Global Policy Forum

UN Reform Lost in Translation


By Jefferson Morley

Washington Post
April 28, 2005

When it comes to U.N. reform, the United States and the rest of the world are speaking different languages. For President Bush and many U.S. critics, "U.N. reform" means purging the world body of corruption and establishing accountability. They often cite the so-called oil-for-food scandal, especially the role of Secretary General Kofi Annan, as proof of the need for change.

But in the international online media, "U.N. reform" is more likely to refer to Annan's proposals to restructure the world body. The composition of the U.N. Security Council, unchanged since 1945, is Exhibit A in the case for change. The difference in reform agendas crops up daily in the press. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that the Bush administration and Republican congressional allies hope to make the Senate debate over U.N. ambassador nominee John Bolton "about reforming the United Nations, not Bolton's temperament."

In India, where Annan visited Wednesday, they have a different idea. The Hindustan Times reported that government officials emphasized to Annan "the need for comprehensive UN reforms including expansion of the Security Council." Annan himself set the international reform agenda in his report "In Larger Freedom," released in March. "Mr. Annan wants to enlarge the Security Council from 15 to 24 countries, get rich countries to vastly increase foreign aid, reform the UN's human rights processes, and put a new emphasis on fighting terrorism," said The Age in Australia.

The American reform agenda, in contrast, focuses on the ongoing investigation of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program in Iraq. Between 1996 and 2003, the program sought to provide the Iraqi people with food and medicine while denying oil profits to the government of Saddam Hussein. Investigations have found that Hussein's regime reaped billions by circumventing the program.

Annan, whose son worked for a Swiss company that won lucrative contracts under the oil-for-food program, is alleged to have turned a blind eye to corruption. A preliminary report by former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker found that the secretary general did not influence the awarding of contracts, but he and his subordinates mismanaged the program and failed to detect or stop the wrongdoing. Online commentators asked then if the rebuke of Annan would jeopardize his reform agenda.

The state-controlled China Daily sees the oil-for-food scandal hindering Annan's reforms. Every revelation about the oil-for-food program "is incredibly troubling, and worries him ... more than it does anybody,'' Annan's chief of staff Mark Malloch Brown was quoted as saying. "Obviously, we yearn and long to get the conversation back to these vital reforms that we believe, and the secretary-general believes, are the real solution to the problem -- a reformed, strengthened, restructured, refocused UN."

But changing the conversation isn't easy. Annan tried on April 14 when he suggested that the United States and Britain were partly to blame for the scandal. According to Australian Broadcasting, "Mr Annan made reference to 'the fact that the bulk of the money that Saddam [Hussein] made came out of smuggling outside the oil-for-food program, and it was on the American and British watch. . . . Possibly they were the ones who knew exactly what was going on, and that the countries themselves decided to close their eyes to smuggling to Turkey and Jordan because they were allies.'"

Factually, Annan was on firm ground. Charles Duelfer, the CIA official who investigated Iraq's weapons of mass destruction for the U.S. government, concluded in a report last fall that Hussein had amassed more than $11 billion via the oil-for-food program "outside of U.N.-approved methods." Duelfer found that $7.5 billion came from the smuggling of oil, mostly via Turkey and Jordan. Hussein's regime made another $2 billion from kickbacks or surcharges on oil traders. (See p. 139 of the Duelfer report.)

Volcker's oil-for-food probe has mainly focused on the kickbacks issue which Annan described as "an American story." Volcker has promised that his final report, due in June, will address the smuggling issue. Annan's remarks quickly landed him in an argument he could not win.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw issued a "fierce denial," according to The Scotsman. A U.S. State Department official interviewed by Voice of America did not dispute that Hussein had made money off of oil smuggling, only that "it was a 'red herring' to . . . claim that this was some shocking new revelation." Since then Annan has returned to touting his own agenda. On his trip to India this week, Annan "made it clear that he wants his reform package, the restructuring of the Security Council, a new human rights agenda and defining terrorism, cleared at the next big [U.N.] meeting in September," according to New Delhi Television. His hosts were supportive, according to The Times of India. "India says its one billion-plus population, its role as the world's biggest democracy and surging economy entitles it to a permanent place at the Security Council table with full veto powers and it has said the makeup of the Security Council 'represents 1945 and not 2005,'" the newspaper reported. But the difference between the American and international agendas for U.N. reform persists. "India, which has participated in 42 of the 60 UN peacekeeping operations carried out so far, says it has the backing of Britain, Russia, France and China for its quest for a permanent council berth," according to the Times of India. The United States, it reported, "is non-committal."

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