“Hell no!” was Kofi Annan’s bullish response when asked last week if he would resign over the oil-for-food scandal.
The UN secretary-general’s office was in full spin mode following the release of the eagerly awaited Volcker Interim Report on questions of conflict of interest involving Annan, whose son Kojo was employed by the UN oil-for-food contractor Cotecna.
The report was immediately greeted with unconvincing and rather desperate shrieks of “exoneration” by the UN’s senior leadership after Paul Volcker controversially found “no evidence that the selection of Cotecna in 1998 was subject to any affirmative or improper influence of the secretary-general in the bidding or selection process.”
However, a closer reading of the report reveals serious failures of leadership at the United Nations, the destruction of thousands of critically important documents by the UN chief of staff, and previously undisclosed meetings between Kofi Annan and Cotecna executives, all of which make a mockery of UN claims of vindication.
It is hardly surprising that Volcker has struggled to find evidence of “improper influence” if a great deal of vital evidence has ended up in a shredder. Despite UN protestations, this latest report will add to a growing picture of mismanagement, incompetence, and unaccountability in a world body in deep crisis and in serious need of reform.
The most significant finding in the Volcker Report is undoubtedly the revelation that Kofi Annan’s then-Chief of Staff Iqbal Riza authorized the shredding between April and December 2004 of thousands of UN documents–the entire UN Chef de Cabinet chronological files for the years 1997, 1998 and 1999, many of which related to the oil-for-food program.
Significantly, Kofi Annan announced the retirement of Riza on Jan. 15, 2005, exactly the same day that Riza notified the Volcker Committee that he had destroyed the documents.
Riza was chief of staff from 1997 to 2004, almost the entire period in which the oil-for- food program was in operation, and would undoubtedly possess an intricate knowledge of the UN’s management of the program. He was a long-time colleague of Kofi Annan, and served as Annan’s deputy in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations from 1993 to 1996.
The destruction of highly sensitive documents by Kofi Annan’s chief aide is a massive obstruction of justice that demands major congressional investigation. It gives the impression of a huge cover-up at the very heart of the United Nations, and casts a dark cloud over the credibility of the UN secretary-general. It projects an image of impunity, arrogance and unaccountability on the part of the leadership of the United Nations. Riza, who like Benon Sevan is retained on the UN payroll on a salary of $1 a year, should be made available for interview to congressional investigators and should give testimony before Congress explaining his actions.
Major questions also remain regarding the secretary-general’s meetings with a senior executive from Cotecna on three separate occasions, and his failure to initially disclose them to the Volcker Committee. In the interests of full transparency, the transcripts of Kofi Annan’s interviews with the Independent Inquiry Committee should be released.
The failure of the secretary general to recognize and act upon the enormous conflict of interest regarding his son’s involvement with Cotecna is an extremely serious matter that reflects poorly upon both his judgment and personal integrity.
In order to begin the process of restoring the reputation of the United Nations, Annan should step down. The fact that Annan remains in office despite this latest scandal involving his former chief of staff, and growing evidence of UN mismanagement with regard to the oil-for-food program, sets a poor precedent for future leaders of the UN, who will be encouraged to believe they will not be held to account for the organization’s failures. Annan is increasingly a “lame duck” secretary-general who has become a severe liability to the effectiveness of the UN as a world body. Serious reform of the organization to make it more transparent, effective, and accountable will be impossible as long as he remains in power.