WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. senator investigating corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq said on Wednesday U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan should resign because the fraud took place on his watch.
Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein reaped some $21.3 billion from the oil-for-food program because of Annan’s lack of oversight.
“The decision to call for Mr. Annan’s resignation does not come easily, but I have arrived at this conclusion because the most extensive fraud in the history of the U.N. occurred on his watch,” Coleman, a first term Republican senator, said in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Coleman said Annan was “at the helm of the U.N. for all but a few days of the OFF (oil-for-food) program, and therefore, he must be held accountable for the U.N.’s utter failure to detect or stop Saddam’s abuses.”
In New York, U.N. chief spokesman Fred Eckhard said there had been only “a few voices” calling for Annan’s resignation.
“His substantive agenda is strong. He is committed to it. He has heard no calls for resignation from any member state,” Eckhard told reporters. He said Annan was “intent on continuing his substantive work for the remaining two years and one month of his term.”
The oil-for-food program began in December 1996 to alleviate the impact on ordinary Iraqis of sanctions, imposed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The U.N. Security Council allowed Iraq to sell oil and buy food, medicine and other goods and let Baghdad draw up its own contracts.
Congressional investigators said this left room for abuse in the $64 billion program, administered by the United Nations and monitored by a U.N. Security Council panel, including the United States.
Coleman said the United Nations “simply cannot root out its own corruption while Mr. Annan is in charge.”
The United Nations has refused to hand over documents to Coleman’s subcommittee or allow the head of the oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan, to appear before a panel while its own investigation is under way, led by Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman.
Eckhard said the Volcker commission’s work was continuing “and we have no reason to think it will not be a full, fair and thorough investigation.”
“I think it is much wiser to wait for the full investigation to be completed before allocating blame,” he said. (Additional reporting by Irwin Arieff at the United Nations)