NOTE: Rumors are circulating regarding the possible replacement for Bush’s UN ambassador, John Danforth, who resigned last week. Selection of Nicholas Burns, current ambassador to NATO and a smart hold-over from the Clinton years, would likely signal a Colin Powell-type effort to use and co-opt the UN and to try to portray the Bush administration as diplomatically serious and multi-dimensional. Choosing John Bolton, a leading right-wing ideologue whose history of UN-bashing dates back to his role in the Reagan administration, would indicate that the administration intends to maintain its attacks on the UN and escalate its unilateralist anti-UN strategy. Keep tuned.

  • The attacks on Kofi Annan and the oil-for-food “scandal” are really a right-wing political attack on the UN.
  • The U.S. and other Security Council governments, not the UN Secretariat, were responsible for allowing Iraq to sell oil to Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere outside of the oil-for-food program despite knowledge that billions of dollars would go directly to Saddam Hussein’s government.
  • The U.S. and its allies, not the UN Secretariat, also held primary responsibility for accepting or rejecting oil-for-food contracts; they never publicly raised concerns or held back contracts because of kickbacks or surcharges.
  • The report of the UN reform panel, while seriously flawed regarding legitimation of the use of military force, still represents an important step towards reclaiming the UN as a partner in the global movement against empire.

Oil-for-Food “Scandals”

The escalating attacks on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, including calls for his resignation, are not responses to any “scandal.” Rather, they must be seen as major attacks on the United Nations as a whole. While they are so far coming from right-wing elements in Congress and the media, rather than the Bush administration directly (see below), they reflect among other things a growing view among many in Washington that the UN has gone too far in challenging U.S. legitimacy and credibility, particularly regarding Iraq.

The New York Times, ironically enough, had it right. Its 5 December 2004 lead editorial acknowledged that “Iraq accumulated far more illicit money through trade agreements that the United States and other Security Council members knew about for years but chose to accept. … The United Nations bureaucracy had no power to prevent these illicit oil or arms deals outside the oil-for-food program. It was the responsibility of member nations… Thus the primary blame for allowing Iraq to accumulate illicit billions lies with the United States and other Security Council members that winked at prohibited oil sales….”

The ideologically-driven attacks are led by Senator Norm Coleman (the Minnesota Republican who replaced Paul Wellstone), Claudia Rossett (a one-note reporter jumping from the Wall Street Journal to the right-wing Rumsfeld-endorsing New York Sun), columnists William Safire in the NY Times and Charles Krauthamer in the Washington Post, and the pundits of the American Enterprise Institute. But much of the background comes from documents made public by the dubious Ahmad Chalabi, the former CIA asset and Pentagon favorite. When he returned to Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion under protection of the U.S. military, following decades in CIA-backed exile, the U.S. military turned over to Chalabi massive quantities of alleged Iraqi government files. Among those documents, Chalabi claims, were lists of people and international corporations who were offered the right to sell Iraqi oil allocations by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The effect of the right-wing campaign has been to focus public and media attention on the alleged responsibility of the UN secretariat, especially Kofi Annan personally, in overseeing the oil-for-food program, rather than keeping the focus where it belongs, on the role of the U.S. and other Security Council member states. The power to approve contracts for Iraq to sell its oil or purchase humanitarian supplies rested entirely with the UN’s “661 Committee,” made up of all members of the Security Council – whatever the back-up role of the UN Secretariat in initially examining some contracts, the ultimate power to approve or reject belonged solely to the member governments. U.S. Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham was the U.S. official who most often participated in the work of the 661 Committee. The U.S. and Britain routinely and publicly used their power on that committee to delay or cancel contracts based on their often-cited (though rarely substantiated) claim of “dual use,” meaning potential military as well as civilian use. But there are no publicized reports of an American or British representative (or any other Council member) putting holds on a contract because of the widely-known practice (typical of the global oil industry) of kickbacks and surcharges.

The attacks have focused on Kofi Annan personally largely because it is easier to demonize the symbol of an institution than an institution itself; unspoken appeals to racism no doubt make attacking Annan even more popular. Also, Annan and the Secretariat, in failing to make all the records completely public right from the beginning, enhanced the rumor-mongering grist mill.

It is certainly not a coincidence that the anti-UN attacks are escalating after the election; during the campaign, accountability to wide-spread U.S. support for the UN might have had to be taken into account. Further, it is emerging at least partially in response to Annan’s important (however belated) public recognition that the U.S. war in Iraq was illegal. After all, the UN’s official independent investigation of the oil-for-food imbroglio, under the direction of quintessential Washington insider and former Fed chief Paul Volcker, has been underway for months and is expected to produce its first interim report in January.

