRS cheated on his taxes or that the attorney general has been convicted of armed robbery. Sevan was tasked, after all, with ensuring that the Iraqis sold only limited quantities of oil and that they imported only essential goods in exchange. If Sevan and others were receiving kickbacks, it could help explain why the sanctions had deteriorated so badly, why the “essential” imports included swimming pool equipment and four-color printers, why the Iraqis were able to continue looking for weapons components, and — maybe — why so many in the U.N. system were so upset about the invasion of Iraq.
But the United Nations is not a government with a court system attached to it, or an entrenched press corps, or a voting public. Committees can be set up to investigate U.N. wrongdoing — the secretary general, Kofi Annan, has set up one to investigate the oil-for-food scandal — but no one much monitors their progress, since it is in no one’s interest to hold the United Nations accountable. Here’s the evidence: Sevan’s name appeared on the Iraqi list a week ago, yet it has inspired only a smattering of media attention and virtually no public discussion.
This negligence does not, I should add, mean that the United Nations should be kicked out of New York or that the United States should stop paying U.N. dues. An international organization can be a useful umbrella beneath which to hold peace talks, or a tool with which to distribute emergency food aid. Because it represents the only form of diplomatic influence for many smaller countries, it’s a bit pointless to demonize the United Nations, since someone will always be needlessly offended.
But because it is accountable to no one, an international organization is never going to be good at managing large, long-term projects involving a lot of money or a lot of soldiers either. For that reason, the United Nations should never be confused with legitimately elected governments or America’s historical allies. A decision to “send in the United Nations” is never going to be the full solution to any problem. And in light of what we are learning about the United Nations’ appalling record in Iraq, it’s pretty clear that calling upon “the United Nations” to save us in Iraq is tantamount to a cry of desperation.