The Corruption of the United Nations

The oil-for-food scandal was an international embarrassment—but it’s just one example in an organization rife with corruption.
From the December 2005 Trumpet Print Edition

Rape. Murder. Billions of dollars in fraud and embezzlement on a global scale. The United Nations, formed to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” has instead become more like a movie too graphic to show your children.

In the last year, the reputation of the UN has been shredded by allegations of kickbacks, billions of dollars in graft in the oil-for-food scandal, the rape of minors in the Congo sex scandal, and a total lack of accountability. United Nations officials know it’s time for serious reform.

The independent report on the oil-for-food scandal, produced by a committee led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Paul Volcker, was finally released in September. Criticizing the UN from top to bottom, the language of the report was crystal clear: “The inescapable conclusion from the committee’s work” is that the UN “needs thorough reform—and it needs it urgently.” We will see exactly how serious the lapses in judgment were at every level.

But with a goal as noble as saving our children from war, how did the idea of the UN go so terribly askew? What’s wrong with the United Nations?

Oil for Food

After the 1991 Gulf War, sanctions imposed against Iraq were intended to restrict international trade with that country. Although these sanctions did not prevent the import of food and medicine, the Iraqi people did not have the money to purchase what they needed under Saddam Hussein’s rule.

The oil-for-food program began in 1996 as a humanitarian effort to feed the Iraqi people. It was entirely unique, being the first UN humanitarian program ever to be financed by the resources of those it was serving; it was funded entirely by the sale of Iraqi oil. The idea seemed good: The Iraqi people were in genuine need of humanitarian aid, and oil-for-food was a way of providing that aid without drawing on the resources of other countries.

It also, however, tightened Hussein’s grip on the Iraqi people. The UN said that 60 percent of the Iraqi population was receiving rations through this program; in other words, 60 percent of the population was now dependent on Hussein just to have enough to eat. Other than food and medicine, the only commodity that could be exported or imported legally was oil, which was solely controlled by Hussein. This also meant that the UN itself was on Saddam Hussein’s payroll to the tune of billions of dollars, because the UN collected a commission on every barrel of oil sold. Many countries were receiving Iraqi oil at discount prices through this program—not surprisingly, some of the same countries that opposed the war on Iraq so vehemently.

So the result of oil-for-food was that the Iraqi people became even more dependent on Hussein, a tyrant whom the UN was helping to fund; meanwhile, the world community received oil at bargain prices while indebting themselves to Hussein. As humanitarian programs go, this one was questionable at best, even if the program had been run properly. But the structural setup, unfortunately, left the door wide open for corruption on a massive scale.

While oil-for-food did accomplish its goals for the Iraqi people to some degree, the program also resulted in billions of dollars of graft and was subject to corruption in businesses, governments and at every level of the UN.

Thus, the most vaunted international institution in history enacted the largest financial scandal in history.

At the beginning of oil-for-food, Volcker’s report shows some slight overpricing, but by 2003, humanitarian goods were selling for nearly three times the expected price.

The report stated, “[T]he total illicit income the Iraqi regime extracted under the program from oil buyers and humanitarian suppliers was $1.8 billion. This figure reflects $229 million in oil surcharges, $1.06 billion in after-sales-service fees, and $527 million in inland transportation fees paid to the Iraqi regime” (“The Management of the United Nations Oil-for-Food Program,” September 7). This was just the money gained directly through manipulation of the program.

In addition, during the period of sanctions on Iraq (1991-2003), investigation shows that about 12 percent of Iraqi oil was available for smuggling, which produced nearly $11 billion in additional income. This oil was sold at below-market rates—outside the oil-for-food program—to Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, as well as private entities.

In total, the report identified $12.8 billion termed “illicit income,” not including interest. And that is only what Iraq managed to skim off in this scandal.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that it may not be possible to trace where some of the kickbacks from the scheme went. The UN, for instance, authorized Hussein to sell oil to at least 70 companies in the United Arab Emirates. “One authorized oil buyer … was a remnant of the defunct global criminal bank, bcci. Another was close to the Taliban while Osama bin Laden was on the rise in Afghanistan; a third was linked to a bank in the Bahamas involved in al-Qaeda’s financial network; a fourth had a close connection to one of Saddam’s would-be nuclear-bomb makers” (Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2004). In other words, this didn’t just finance Hussein; it financed other terrorists as well.

