Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Corruption's Threat to Democracy (April 12, 2004)
"In March Transparency International released a list of ten top corrupt leaders of the last quarter century. Except for Ukraine and Yugoslavia, all were in Africa, Asia and Latin America."

The UN's Real Blunder in Iraq (April 7, 2004)
"It has been demonstrated that irresponsibility, a lack of integrity, and a careless inattention to duty can, tragically, carry a deadly price."

Sri Lanka on the Edge Again (March 29, 2004)
"This relatively small island nation will hold an election Friday that many Sri Lankans believe will decide whether ethnic conflict is really over or has only paused before plunging into a disastrous new phase."

Banker Plans To Put UN Show on the Road (March 22, 2004)
"'When the truck comes into a city, I want it to blow people away.' A senior vice president at Morgan Stanley has designed a rolling exhibition—a sort of U.N.-mobile—that he hopes to put on the road before the end of the year."

Afghanistan Prepares to Choose a Government (March 15, 2004)
"The creation of a democratic culture and democratic institutions is the hard part. The ubiquitous international election monitors almost always arrive too late to see the confusion and intimidation that has preceded the opening of polling booths."

Putting ECOSOC Back in the Loop (March 8, 2004)
"The UN's Economic and Social Council sank into obscurity over the decades, upstaged by the Security Council, the General Assembly, and a host of agencies working on what should have been primarily ECOSOC's issues: development, health, and human rights."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | April 19, 2004
from U. N. Wire Oil-For-Food: Where Was the Security Council?

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—An independent investigating commission, which will be headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, is now set to begin looking into allegations that some U.N. officials may have been complicit in Saddam Hussein's illegal profiteering from the "oil-for-food" program that sustained Iraqi civilians from 1997 until last November. With perfect timing, an authoritative account of what was going on behind the scenes in the Security Council during two of those crucial years is now public.

Peter van Walsum, as Netherlands ambassador to the United Nations, was chairman of the council's Iraq sanctions committee during two crucial years, 1999-2000. In a new book just published by the International Peace Academy and edited by David M. Malone, U.N. Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, Van Walsum has contributed a chapter from his unique perspective on the period between the end of arms inspections by the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM), and the creation of its successor, the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC). At the same time, virtually all controls on what Iraq could import for civilian use were lifted.

Van Walsum's clear-headed account is in a sense a history of the oil-for-food program, a story often overlooked in the current debate about what the United Nations could or could not do to limit Hussein's ability to cheat the system.

As early as August 1991, four months after the formal end of the war to free Kuwait after Hussein's invasion, the Security Council, aware of hardships that sanctions imposed the year before were causing Iraqi families, twice offered a monitored oil-sale program to Hussein and was rebuffed. The ban on oil sales thus continued until 1996, when Iraq finally agreed to a new oil-for-food proposal after months of haggling. The program began to show results the following year.

"By 1997, however," Van Walsum writes, "Iraq seemed so emboldened by the growing division in the Security Council—and especially among the permanent five [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States]—that it resorted to ever more active obstruction of the work of UNSCOM."

Iraq was also becoming increasingly brazen in diverting oil for illegal sales outside the program, and shaking down contractors supplying imported goods.

The Security Council turned a blind eye to oil tankers rolling into Jordan, which was totally dependent on Iraqi oil, and tried not to notice the Syrian or Turkish connection. But the United States was leading efforts to intercept smuggling by sea across the Persian Gulf, and reported to the sanctions committee on these interceptions.

Van Walsum, who is now retired and living in the Netherlands, became chairman of the Iraq sanctions committee in January 1999, when Netherlands took a nonpermanent seat on the council. By then, UNSCOM inspectors were gone from Iraq (because of American attacks on Baghdad late in 1998) and the continued sanctions were being seen by many as "a cruel and vindictive operation, responsible for all the suffering of the Iraqi people," he said. Often forgotten, he added, was that only Hussein had the key to lifting the embargo through total and verifiable disarmament.

