It was no great secret that Saddam Hussein had turned what was supposed to be a humanitarian effort to provide food and medicine for his people into a personal cash cow. The Oil for Food program was instituted in 1996 in response to complaints, mainly European, that economic sanctions against Iraq aimed at making Saddam comply with United Nations mandates were hurting innocent Iraqis more than they were hurting Saddam.
Finally, more than two years after Saddam's regime was toppled, the United Nations appears to be getting serious in its investigation of corruption in the program and how Saddam was able to divert the money to his own uses.
The international agency's new top management officer, Christopher Burnham, a former top State Department official and Marine officer, has ordered a complete investigation and a review of procurement practices.
A commission under former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker has been investigating the oil-for-food program up until now and, even without subpoena power and relying on voluntary cooperation, what Volcker has turned up has been damning.
First charges brought
The commission has accused the former head of the oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, a Cypriot, of soliciting and accepting bribes to direct Iraqi oil vouchers to favored companies. The commission also charged that former U.N. procurement officer Alexander Yakovlev accepted as much as $1.3 million in kickbacks from contractors.
Sevan and Yakovlev were obviously not alone in abusing the oil for food program. Indeed, half the 4,500 companies that took part in the program in Iraq are suspected of paying kickbacks or illegal surcharges and are being given a chance to respond to the accusations before Volcker's committee issues its report next month.
An aggressive investigation would lead to other corrupt officials in the United Nations and its member governments.
The right side
Many members of the United Nations have their complaints about the United States and its relationship with the world body, but in this case, the U.S. position was undeniably correct. Without pressure from Congress, the probe may well have died.
The continuing investigations should concentrate not only on flushing out the guilty but also on how the $65 billion oil-for-food program could have been properly run. The money was intended to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people, but much of it found its way to Saddam, his family, his Baath party and his brutal security apparatus.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose son may have profited personally from an oil-for-food deal, surely hoped that the world's interest in the corruptly run program would collapse along with Saddam. But that would have been the worst thing that could have happened.
If the United Nations is to function credibly as a peacekeeper, an honest broker between suspicious nations and a clearing house for humanitarian aid, its dealings must be transparent. No one at the United Nations should be free from scrutiny. No one who has stolen from the poor, the sick and the hungry should avoid prosecution.