The fact that a humanitarian program had ties to a global network of terror financially administered by Saddam Hussein with the complicity of UN officials should have been a top news story! But when the evidence began surfacing in April last year, it was quickly overshadowed by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

No one can really be shocked that Saddam Hussein would steal from a humanitarian program. The story is that the UN not only let it happen, but also actually had its officials actively participating in the graft.

This program was run by a UN official: Benon Sevan, whom the Volcker report identifies repeatedly as having failed to fulfill his duty regarding oil-for-food. In fact, as head of the program, Sevan “compromised his position by secretly soliciting and financially benefitting from Iraqi oil allocations during the course of the program” (Volcker, op. cit.).

As problems were reported to the UN deputy secretary general and Secretary General Kofi Annan himself, these individuals essentially ignored or dismissed them. Then, further hindering the probe, the Iraqi official in charge of auditing the scandal was killed, courtesy of a bomb strapped to his car.

Thus, Iraqi theft continued.

The Procurement Scandal

As the Volcker commission investigated oil-for-food, it uncovered another, related scandal.

A former UN procurement official, Alexander Yakovlev, was taken into custody in August; he has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering charges. Then, in September, federal prosecutors in Manhattan indicted the head of the UN budget oversight committee, Vladimir Kuznetsov, on money laundering charges. Now authorities believe at least some of Yakovlev’s theft—much of which may have nothing to do with oil-for-food—was done with Kuznetsov’s help.

The biggest problem with this scandal is its scope: The procurement department touches every program at the UN (it is through procurement contracts that the UN spends the billions of dollars its members contribute). These two men wielded a lot of influence. Line items in the UN budget were judged by Kuznetsov. Yakovlev worked in the UN for over 20 years and dealt with contractors in Africa, Asia and the Middle East—all over the world. He even managed the architectural contract for the new proposed $1.2 billion renovation of UN headquarters in Manhattan.

Volcker also said that Yakovlev had received in excess of $950,000 in bribes from companies that were responsible for more than $79 million in UN contracts and purchase orders, unrelated to oil-for-food.

The Volcker Report

In the independent report, which was based on more than 12 million documents, the committee spoke about the UN’s reputation and the connection with its ability to function effectively: “At stake is the United Nations’ ability to respond promptly and effectively to the responsibilities thrust upon it by the realities of a turbulent, and often violent, world. In the last analysis, that ability rests upon the organization’s credibility—on maintaining a widely held perception among member states and their populations of its competence, honesty and accountability.

“It is precisely those qualities that too often were absent in the administration of the oil-for-food program.”

That report came as the UN was about to meet on the subject of reform, September 14-16. The results of that summit? The Age reported that “it is easier to say what the summit did not achieve than what it did” (September 20). Despite a resolution calling on states to ban the incitement to terrorism, UN members did not agree on a definition of terrorism itself. They reached no agreement on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Clearly, despite the Volcker report, UN reform is not really progressing. The Volcker report itself shows us why.

Secretary General Annan was at the top of the list of those subject to criticism. “The report is critical of me personally, and I accept the criticism,” Annan said. He accepted that criticism; however, in typical UN fashion: “I don’t anticipate anyone to resign. We are carrying on with our work.” In the middle of what needs to be sweeping UN reform, that is a grossly understated response.

This scandal happened under Secretary General Annan’s watch. At one point, his own son—Kojo Annan—was implicated, and the report specifically states that Annan “was not diligent and effective in pursuing an investigation ….”

The secretary general’s lack of diligence and effectiveness in correcting his own son is hardly surprising. After all, Kofi Annan was himself guilty of rank incompetence and mismanagement—even fraud.

The interesting thing is, Annan has “reformed” the UN before, and the deeply corrupted institution we see today is the result. The reforms currently under proposal—“a culture of greater openness, coherence, innovation and confidence … more stringent standards for judging the performance of peacekeepers, in the field and at headquarters”—were taken straight from a UN dossier released in June 2002. Anyone can see how much good those reforms did the first time around.

