In United Nations circles, Kofi Annan’s death last Saturday is being mourned in terms more befitting a saint than a former secretary general. Ted Turner’s U.N. Foundation eulogized him as “a fearless champion for the powerless.” Departing human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called him “humanity’s best example.” Current U.N. secretary general António Guterres tells us he was a “a guiding force for good” and a leader of “matchless dignity and determination.” He added, “In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations.”
That much, at least, is true. Annan was the first U.N. chief to rise through the organization’s bureaucracy, where he first began working in 1962. For decades he focused on personnel and budget issues, navigating the U.N. maze. In 1993, he became head of peacekeeping, and from 1997 to 2006 he served as secretary general. In that post, he played a significant role in shaping the U.N.’s policies as it emerged from its Cold War paralysis with the aim of becoming supreme arbiter of the New World Order. In 2001, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize jointly to Annan and the U.N., “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”
This turned out to be one of the Nobel committee’s more poorly timed prizes. It was announced just weeks after the September 11 al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States. Those were followed by bitter dissension at the U.N. over the situation in Iraq and the eruption during the remainder of Annan’s tenure of a series of U.N. scandals that called into question the integrity of both the U.N. and Annan himself.
Since the U.N.’s founding in 1945, it has had nine secretaries general, most of them mediocrities, punctuated by the embarrassment of the Nazi-connected Kurt Waldheim. Annan, by contrast, had a knack for celebrity, which he leveraged to pursue an expanded U.N. agenda (and budget). The ensuing scandals jeopardized those goals.
All of which might help explain why the eminences of today’s U.N. and its affiliates are so generous with their posthumous praise of Annan and why they appear determined to rewrite his actual record. For the rest of us, however, it should be possible to mourn the man without ignoring his professional failings as leader of the U.N., failings that left millions of people worldwide to bear the costs.
Two landmark sagas define Annan’s U.N. career. First, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which occurred while Annan was undersecretary general for peacekeeping. In the months before the slaughter, the U.N. received a series of urgent cables from the head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda, Canadian Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire. Warning about the rising tensions and local stockpiling of weapons, Dallaire repeatedly proposed raiding the arms caches. Again and again, Annan’s office told him to stand down. Soon after those orders came the killings, in which approximately 500,000 to 800,000 people were butchered.
It’s not clear that Dallaire’s plans to intervene could have prevented the genocide. What is clear is that Annan chose to block any such attempt.
Yet the Rwanda catastrophe did no damage to Annan’s career at the U.N. Neither did his passivity when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica while under the erstwhile protection of U.N. peacekeepers in 1995. Annan was appointed secretary general just two years later.
Which brings us to Oil-for-Food, the U.N. relief program created for Iraq while it was under Saddam Hussein’s rule (and under U.N.-imposed sanctions). Thanks to Annan’s poor stewardship, Oil-for-Food played out as the most colossally corrupt and tyrant-friendly relief program ever run by the United Nations.
Officially, the aim of the program was to ease the deprivation of Iraq’s more than 20 million people while containing their murderous tyrant, Saddam, via U.N. sanctions. Under Oil-for-Food, Saddam was permitted to sell Iraqi oil abroad in order to import food and medicine. These transactions were supposed to be strictly monitored and controlled by the U.N. To cover the cost of monitoring, the U.N. levied a 2.2 percent fee on Saddam’s oil sales, a de facto commission that, over the life of the program, generated approximately $1.4 billion for the U.N. out of some $64 billion worth of U.N.-approved oil sales.
While the U.N. gave its approval and collected its fees, Saddam gamed the program on every conceivable level. He underpriced his oil and overpaid for billions of dollars worth of relief supplies, generating fat profits for select business partners around the globe who were willing to kick back some of this lucre to him. While Saddam’s regime used these illicitly obtained billions to buy weapons, build palaces, and bribe influential figures to campaign for the complete lifting of sanctions, Iraqis received short rations of rotten food and expired medicine. In some cases, it was questionable whether Saddam’s “humanitarian” purchases even remotely matched the descriptions of them found in U.N. records. With U.N. approval, for example, Saddam’s government bought “weaning cereal” from a Chinese weapons manufacturer, “adult milk” from a Russian oil company, and “detergent” from Syria, Libya, and Sudan.