The kickback and corruption claims have focused primarily on two individuals. Benon Sevan, a long-time UN employee who was in charge of the UN’s Office of the Iraq Program and thus nominally overseeing the oil-for-food program, is alleged to have been on Iraq’s list of oil allocation recipients. The other is Kofi Annan’s son Kojo Annan, a former consultant for the Swiss firm Cotecna that the UN hired to oversee the oil contracts. His continuing financial arrangement with the company, even after leaving their employ shortly before the UN signed the contract, has given the appearance of possible nepotism and/or influence peddling. There is one key question that so far Cotecna has refused to answer: Why did Cotecna’s common and perfectly legal “non-compete” payments to Kojo Annan, that began at the end of the 1990s, stop in February 2004, just after public rumors began to surface about Kojo’s involvement?

Certainly the allegations against Sevan should be investigated and he and any others should be held accountable for any proven violation of UN rules that prohibit international civil servants from profiting from UN programs. Similarly, any appearance of inappropriate influence by Kojo Annan should be thoroughly examined. Volcker’s panel is properly looking at both those claims. But neither of them have anything to do with what should be recognized as the REAL oil-for-food scandals:

  • The role of the U.S. in deliberately approving (or at times acquiescing with a wink and a nod) out-of-program oil sales to Jordan and Turkey that led to billions of dollars in unaccountable hard currency going directly to Saddam Hussein’s regime. (The special oil sales to Jordan were based on a special Council protocol. Sales to Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. military ally vitally important for supporting the U.S.-British military “no-fly zone” patrols and frequent bombing campaigns against Iraq, were informally approved but widely known in the Council. Both arrangements were based on the UN Charter’s Article 50 that gives special consideration to countries impacted by UN sanctions imposed against a neighboring state.)
  • The role of the U.S. in undermining the oil-for-food program’s capacity to sustain Iraq’s civilian population by demanding that the UN divert up to 30% of Iraq’s oil income to pay for UN overhead costs and for reparations claims from Kuwait, Israel and other wealthy countries; and by placing holds on contracts that undermined Iraq’s ability to obtain vital humanitarian goods.
  • Most important, the role of the U.S. in imposing what ultimately became genocidal economic sanctions against Iraq, and how it manipulated the Security Council to maintain them.

The claim that Kofi Annan should resign now, based on rumors and innuendo, can be seen as nothing more than a means of attacking the UN as a whole. The fact that the attacks are coming largely from right-wing Congressional, think tank and media sources, rather than the White House itself, may reflect Bush administration ties to U.S. oil companies, which, in purchasing Iraqi oil, were active participants for years in the kickback scheme. It may reflect the grudging recognition in the White House that right now, on the eve of the flawed plans for Iraqi elections the U.S. needs greater, not lesser, UN involvement in Iraq. And it may mean simply that the administration has determined it is better served by letting surrogates take the lead.

UN Reform Panel

The release of the report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change is an important accomplishment for the UN, bringing to the front of the global agenda many crucial interlocking issues involving poverty, disempowerment, environmental degradation and more. The media attention to the report has focused much too much on the issue of Security Council expansion, ignoring more important assessments. It is significant, for instance, that the report explicitly rejects the idea of “security being best preserved by a balance of power, or by any single – even benignly motivated – superpower.”

The panel, while carefully identifying contending positions, recognized that “the refusal of the Security Council to bow to United States pressure to legitimate the [Iraq] war is proof of its relevance and indispensability: although the Security Council did not deter war, it provided a clear and principled standard with which to assess the decision to go to war. The flood of Foreign Ministers into the Security Council chambers during the debates, and widespread public attention, suggest that the United States decision to bring the question of force to the Security Council reaffirmed not just the relevance but the centrality of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The panel fails in a key area of improving UN democracy. It calls for strengthening the thoroughly undemocratic Security Council, calling on it to be “more proactive” in the future. But it charges that the General Assembly, by far the most democratic of UN agencies, has “lost vitality and often fails to focus effectively on the most compelling issues of the day.” This despite the crucial role played by the Assembly in building UN and international rejection of Bush’s Iraq war, and the potential for greater UN relevance by further empowering the far more democratic Assembly.

An important contribution of the panel’s report is the recognition of the breadth of threats facing the UN and the 21st century world: not limited to the threat of terrorism, as the Bush administration continues to claim, but a range of interconnected threats including poverty; infectious disease, especially HIV/AIDS; environmental degradation; inter-state conflict; internal conflicts including civil war and genocide; nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons; terrorism; and transnational organized crime. Recognizing these broad social crises, and the inter-connected and indivisible nature of them, is an important contribution.

A crucially significant development in the report, however, has to do with redefining the legitimacy of the use of pre-emptive or preventive force. It is important that the panel did not favor abandoning, or even officially reinterpreting Article 51 of the UN Charter, which outlines the very restrictive conditions in which a nation can legitimately use military force in self-defense. (It states that such force can be used “if an armed attack occurs,” and only “until” the Security Council can meet to determine a collective response.)

