April 21, 2004 | Commentary on International Organizations

Food for fraud

Of the many appalling aspects of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, one of the most unforgivable was the pain and death he inflicted on Iraq's children. And even more shocking is that the program that was meant to help them, the United Nations' Oil-for-Food program, turned out to have been disgracefully corrupt, a caricature of a foreign aid program.

During the 1990s, it was always the U.S. government that took the blame, even though it was Saddam who should have. The purported reason was that we refused to let up on the U.N. sanctions against Iraq, which were imposed because Saddam failed to open up his Weapons of Mass Destruction programs to international inspections, and demonstrably disarm -- as he had agreed in the Gulf War ceasefire resolution.

For instance, a UNICEF report from 1997, stated, "32 percent of Children under the age of five - a total of 960,000 - are undernourished." By some reports, 5,000 Iraqi children died every month due to sanctions. Over one million Iraqis were said to have died from disease and malnutrition during the 1990s.

Now, it was this suffering that the U.N. Oil-for-Food program was meant to assuage when the program came on line in 1995, but did not. Since the fall of Saddam and the end of the Oil-for-Food program on Nov. 21, 2003, the staggering failings of the program, now better known as the Oil-for-Palaces program, have been revealed.

This week on Capitol Hill, Rep. Christopher Shays, chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, will convened a hearing to examine the Iraqi Oil-For-Food program. It was the second congressional hearing into the subject. The Iraqi governing Council has started its own investigation, and even U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has finally agreed to an independent investigation, as well.

Some details of the Oil for Food scandal had already been reported, and can be found in a new paper by Nile Gardiner and James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, "Investigate the United Nations Oil-for Food Fraud":

  • Between 1997 and 2002, Oil-for-Food generated $67 billion in revenues for the Iraqi regime. There was little or no oversight from the United Nations of how this money was spent.
  • In addition Saddam Hussein is estimated to have generated $10.1 billion in illegal revenues by exploiting the Oil-for-Food program, through smuggling through Syria and through illicit surcharges on oil contracts.
  • Saddam used Oil-for-Food to stay in power through a global network of companies, politicians and other individuals who benefited from the program. The list reaches into western governments, into the U.N. itself and includes 46 Russian and 11 French names.
  • Between 1996 and 2003, Russian companies received $7.3 billion in business through Oil-for-Food; French firms earned $3.7 billion.
  • The United Nations itself had a vested interest in the program, overseeing a flow of funds averaging at least $15 billion a year. It was administered by 10 U.N. agencies, employing over 1,000 staff and the U.N. collected 2.2 percent commission on every barrel of oil.
Perhaps the most surprising allegation out of yesterday's hearing was that U.S. administrator Paul Bremer had dragged his feet as regards the Oil-for-Food inquiry by the Iraqi Governing Council. According to Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a British adviser to the IGC, Mr. Bremer "would not release funds...to meet the cost of the investigation unless the work was put out to tender" - this at the same time evidence of wrong doing was surely being gotten rid of throughout U.N. offices. We will need to hear from Mr. Bremer the reasons for his hesitation.

Clearly, these revelations do not inspire confidence that the United Nations is capable of running anything in Iraq - exactly at the moment when the Bush administration is hanging its hopes for a June 30 transition in Iraq on U.N. guidance. Any role for the United Nations must be limited.

It is also worth remembering that Iraqi children are so much better off today than they used to be under Saddam's dictatorship and his corrupt dealings with the United Nations. Despite all the attacks on Bush administration policy, we are giving Iraqis a future. Through USAID, 3 million Iraqi children have been vaccinated. Almost a quarter million children and pregnant women have been given high protein foods. More than 2,500 schools have been renovated and 2.5 million children have been given school kits, and on and on.

If 5,000 Iraqi children were dying every month under Saddam, and we have now been in Iraq one year, it means that 60,000 children have saved. That's a number worth remembering.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in The Washington Times