CIA weapons inspector Charles Duelfer released a report last Wednesday on the extent of the corruption within the United Nations oil-for-food program. The Iraq Survey Group report details the ways Saddam Hussein exploited the oil-for-food program and implicates specific countries, companies and individuals (including U.N. officials) in taking bribes to help Saddam circumvent U.N. sanctions.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States encouraged the United Nations to impose economic sanctions on Iraq. While the sanctions did not convince Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, they did cause great hardships for the Iraqi people. In order to help the common Iraqis get basic necessities, in 1996 the U.N. agreed to an oil-for-food program that allowed Iraq to sell its oil. The revenues from oil sales were to go strictly to purchasing food and medicine, however, and not to obtaining weapons or materials for weapons programs.
The oil-for-food program allowed medicine and food to get to the people of Iraq, but Saddam quickly found ways to exploit the program. Since Saddam controlled the supply of goods, he was able to use food as one means of manipulating the Iraqi people - holding back food as a punishment for not supporting his regime, for instance. He also skimmed billions of dollars off the top of oil sales through contract kickbacks, and used the money both for personal use and for purchasing weapons materials.
Even from the beginning, Saddam found ways to get around the sanctions. From 1990-2003, Saddam made at least $7.5 billion by secretly selling oil to his Middle East neighbors. He also found many countries willing to help him purchase weapons. Companies in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and the UAE bought weapons for Saddam, and companies in the former Soviet bloc and China sold technology to the corrupt Iraqi regime. Arms experts in Russia and France sought to help Iraq rebuild its missile program and Chinese companies are known to have willingly provided Iraq with missile guidance software - labeled "children's software". When the war started in early 2003, Iraq was negotiating with Chinese and Indian companies to purchase chemicals and materials for liquid-fuel missiles.
At the center of the oil-for-food scandal are members of the U.N. itself, who apparently have taken bribes from Saddam's regime. Saddam created a voucher system, in which political persons and companies would get a share of oil-for-food revenues if they helped Saddam's regime in a variety of ways. The report implicates officials from France, Russia and China, who allegedly took bribes in the forms of these vouchers and in return worked to have the sanctions against Iraq eased or removed. American companies and individuals may also have been involved in questionable activities. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, is heading a U.N. commission to investigate this specific issue, and a New York federal court is also researching the matter. The investigation promises to be difficult, however, since top U.N. officials appear to have been involved.
While many people around the world look to the United Nations to bring peace and make the world a better place, time and again this institution of fallible human beings has proven a weak governing body at best - and corrupt and dangerous at worst.