The report acknowledges that Article 51 should be understood to include self-defense by a state facing an imminent threat – such as a hostile state loading ballistic missiles onto launch pads. But crucially, the report ultimately fails to answer the fundamental question of what to do when a state justifies self-defense by claiming to face an imminent threat, but in fact the claim is false, and fails to determine who has the right to determine the legitimacy of the claim. There is a dangerous implication that any country, following the pattern of bald-faced lies that undergirded Washington’s and London’s claims of Iraq’s imminent threat (remember Tony Blair’s claim of 45 minutes for Iraq to launch a missile?), might have the right to simply announce to the world that X country represents an imminent danger and therefore claim it has the right to go to war without Security Council authorization. The panel says nothing about who might hold such governments accountable for such false claims. The other key unanswered question is whether there is an implicit recognition of the kind of double standard that characterizes so much of UN policy– with the veto-wielding members of the Security Council held to a lesser standard of accountability than other countries.

The panel did provide the beginning of a set of criteria for determining the legitimacy of military force. The guidelines are proposed for UN authorization of force, but the panel urges governments to accept them as well. They include the threat being serious enough to justify the use of military force; clarity that the primary purpose of the proposed military action is in fact to halt the threat; insuring that every non-military alternative has or will fail; the military force is proportional to the threat; and that there is a “reasonable consequence” that the military action will work against the threat and the consequences will not be worse than the consequences of inaction. But again there is no proposal for holding governments accountable to those guidelines, let alone how to deal with rogue governments taking military action in defiance of those guidelines, such as Washington’s war in Iraq.

The panel distinguished “preemptive” military force, used unilaterally by a country claiming to face an ostensibly imminent threat, from “preventive” force, used in “anticipatory self-defense,” meaning a longer-range threat that is not claimed to be imminent. “The short answer,” as the panel describes it, “is that if there are good arguments for preventive military action … they should be put to the Security Council, which can authorize such action if it chooses to.” In other words, the panel anticipates that even without “rewriting or reinterpretation of Article 51,” the Council may authorize the use of preventive force — something never before considered as legitimate in international law. Such authorization, if the Council granted it, would compromise even further, perhaps irreparably, United Nations credibility.

In the diplomatically difficult area of genocide and ethnic cleansing within an ostensibly sovereign state, the panel breaks some new ground in defending the obligation of the international community to protect endangered peoples. It states that “there is a growing recognition that the issue is not the ‘right to intervene’ of any State, but the ‘responsibility to protect’ of every State, when it comes to people suffering from avoidable catastrophe – mass murder and rape, ethnic cleansing by forcible expulsion and terror, and deliberate starvation and exposure to disease. And there is a growing acceptance that while sovereign Governments have the primary responsibility to protect their own citizens from such catastrophes, when they are unable or unwilling to do so that responsibility should be taken up by the wider international community – with it spanning a continuum involving prevention, response to violence, if necessary, and rebuilding shattered societies.” It remains unclear whether this language might be used to strengthen calls for the UN to provide international protection to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

In other areas there are significant advances in the panel’s report, including the recognition that the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Article VI requires the U.S. and other acknowledgement nuclear powers to move towards full and complete nuclear disarmament. The report bemoans the weakening of the NPT overall. But by recognizing the obligations of the most powerful nuclear weapons states rather than focusing, as U.S. policy does, only on the possible proliferation of such weapons to other non-nuclear weapons states, the panel supports a more equitable global accountability for compliance with the NPT.

The sections that deal with changing Security Council composition provide two parallel proposals for Council expansion to the existing structure of five permanent, veto-wielding members and ten non-permanent members elected for two-year terms; both proposals would add a total of nine new Council seats. One calls for adding six new permanent but non-veto seats (two from Africa, two from Asia, one from Latin America and one from Europe), plus three additional non-permanent seats. The other calls for eight new four-year, renewable seats (giving powerful countries a kind of “illusion of permanence”) without veto rights, as well as one new two-year non-permanent seat. The panel does not recommend any expansion of veto power, but they also do not propose methods of ending the anti-democratic veto arrangement altogether.

The panel acknowledged that any expansion of the Council, under either proposal, should “give preference for permanent or longer-term seats to those States that are among the top three financial contributors in their relevant regional area to the regular budget, or the top three voluntary contributors from their regional area, or the top three troop contributors from their regional areas to United Nations peacekeeping missions.” This would undermine the long-standing UN principle that financial support for the organization is based on an “equity of pain” principle – that holds that it is equally difficult for the U.S. to pay the multi-million dollar 22% of the UN budget as it is for impoverished Chad or Laos to pay the tiny fraction of one percent that constitutes their share. It would privilege the wealthiest states and in a few instances those with a military big enough to send troops for years abroad on UN missions.

In fact it is unlikely that either proposal for Council expansion will become reality any time soon. Rather, the panel report is fueling an important global discussion of the undemocratic and illegitimate nature of the current Council composition, thereby advancing the more useful effort to delegitimize Council power in favor of reimpowering the far more democratic General Assembly.

Overall, despite its significant inadequacies, the panel’s report represents a major institutional advance in the cause of UN reform and the fight for UN global centrality. While not endorsing the recommendations wholesale, the international peace and justice movements should view the panel’s report overall as an important step in reclaiming the United Nations as part of our global mobilization against the ravages of empire.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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