United Nations, 2 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Criticism of the UN's management of the oil-for-food program has reached new intensity, with a key U.S. senator calling for Kofi Annan's resignation.
In an opinion piece published yesterday in "The Wall Street Journal" newspaper, Senator Norm Coleman wrote that Annan must be held accountable for what Coleman called the most extensive fraud in UN history. The Republican senator heads a congressional inquiry into alleged abuses of the humanitarian program for Iraq.
But UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said Annan will not step down. He said the secretary-general is undeterred in his plans to advance initiatives to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and to reform the UN's key institutions.
"[Annan] has heard no calls for resignation from any member state. If there is some agitation on this issue on the sidelines, that's fine. That's healthy debate. But he is intent on continuing his substantive work for the remaining two years and one month of his term," Eckhard said.
Some UN personnel have rallied to defend the secretary-general. In addition, at a meeting with Annan on Security Council reform, the ambassadors of Argentina, Algeria, Colombia, Egypt, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey offered their support for Annan.
Senator Coleman's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations says it has evidence that Saddam Hussein's government amassed more than $20 billion in illicit funds. It says a lack of UN oversight under Annan's watch permitted the abuses to occur.
The United Nations has refused to hand over documents to the congressional committee or allow senior officials to appear before a panel while its own investigation is under way. That probe is led by Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman.
Volcker is planning to release his initial findings in January 2005 and then present a more thorough report in the spring.
Critics say Annan is hindering important U.S. investigations. Nile Gardiner is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy institute. He tells RFE/RL that Annan should resign in order to allow a full and proper investigation to take place.
"A good leader of the UN would have called for a halt to the abuse. He would have stripped Saddam Hussein of the powers he possessed with regard to the program, in particular his ability to pick and choose whom he sold oil to and from whom he imported humanitarian goods," Gardiner said.
But others say such blame is exaggerated.
Lawrence Woocher manages global policy programs at the United Nations Association of the United States, an independent policy institute. He tells RFE/RL that it is premature and simplistic to pin the blame on Annan when the program came under Security Council oversight and involved a complex mix of public and private entities.
"[Annan] has heard no calls for resignation from any member state. If there is some agitation on this issue on the sidelines, that's fine. That's healthy debate. But he is intent on continuing his substantive work for the remaining two years and one month of his term." -- UN spokesman Fred Eckhard
"There were a lot of actors here, and we need to try and get to the bottom of how they all interrelated and who was responsible for what," Woocher said.
The oil-for-food program was approved by the UN Security Council in 1996 at a time when Iraq was reeling under comprehensive sanctions aimed at assuring its disarmament of weapons of mass destruction.
It was set up to allow the Iraqi government to sell oil to raise money for food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods. The Iraqi government was given control over whom it could sell oil to, while the UN Secretariat had a major administrative role and the UN Security Council had a powerful oversight function.
But Hussein was able to manipulate the program and circumvent sanctions through oil smuggling and bribes involving public and private entities.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli yesterday declined to answer repeated questions about calls for Annan's resignation. But Ereli said Annan is cooperating with inquiries into the program.
"In our view, the UN, under the leadership of Secretary-General Annan, is supporting the investigation, understands what's at stake, and is doing the right thing," Ereli said.
Annan faced further criticism this week after it was revealed that his son, Kojo, received payments until early this year from a firm that inspected goods under the oil-for-food program and which is under investigation.