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Swiss cooperate with oil-for-food investigation

The Iraqi population was supposed to be the beneficiary of the programme. Sonia Dumon/UNOHCI

The Swiss authorities have agreed to cooperate with an independent investigation into the United Nations oil-for-food programme in Iraq.

This content was published on December 19, 2004 - 16:14

Switzerland’s embargo watchdog will provide mutual assistance to the committee looking into allegations of fraud and corruption.

The Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) requested Swiss aid back in October. It is seeking to ascertain whether UN officials, personnel, agents and contractors may have violated the terms of the oil-for-food agreement.

The programme was administered by the UN and allowed Iraq to export oil despite the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The revenue went into UN-controlled accounts and should have been spent on food and medicines to improve living conditions in Iraq. The scheme ran for seven years, ending with the fall of the Hussein government.

UN officials have been accused of either turning a blind eye to abuses or, in some cases, of being corrupt themselves.

Kickbacks

Attention has focused on kickbacks the former Iraqi leader's officials allegedly extracted from foreign companies doing business under the programme.

According to US Senate investigators, Saddam Hussein embezzled $21 billion (SFr 24.3 billion) by evading UN sanctions over the years, most of it through oil smuggling. That figure, which was released last month, was double previous estimates.

The IIC, headed by Paul Volcker, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, has asked the Swiss for information about people or companies suspected of violating the international embargo against Iraq.

Othmar Wyss, head of sanctions at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, told the Associated Press that the committee fulfilled the criteria for mutual assistance.

Swiss-based companies, along with individuals and other companies from around 50 countries, have been accused in the past of taking advantage of the oil-for-food programme. But until now, only one person has been fined for violating the terms of the Iraqi embargo.

“The accusations against Swiss companies are often based on information that has not been verified,” said Wyss. “But this an incentive for us to cooperate with the IIC.”

Information exchange

According to Wyss, new enquiries could be launched based on information handed over by the committee.

How and just what information will be exchanged is still under consideration. The embargo watchdog cannot say how many people or companies will be investigated, nor how much scrutiny they will be facing.

Bank documents will, however, be forthcoming, since the Federal Banking Commission has offered its support.

Any information transmitted to the IIC remains confidential and can only be used for the purposes outlined in its request for support.

The committee has been under pressure in the past from US Congressional investigators, who are also taking a closer look at the oil-for-food programme.

Volcker has not given in, though, refusing last month to hand over internal IIC documents to a Senate committee.

Corruption

The Americans have been turning the screw at the highest levels of the UN. Benon Sevan, head of the UN programme, has been accused of corruption - a claim he denies.

Some members of Congress have also called into question the role of the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, demanding he resign over the alleged mismanagement of the programme.

Annan has also been attacked indirectly via Cotecna, a Swiss-based inspection company that was hired to authenticate food and medicine shipments to Iraq.

His son Kojo was employed as a consultant in 1998 - the year the UN awarded the company a $66 million contract. Cotecna has, however, asserted that younger Annan's work was limited to West Africa.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Switzerland has frozen SFr180 million in assets linked to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Between SFr6 and SFr8 million will be turned over to the Iraqi reconstruction fund by the end of the year.

There have been no appeals lodged against the freezing of the assets.

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Key facts

In 1990 the UN Security Council imposed an embargo against Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait.
But civilians were the first victims of the embargo, forcing the UN to set up the oil-for-food programme in 1995.
The programme ended in November 2003.
The three-member IIC, which was mandated by the UN to investigate the programme, includes Mark Pieth, a Swiss criminal law professor.

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