When the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam in 2003, documentary evidence of Oil-for-Food’s corruption began spilling out of Iraq. Investigations by the Treasury, Pentagon, CIA, FBI, and Congress unearthed a global web of graft and front companies for which Oil-for-Food had effectively served as cover. Annan initially resisted calls for the U.N. itself to investigate until documents surfaced in early 2004 implying that the executive director of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, had taken bribes from Baghdad. Annan then authorized an Independent Inquiry Committee led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.
Volcker’s inquiry issued its final report in 2005, and it largely spared Annan embarrassment by couching its findings in elliptical language. But Volcker did report that Annan knew about abuses and corruption under Oil-for-Food, yet failed so thoroughly to do anything about them that his “cumulative management performance … fell short of the standards that the United Nations Organization should strive to maintain.”
Little of the Oil-for-Food corruption should have come as a surprise to Annan. Oil-for-Food was by far the biggest relief program on his docket. He had been directly involved in almost every stage of its development. Prior to becoming secretary general, he led the first U.N. negotiating team that discussed the idea with Baghdad. In 1997, one of his first acts as secretary general was to appoint as his executive coordinator for U.N. reform a Canadian crony and longtime U.N. fixture named Maurice Strong, who recommended that Oil-for-Food—which began as a relatively modest relief effort—be consolidated into one office reporting directly to the secretary general. To run this office, Annan appointed another U.N. pal, Sevan, who served as executive director of Oil-for-Food from late 1997 until the U.N. relinquished control of the program to the Coalition Provisional Authority in late 2003.
During the course of Oil-for-Food, Annan repeatedly and successfully urged the U.N. Security Council to expand the scale and scope of the program, including raising, then removing altogether, limits on how much oil Saddam was allowed to sell and permitting Saddam to import oil equipment to boost production. This greatly enhanced Saddam’s illicit profits both from graft within the program and oil-smuggling alongside it.
Post-Saddam, as various investigations of the program moved forward, it emerged that in 1997, Annan’s U.N. reform architect, Strong, had cashed a check for $988,885 from Saddam’s regime. (Strong told investigators he did not know the money came from Baghdad.) Annan’s handpicked executive director of Oil-for-Food, Sevan, was accused by both the Volcker Committee and U.S. prosecutors of having taken bribes from Baghdad via Oil-for-Food contracts starting in 1998 (in amounts totaling $160,000, according to a 2007 federal indictment). Sevan claimed innocence and conveniently skipped town for his native Cyprus in 2005, never to return to New York to face justice.
Early in the investigations, Annan’s office said that Annan’s son, Kojo, had quit his consultancy with a Swiss company, Cotecna, before it won the U.N. contract to inspect goods imported into Iraq under Oil-for-Food. In late 2004, news emerged (later confirmed in 2005 by the Volcker inquiry) that Kojo in fact had continued to receive monthly “non-compete” payments from Cotecna for the duration of the U.N. program.
As for Annan himself, while calling the American-led invasion of Iraq “illegal” because it did not have the approval of the U.N. Security Council, he said nothing to alert the world to Saddam’s practice of lavishing lucrative Oil-for-Food contracts on influential individuals and companies from the three veto-wielding members of the Security Council that opposed the United States: Russia, China, and France. When evidence of this influence-peddling became public, Annan did not dispute the graft. He simply pronounced it “inconceivable” that Saddam’s payoffs could have influenced these three countries.
In congressional testimony in May 2005, John Fawcett, a leading expert on corruption in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, warned of wider damage. Fawcett noted that the Oil-for-Food program existed during a time of turmoil and transition around the globe, as the ground rules of the new global economy were being hashed out. For officials in dozens of countries, including China, Russia, and many nations in the Middle East, the lesson of Oil-for-Food was that bribery and corruption were acceptable tools of business: “The Oil-for-Food program gave a tremendous boost toward the institutionalization of corruption within the global economy, the repercussions of which have barely begun to emerge,” Fawcett testified.
In Annan’s defense, reforming the U.N. is likely beyond the abilities of any mortal. But the corollary is that entrusting it with the responsibility of acting as the guardian of the modern world order is an invitation to carnage, corruption, and failure. Annan’s real legacy should be a warning to future generations of the pitfalls of relying on the U.N. That’s less flowery and flattering than the tributes to Annan, but potentially far more useful advice for the powerless, ordinary people we are told he cared about so much.