It took the five permanent Security Council members more than six months in 1999 to devise a formula for new inspections and a greatly liberalized oil-for-food program. By then, divisions among the so-called P5 doomed it in advance. When the time came to vote on a new resolution, Resolution 1284, in December 1999, four countries on the 15-member council abstained—Russia, China, France and Malaysia, a nonpermanent member—and the message was clear to Hussein that the days of concerted pressure were over. Iraq had friends on the council, and they did not have to use a veto—an abstention was also a "no" vote as far as Baghdad was concerned. The defection of the French was the hardest blow to the United States and United Kingdom.

"In retrospect, all there may be to say about the French abstention is that it was consistent," Van Walsum writes. "On Oct. 23, 1997, France had begun to vote with Russia and China, when it abstained on Resolution 1134 condemning Iraq for its obstruction of UNSCOM, and it has done so ever since. As a result, the divide that ran through the permanent five, separating France, Russia and China from the United States and the United Kingdom, became a permanent feature of the Security Council's business with Iraq."

In the council sanctions committee, Van Walsum confirms, the United States was mostly preoccupied with small-bore examinations of Iraqi contracts, looking not for illegal surcharges or commissions, which should have been part of its oversight function, but rather for evidence of "dual use" equipment that might be diverted to making weapons. American holds on contracts often delayed much-needed infrastructure purchases, including water-purification equipment. Criticism of sanctions increased.

U.S. officials, Van Walsum writes, "were not prepared to let humanitarian considerations override the principle that in the Iraqi context even the slightest risk of proliferation was unacceptable."

In any case, the Clinton administration was already talking about "regime change" and was not pushing for more enforcement of sanctions, though it was evident that Hussein was not only creaming off cash but also manipulating what got to the people of Iraq. Time and again, U.N. officials, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, urged the Iraqis to buy, for example, more nutritional supplements for mothers and children. The calls were largely ignored. The Iraqis were getting good media coverage with malnourished, sick and dying children.

"I could not really believe that a government would deliberately exacerbate the suffering of its own people in order to score a political point," says Van Walsum. "But I came across more and more cases where the lack of Iraqi cooperation could not easily be explained otherwise." As Dutch ambassador, he was directly involved in one such incident. When a Dutch nongovernmental organization offered to donate 72 tons of dry skim milk to Iraq, the Iraqi Health Ministry first demanded it be given a date stamp of one year from date of manufacture, when the Dutch would normally have given it a shelf life of two years. When the shipment arrived, the Iraqis decided to test it. Six months later, the whole shipment was rejected and presumably destroyed.

"The growing suspicion that the government of Iraq felt no qualms about manipulating the misery of its own people compounded the moral dilemma that would have faced the members of the sanctions committee anyway," Van Walsum writes. "It was even conceivable that the oil-for-food program, with its centralized delivery mechanism, was supplying Saddam Hussein with a welcome instrument for exercising total control over his people."

Van Walsum said that when he completed his term as sanctions chairman at the end of 2000, "the sanctions regime alone, now based on a resolution with four abstentions, simply was not potent enough to generate the pressure needed to contain Iraq." George W. Bush had just been elected and was preparing to take office. Two years later, the policy of "regime change" that the Clinton administration had initiated would finally turn into full-blown war.

If there was an overriding failure in Iraq, it was in the leniency ultimately shown by the Secretariat and the Security Council in day-to-day relations with Baghdad. U.N. officials were based in Iraq only with the agreement of the government, as if they were diplomats. Iraq was free to decide how much oil to pump and what to buy with the proceeds, though the money was in escrow under U.N. control. The head of one major agency working in Iraq told me that it was clear the Iraqis did not want real development aid.

More hands-on U.N. supervision would have been better. The proof was in Kurdish areas, where Baghdad was not allowed to dictate imports and supervise distribution, and living standards improved rapidly under direct U.N. control. By the time comparisons were obvious, the Security Council had lost the unity needed to tighten controls in the rest of the country. It was also not prepared to take on the mounting problem of surcharges, bribes and kickbacks, which the General Accounting Office in Washington now says may have amounted to $4.4 billion or more over eight years. Another $5.7 billion worth of oil is believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq.

Writing in 2003, Van Walsum sides with those who believe that Washington should have secured Security Council backing before the most recent war in Iraq. But, he adds, "it is not right either if a country consistently flouts mandatory Security Council resolutions and gets away with it because the threat of a veto by one or two permanent members.... It is difficult to tell which of the two is more damaging to the authority of the Security Council."

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

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