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Iraq: Concerns At UN About Coalition's Takeover Of Oil-For-Food Program

  • Robert McMahon

With time winding down before the United Nations phases out Iraq's oil-for-food program, some Security Council officials have raised concern about the continuity of humanitarian supplies to the country. The director of the program, Benon Sevan, said billions of dollars in contracts for goods will be transferred to the U.S.-led coalition by the deadline of 21 November, but he urged more speed and flexibility by all parties involved to keep supplies flowing.

United Nations, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the UN prepares to hand over control of Iraq's oil-for-food program to the Coalition Provisional Authority in about three weeks, concern is rising about possible disruptions to the flow of humanitarian goods into the country.

The director of the program, Benon Sevan, told the UN Security Council yesterday that UN officials have faced challenges in transferring contracts on vital goods to the coalition because of security-related staff cutbacks.

Sevan also said the coalition has been late in acting on some key tasks related to the handover of responsibility. He told the council that the phase-out is occurring under difficult conditions: "Handing over a multibillion-dollar program of such complexity and magnitude during the six-month period as mandated by Resolution 1483 would have been extremely difficult even under the best circumstances. Doing so under the current conditions of insecurity and reduced on-site staffing capacity will require a degree of realism, understanding, and pragmatism, as well as flexibility from all parties involved."

The United Nations now has about 60 international staff in Iraq, down from a high of 769 prior to the 19 August terrorist attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad.

The UN's independent inspection agent, known as COTECNA, is unable to operate in the key port of Umm Qasr because of security concerns. It has been stationed outside of Iraq and was supposed to authenticate the arrival of goods under arrangements agreed upon by the UN, the CPA, and local Iraqi authorities. But Sevan said that in the one month since the arrangements were made, the CPA has failed to provide UN officials with information about how to confirm the arrival of goods: "Since 10 October 2003, COTECNA has inspected 25 consignments, including 111,917 metric tons of food destined for Umm Qasr under the revised authentication procedures, with no confirmation of receipt. If this matter is not urgently addressed, the confidence of suppliers in the authentication process may erode, which may adversely affect the delivery pipeline."

German UN Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, who chairs the Security Council committee overseeing the phase-out, raised the same concern. He said suppliers need to know prior to 21 November what procedure to follow for deliveries or else there could be interruptions in badly needed aid flows: "If we don't want to risk disruptions, the CPA will have to come forward with clear information in the very near future rather than wait until the end of the program."

U.S. and British diplomats said a mechanism for authenticating goods would be in place soon. Britain's deputy UN ambassador, Adam Thomson, told the council that the coalition is aware of the need for continuity in authenticating supplies. He said full details on the new plan would be circulated in the council soon.

"The coalition is focused on designing a sustainable and predictable goods-authentication system that will pose no problem to suppliers," he said. "Measures are in hand for the uninterrupted authentication of deliveries after 21 November."

Currently in the program there are $6.3 billion of prioritized contracts that are fully approved and funded. In addition, about $3.5 billion in goods have been approved and funded but not prioritized, a task that will be left to the CPA and Iraqi officials.

Council members such as Germany, France, and Russia are concerned that the prioritization process will not be transparent once it reverts to coalition control. U.S. and British officials have stressed the process will be legitimate and based on the needs of Iraqis.

The oil-for-food program was set up seven years ago to provide Iraqi citizens with humanitarian goods under comprehensive UN sanctions. The program calls for a food-basket system containing items with a basic nutritional value. It has expanded to include sectors such as mines, housing, telecommunications, agriculture, and education.

U.S. officials say the food-basket system -- which feeds a majority of Iraqis -- will remain in place until Iraqi authorities are able to set up their own distribution network. They plan to transfer as much of the food-distribution system to Iraqis as possible. After 21 November, Iraqi oil revenues are to be placed in a fund controlled by coalition authorities that is to be used to help rebuild Iraq.