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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, December 27, 2004

U.N. enemies distort oil-for-food scandal

Americans love to ignore the United Nations until they tumble to a need for it. Few Americans showed concern for a civil war in Sudan that had been killing millions until they learned a couple of years ago that some of the victims were Christians.

Suddenly the United Nations was a failure in the Sudan — never mind its decade of toil there (and in dozens of other hot spots), quite off the American radar screen.

Now some U.N. critics are in high dudgeon over what Fox News calls "the biggest scandal in human history," the Iraq oil-for-food scandal that they blame on the United Nations.

After the first Gulf War in 1991, the United Nations barred Iraq from profiting from oil sales. This slowed military rebuilding, but because it also led to hunger and sickness among Iraqis, support for the sanctions eroded.

In 1996 the United Nations created the oil-for-food program, through which Iraq could resume oil sales to pay for food and medicine.

Saddam aggressively exploited the program by smuggling oil to Syria, Turkey and Jordan (by which he earned $13.6 billion), and used surcharges and kickbacks to skim from oil buyers and sellers of humanitarian supplies (worth $7 billion). Most of the palms greased belonged to citizens of U.N. member states, not U.N. employees.

For various reasons, the American government was complicit in much of the smuggling and aware of much of the racketeering.

When Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat, became U.N. secretary-general in 1997, most of these shenanigans were long-standing practices. But perhaps because he said the U.S. invasion of Iraq was illegal, and criticized last month's American assault on Fallujah, some American critics have decided to hang the scandal on Annan.

Annan continues to enjoy the Bush administration's support, however. He hasn't helped himself by being slow to respond, especially to questions surrounding payments made to his son.

The oil-for-food scandal is a legitimate one, but recently it's been driven — and often distorted — by people who seem interested in undermining the United Nations. It would be tragic if they were to succeed.