Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Thornburgh Supports Immunity for UN Investigators

Former US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh wrote this op-ed in today's Washington Post supporting confidentiality and immunity for the documents, witnesses and investigators appointed by Secretary General Annan to the Commission investigating the oil-for-food scandal. I posted earlier on the basis of immunity for UN officials implicated in the probe -- immunity which is set forth in the UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities and codified under US law in the International Organizations Act. Thornburgh argues that the Convention also applies to witnesses and staff of the Commission, that such immunity is analogous to broad executive immunities in the US system, and the TRO issued by a federal court last week (which Julian discussed here) prohibiting a former Commission investigator from disclosing Commission documents was therefore correct and completely in line with US practice.

It's easy, and perhaps fashionable, to dismiss this legal maneuver by the investigating committee as an example of stonewalling meant to protect embattled U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. But in fact, in its most recent report, the investigation -- led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker -- found Annan to have been deficient in investigating potential conflicts of interest between his son and a company that was bidding for a major contract with the Iraqi humanitarian program. Furthermore, the committee has uncovered information that Benon Sevan, the U.N. bureaucrat responsible for the oil-for-food program, may have made money on the deal; that the United Nations' selection of the program's prime contractors did not conform to its own rules; and that Annan's former chief of staff shredded potentially relevant documents even as Volcker's investigation was getting underway.

The real basis for the Volcker committee's action, and for the temporary restraining order granted by a federal court, is something more important than protecting U.N. officials. It is the need to defend a principle held sacred and regularly exercised by all investigators -- including congressional probers -- namely, confidentiality for witnesses and investigators.
To put it simply, the Volcker committee, like all official investigations, would be crippled if it couldn't guarantee its witnesses that their confidential testimony and even their names won't end up on the nightly news. The materials obtained by the committee include highly sensitive interviews with many people who live in dangerous parts of the world, such as Iraq, and who spoke only on the condition that their interviews would remain private and that their identities would be protected.

If accountability at the UN is going to work, then it seems pretty clear that this kind of protection of witnesses and sources should be the rule.