Thursday, October 27, 2005

If Everyone is Corrupt, Does it Matter that the U.N. is Also Corrupt?

The final Volcker Independent Inquiry Committee Report has been released (see here). News summaries have generally emphasized the final report's conclusion that over 2000 companies participating for Oil-for-Food were involved in illegal or at least illicit kickback schemes with the Saddam Hussein Iraqi government. But the report also rightly faults the U.N. itself for failing to prevent or stop such widespread and blatant corruption.

Before Chris jumps on me again for complaining about the U.N. without acknowledging its good qualities, let me say that I think the U.N. can be effective in some cases. And I also find the reports of private companies like Daimler Chrysler or Volvo receiving kickbacks from Saddam Hussein just as damning as the reports of malfeasance at the highest levels of the U.N. Secretariat. The fact that diplomats such as France's former U.N. Ambassador and politicians like Britain's George Galloway also appeared to benefit from the scheme is equally troubling. Corruption appears to have been endemic in this program.

Having said that, I do think supporters of the U.N. are underestimating the seriousness of the Oil for Food scandal for the institution's long-term survival. Petty corruption is one thing, but petty corruption that directly undermines the U.N.'s administration of sanctions against Iraq is quite another.

If the U.N. cannot effectively administer sanctions against Iraq without succumbing to rather easy and blatant corruption by an unsavory figure like Saddam Hussein, it is hard to see why the "international community" should "trust" the U.N. to deal effectively with other serious threats to international peace and security. It is also hard to see why, for instance, the U.N.'s claims that it could effectively monitor Iraq's weapons program should be taken seriously.

The U.S. government has made many mistakes of its own, and it perhaps deserves to have its good intentions questioned around the world. But the Oil-for-Food scandal reminds us that the U.N. has its own serious problems and that its claims of high-minded disinterested protection of world peace deserves just as much skepticism.


Blogger Peter said...

Julian, if you are talking about sanctions evasion, the bulk of Saddam's revenue came from smuggling ($8.5 billion), rather than kick-backs ($1.5 billion). That smuggling was the responsibility of the Security Council, not the Secretary General, and was not associated with the oil-for-food program. Moreover, as the previous Volcker report made clear, the United States was well-aware of this smuggling and didn't stop it as long as the trading was done with Turkey & Jordan.

Also, if you're talking about corruption and mismanagement, there is something to be said for the United States considering the beam in its eye before casting out the mote in the UN's. In January of this year, the Inspector General came out with a report that found almost $9 billion in oil-for-food funds that could not be accounted for by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Here is a link to the report as well as an article

As the title of your post indicates, corruption in other nations does not excuse corruption in the United Nations. Maybe you're right that the corruption with the oil-for-food program makes it untrustworthy to deal with threats to international security (Although I would say the fact that the oil-for-food program achieved its main goals - feeding Iraqis while preventing Saddam from obtaining WMD's - should count for something).

But since many of the UN's harshest critics are advoates of American unilateralism, I don't see how the United States' own problems on these issues can be ignored.

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