Oil for food probe clears Annan

By Mark Turner at the United Nations

Financial Times

Published: March 230 2005

Critics and defenders of Kofi Annan both claimed vindication on Tuesday after an inquiry into the Iraq oil-for-food scandal cleared the United Nations secretary-general of improperly steering a contract to a company that employed his son but revealed questionable behaviour by members of his staff.

The report found “no evidence” that the selection of Cotecna, a Swiss company hired to monitor Iraqi imports, “was subject to any affirmative or improper influence of the secretary-general in the bidding or selection process”. But it did discover that a top UN official shredded documents relevant to the oil-for-food inquiry. It also concluded that a UN inquiry, begun after media reports of Cotecna's relationship with Kojo Annan, in January 1999, was “inadequate”.

“The evidence is that at several points during the relevant period the secretary-general could have been alerted to the potential conflict,” the inquiry found.

The findings, in the second interim report by an independent commission led by Paul Volcker, appeared unlikely to resolve uncertainties over whether Mr Annan can continue to lead the world body.

Mr Annan said the report had confirmed his belief that he would be “cleared of any wrongdoing”.

He won backing from the White House, where spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters: “We continue to support the work of the secretary-general and we'll continue to work with him and the United Nations on the many challenges that we face.”

But Norm Coleman, a Republican senator and leading critic, again called for Mr Annan to step down, saying the report had revealed a serious conflict of interest. “This egregious conflict of interest is simply inexcusable and further damages the credibility of the organisation he leads,” he said.

The Volcker report said the shredding of documents relevant to the oil-for-food programme was approved by Iqbal Riza, Mr Annan's former chief of staff, on April 22.

Mr Iqbal approved the destruction one day after the Security Council passed a resolution welcoming the inquiry. The destruction of the files continued until the week of December 7 2004, “more than seven months after the secretary-general instructed all UN staff members not to destroy or remove any documents related to the oil-for-food programme”.

When first interviewed, Mr Riza did not disclose he had authorised the destruction of the documents, and later said he “did not connect” the decision to the investigation.