Since the last time reforms intended to revolutionize UN headquarters were discussed, the oil-for-food scandal has cost billions of dollars—some of which likely ended up in the hands of terrorist organizations. In terms of dollars, this was quite possibly the biggest con job in human history.

Even more sickening, the Congo sex scandal, first uncovered in February 2004, continued for over a year even after UN officials knew of allegations that their peacekeepers had raped children as young as 12 and committed numerous other sex crimes. There were over 150 accusations of rape, child abuse, solicitation and other sexual crimes—70 in the town of Bunia alone. Hundreds of images of child pornography involving Congolese children were found on the laptop of a French UN civilian working in Goma (Independent, London, January 11).

“It was clear that the investigation did not act as a deterrent for some of the troops, perhaps because they had not been made aware of the severe penalties for engaging in such conduct, nor had they seen any evidence of a negative impact on individual peacekeepers for such behavior,” the UN oversight agency report said (ibid.). More specifically, not one UN soldier was charged, although the allegations in at least six cases were fully substantiated. Rather, the report recommended that the countries which sent the peacekeepers take action.

Such ineptitude indicates that the UN is beyond reform.

Perhaps the ineptitude of the UN in solving such problems would be less glaring if this vaunted institution had actually proved itself capable of preventing war. Instead, its 60-year history stands as a testament of massive failure.

A Pattern of Failure

These scandals are the UN at its worst, but any honest analysis shows that the United Nations was a failure even without the oil-for food scandal, the newest procurement scandal, or the Congo sex scandal.

While no world war has transpired since the UN’s founding, there has been war all over the world—more than 250 armed conflicts since 1945—an average of more than four per year! By that one simple criterion, we can see that the United Nations has failed in its mandate.

The UN failed to act in Liberia, when Charles Taylor (who became president in 1997) launched a seven-year civil war in 1989 in which 200,000 people were butchered. In 1994, the 270 UN peacekeepers sent to Rwanda failed to prevent the murder of 800,000 Rwandans. The UN failed to condemn slavery in Sudan; failed miserably in Sierra Leone; failed to uphold the rights of white farmers in Zimbabwe (which has resulted in a massive famine). The UN failed in Angola, in Kashmir, and in Colombia. The UN failed to act against Saddam Hussein, claiming that diplomacy and inspections would provide the answer. The UN has refused to address North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship and ignored human rights violations throughout the Near and Far East.

The United Nations’ role as a human rights agency is an international disgrace. At a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in April this year, Secretary Annan expressed concerned that “the commission’s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”

Things are so murky within the UN that a shadow might actually brighten its reputation at this point. Take a specific look at the Human Rights Commission. Sudan—perpetrator of the world’s most recent genocide—is a member; Zimbabwe—home to land grabs, internationally condemned elections, and a state-controlled press—is a member. China and Russia are members; both are also accused of rights abuses.

Can we really expect wisdom on how to improve global human rights to emerge from such a group?

Why the UN Fails

But again, the idea of an international body to keep peace seems to be a noble one. What went wrong?

Men act according to their own human nature. Saddam Hussein acted according to his interests. The United Nations officials acted according to their own selfish interests. Businesses were looking for profit. Rather than following God’s way of love —of outflowing concern—these men looked out for number one—themselves!

Jeremiah 17:9 tells us the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Greed affects every level of society. Even when we see an organization that should embody ethics, morality and the highest standard of human virtue as an example to the entire world, we see instead a perfect depiction of human nature at its worst. Instead of a godly, righteous institution, we see a carnal one.

Rather than effective management at the top, the UN has no true leadership. Secretary General Annan has proven that he is not up to the task and that he is unwilling to step down—or even to replace those under him when they fail.

That’s what happens when you leave God out of your plans. “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it” (Psalms 127:1). God certainly had no part in this failed attempt at world government.

If God had built the United Nations, every nation would follow a common law _—God’s law. Every nation would follow the principle of love, showing outflowing concern for other countries. Everyone would work for the benefit of all concerned. Rather than human nature, we would see godly nature at work. That would produce peace and abundance all over the Earth!

The UN will never bring world peace—no human organization will. That will require intervention from God Himself.

Soon, we will see a world government with Jesus Christ at the head. And instead of a deceitful, desperately wicked heart, God will give man a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) and pour out His Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). Then the nations will be truly united, and corruption will cease.