Report slams UN over oil-for-food programme

Pieth says UN officials breached regulations Keystone

United Nations officials working on Iraq’s oil-for-food programme showed a “systematic disregard” for procedures, according to a senior Swiss investigator.

This content was published on February 3, 2005 - 22:20

In an interview with swissinfo, Mark Pieth said he hoped an interim report published on Thursday would act as a catalyst for reform of the world body.

The oil-for-food programme ran from the end of 1996 until it was shut down in 2003 following the United States-led invasion of Iraq.

The scheme enabled the former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, to use proceeds from oil sales to buy humanitarian goods and ease the impact of UN Security Council sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War.

Pieth, a professor of criminal law at Basel University, is one of three investigators charged with probing allegations that individuals and firms from around 50 countries helped Saddam to profit from the scheme.

The Swiss-based inspection firm, Cotecna, which employed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s son as a consultant, is one of the firms under investigation.

A final report is due to be published in the summer.

swissinfo: What are the main conclusions of this preliminary report?

Mark Pieth: We looked at procurement decisions necessary to set up the oil-for-food programme and… here we found that the process was extremely politicised and that UN officials systematically disregarded established procedures in order to please some member states, especially the permanent members of the Security Council.

Allegations have also been voiced against Benon Sevan, who headed the programme, and our finding here was that he… solicited the government of Iraq to give contracts to a friend, placing himself in a serious conflict of interest. We have no information that he himself received any money… but I should say that our investigation is still ongoing on this point.

We also looked at how the programme was audited, and here we found that the auditing process was drastically underfunded and ill-directed, even though individual auditors did quite a good job.

swissinfo: Have you investigated the role of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan?

M.P.: In this preliminary report, we have not looked at Annan’s potential conflict of interest, nor have we investigated the involvement of his son with the Swiss-based company Cotecna. That is going to be the focus of another report which will be published soon.

swissinfo: Your investigations have led you all over the world. How cooperative have the Swiss authorities been in furnishing you with documents?

M.P.: Overall, I am happy to say that the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs has been very helpful. We received a lot of information and are now systematically working our way through this.

swissinfo: How much of a paper trail has led to Switzerland?

M.P.: Well, like many countries, Switzerland is concerned in more than one way. Obviously there are companies based in Switzerland which have been involved either as buyers of oil or as sellers of goods.

Then there is the banking side, where one issue is people attempting to hide commissions they have made [in connection with the programme]. So far we have not encountered any difficulties with the Swiss banks. There have been one or two cases where bank clients have used their right of appeal to [block our investigation]… and this has led to a delay in our work.

swissinfo: What lessons are there to be learnt from your report?

M.P.: Firstly, we are certainly not interested in destroying or dismantling the UN. We see our work as being of help in reorganising the world body.

I believe the report will have an impact on the future management and organisation of the UN. Obviously with the challenges the UN is currently facing – be it in Africa or in countries devastated by the recent tsunami – it is very clear that [those in charge] need to think about the organisation’s structure. So I think that this is where our report will have the most impact.

swissinfo-interview: Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The oil-for-food programme ran from the end of 1996 until November 2003.
Saddam Hussein is said to have illegally pocketed more than $5 billion from the scheme.
Individuals and firms from around 50 countries are suspected of helping the former dictator in return for kickbacks.

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In brief

Swiss professor of criminal law Mark Pieth was appointed in April last year as one of the three independent investigators charged with probing allegations of corruption in connection with the UN’s oil-for-food programme.

The other members of the panel are the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, and the retired prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Richard Goldstone.

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