Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 2004 / 11 Kislev, 5765

Peter A. Brown

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Why does U.N. get free ride in scandal? | If the United Nations were a democratic country under the rule of law, Secretary-General Kofi Annan would have resigned in disgrace, and might well be under criminal investigation for, at the least, tolerating massive corruption.

If that idea surprises readers it is only because the mainstream U.S. news media have done an abysmal job reporting on what is undoubtedly the largest bribery and embezzlement scandal in world history.

So far, says a U.S. Senate investigation - one of five under way across the globe - Saddam Hussein is alleged to have skimmed $21.3 billion from a U.N. humanitarian-aid program.

The betting is that when the investigative work is done, that amount will grow even more. Even so, $21.3 billion is more than twice the $10 billion estimate from the top U.S. arms inspector a few months ago that made the scandal the largest in world history.

Whether Annan himself is culpable is unclear, but he is acting like the politician whose friends' hands have been caught in the cookie jar and is worried he will be implicated, too. And there are allegations his son was on the take also.

Annan has done everything possible to impede serious efforts to get to the bottom of the scandal, which has implicated Benon Sevan, who was in charge of the U.N. Oil for Food program, the humanitarian effort at the scandal's center.

After the U.S.-led campaign to evict Saddam's troops from Kuwait in 1991, the United Nations slapped an embargo on its oil exports to weaken Saddam and encourage efforts to overthrow him. The only Iraqi oil that was to be sold was through the U.N. program, and the proceeds were then to buy humanitarian goods for the Iraqi people.

But, between 1991 and 2003, Saddam skimmed at least $21.3 billion from oil and food sales. Most of it, an estimated $13 billion, came from his regime smuggling out oil through neighboring countries. He allegedly bilked another $4 billion-plus in kickbacks on the goods intended for his people.

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If U.N. officials did not know what was going on, they are even less on the ball than their well-established reputation for incompetence would indicate.

Under U.S. law many of those officials would have been indicted under the statutes that allow prosecution of those who knew about an illegal act, or should have known under any reasonable standard.

There are many reasons why Americans should be outraged, not the least of which is that U.S. taxpayers fund more than 20 percent of the U.N. budget. Remember, U.N. officials whose job was overseeing the Food for Oil program allegedly took payoffs from Saddam to look the other way. And, according to investigators, some of the money Saddam skimmed went to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

Think of the $21.3 billion as more than two-thirds of the budget for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or three times the annual spending by the Environmental Protection Agency - serious folding money, even in Washington.

Common sense requires one to question whether U.N. efforts to stop the U.S. intervention in Iraq were tied to its under-the-table relationship with Saddam. Also, among those who allegedly got payoffs from Saddam in the scandal were prominent officials and businessmen from France and Russia, nations that also sought to stop the American effort to oust Saddam.

Even Americans who disagree with President Bush about the Iraq war should not give the United Nations a pass on corruption because of its political stand. And those American politicians who insist on defending the United Nations in this matter, such as Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, need to think again.

An American politician who presided over a minor bribery and embezzlement scandal, much less one of this mammoth dimension, would be long gone by now.

Why the American news media have given this story short shrift - it hardly makes the network evening-news shows and is buried inside most newspapers, when mentioned at all - is a worthwhile question.

The United Nations has long enjoyed a magical image in much of the United States. The idea of all nations getting together to solve problems is a warm and fuzzy one that makes many Americans tingle.

Giving the United Nations a free ride in the news media may well be a function of the red America/blue America divide. The elites along the coasts and in the major news media may see this as a minor issue. My guess, however, is that the resulting public outrage when this story gets its day in the sunshine will be as much a revelation to many of those same folks as Bush's re-election.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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