The Fading of Kofi Annan


Los Angeles Times

April 4, 2005

It's hard to imagine Kofi Annan ever regaining his footing as secretary-general of the United Nations. Even if he ultimately doesn't resign over the oil-for-food scandal, he will be a diminished presence on the global stage. And that's a shame because Annan is hardly the wild-eyed, leftist anti-American that some in Washington make him out to be, and he has some good ideas on how to reform the U.N.

An independent commission led by Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, last week issued another preliminary report on the abuse of the oil-for-food program. The program was created by the U.N. Security Council in the 1990s as a means of softening the blow of sanctions on the people of Iraq, but it was disastrously mismanaged.

Saddam Hussein's regime managed to skim billions, and the full magnitude of the program's corruption is not yet known. More findings are expected later from Volcker's team. U.S. congressional committees are tripping over one another to look into the matter; Annan is a popular target on Capitol Hill.

What is clear from Volcker's report is that Annan's son, Kojo, received a lot of money to do very little work on behalf of Cotecna, a Swiss company that had a U.N. contract to inspect shipments to Iraq. It doesn't look good.

The inquiry, it's true, has found no evidence that the secretary-general interceded on behalf of the company. Indeed, it found that Kojo Annan lied to his father about his ties with Cotecna. But Kofi Annan has gone back on his initial denials of any contact with the company's owner. His inquiry into his son's actions was laughably inadequate, and his chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, shredded documents relating to the program after the inquiry was launched. Riza has been replaced by one of the more able U.N. officials, Mark Malloch Brown, former head of the U.N. Development Program.

It's still possible that Annan's only sin was to have been a lax manager, but that hardly commends him to be the standard-bearer for reform at the organization. The taint of corruption will be enough to cripple his effectiveness: Leading the U.N. is tough enough even for the squeaky clean.

Conservative Republicans are gleeful about Annan's travails, as if he is to blame for the Bush administration's failure to sell the Iraq war to nations like France and Russia. Annan's critics should be more careful what they wish for. If the secretary-general is their idea of a crazed anti-American, they need to get out more.

Annan is concerned about human rights, and he is no markets-hating socialist. He supports the notion of humanitarian interventions, and wants to overhaul the U.N. Human Rights Commission so that it can no longer be dominated by countries with little regard for human rights.

Annan has an ambitious set of organizational changes he wants to push this fall. He's right that the Security Council, with France as one of its five permanent members, should no longer look like a snapshot of 1945 international politics. Countries like India, Japan and Brazil need a larger say in the council, and there are competing proposals for how to accomplish this. Sadly, though, Annan's talk of reform is likely to be written off as an attempt to change the subject.