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Annan should steer clear of the oil-for-food probe



Published: Sat, February 5, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



With United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's son, Kojo, in the thick of the scandalous oil-for-food program that was in place during Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule in Iraq, Annan should stay as far away as possible from the ongoing investigation. That means he should not be the one determining the punishment for those who enriched themselves.

On Thursday, Annan announced he would discipline Benon Sevan, the head of the oil-for-food program, who was criticized by investigators for "undermining the integrity" of the world body through a "grave conflict of interest."

Annan also intends to take action against Joseph Stephanides, who was chief of the U.N. Sanctions Branch.

Allegations of corruption in the $60 billion program, which was designed to allow Iraq, after the Persian Gulf War, to buy food and medicine for its people, have resulted in prominent members of Congress calling for the secretary-general's resignation.

The program became a cash cow for Saddam. It is estimated he pocketed more than $20 billion that was supposed to go for humanitarian aid in his country. And while his own people were being deprived of food and medicine, Saddam did all he could to paint the United States as the villain.

Accomplices

But the Iraqi dictator, now in U.S. custody, could not have operated this criminal enterprise without accomplices within the United Nations. Those accomplices selected contractors that were able to divert billions of dollars from the humanitarian pipeline into Saddam's bank accounts.

According to The Sunday Times of Britain, Kojo Annan has told a close friend he became involved in negotiations to sell 2 million barrels of Iraqi oil to a Moroccan company in 2001. The Times said Kojo Annan is cooperating with U.N. investigators.

Because of this alleged admission, the secretary-general should have no connection whatsoever with the probe, which is being led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paulo Volcker.

In a report released Thursday, investigators said that Sevan, the former chief of the U.N. oil-for-food program, solicited oil allocations from Saddam's regime on behalf of a trading company between 1998 and 2001. The report also raised the possibility of kickbacks.

As for Stephanides, the former head of the Sanctions Branch, the report said he tainted the bidding of a contract. Stephanides is now in charge of the Security Council Affairs Division in the U.N. Department of Political Affairs.

No one knows how far up the scandal goes in the world's largest bureaucracy, and while Kofi Annan has denied any involvement, there are members of Congress who are unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt.

For the good of the United Nations, the secretary-general should turn over the disciplinary aspect of the investigation to an independent entity, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

It a matter of restoring the world organization's credibility -- and protecting Kofi Annan against charges of a coverup.




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