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Annan Under Fire

Donald Paneth Apr 6, 2005

The United Nations has struck an iceberg. It is enormous, and the situation at the U.N. is one of violent flux, an historical, civilizational tragedy.U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is at the helm, flanked by Fred Eckhard, his spokesman, and Malcolm Malloch Brown, his Chief of Cabinet. They are peering into the darkness. They sight a ghost ship, laden with past events and once famous names, which first went down April 15, 1912, at latitude 41:16 north and longitude 50:14 west.

With much of its volume concealed beneath the surface, the catastrophe occurred this time at 12 noon on March 29, 2005. It took the form and shape of a second interim report by the Volcker Commission, investigating the U.N.’s Iraq “oil-for-food” program scandal.

The report considered the award in 1998 of the humanitarian goods inspection contract to a Swiss firm, Cotecna Inspection S.A., and dealt with widely-circulated allegations that Annan was subject to a conflict of interest in the award of this contract because his son, Kojo Annan, was employed at the time by Cotecna.

With respect to the Secretary-General, the report said that “there is no evidence” any affirmative or improper influence was exerted in the selection of Cotecna, that Cotecna was awarded the contract on the ground it was the lowest bidder.

However, the report found Annan wanting in a number of aspects of management oversight and procedures.

The situation intensified that same afternoon at 2:45 p.m. when the Secretary-General appeared at an overflow United Nations press conference. Annan made a brief statement, in which he noted his pleasure at being absolved of improperly influencing the Cotecna contract procedure, and then took questions.

The fourth question was blunt and brutal, not at all diplomatic or courteous, as is the custom here. A correspondent asked:

“Are you the man to continue to lead this organization? Critics, not just in Washington but in this very building – some on your own staff – point to Benon Sevan, the man who ran the oil-for-food program; Dileep Nair, mentioned in the report; Ruud Lubbers (resigned head of the U.N. refugees office), sex harassment; Congo, sex, peacekeeping, you were the former peacekeeping director; your former chief of staff shredding documents; plus the decision by senior management on sending people back into Iraq. Do you feel it’s time, for the good of the organization, to step down?”

“Hell, no,” Annan replied. Moments later, he left the conference room.
Malloch Brown took over, distinctly less fluent than usual, his replies sprinkled with uncertain phrases such as “Well, look,” “Let me just first say,” “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean … “

The question of Kojo Annan’s activities is continuing to be investigated, and will be among the subjects reviewed in the Commission’s final report this summer.

Members are continuing to support Kofi Annan. None is calling for his resignation or dismissal. The United States appears to be going along with him, as a compliant figure who wants to keep his job. In fact, a high-ranking U.N. official observed, “Annan is the best secretary-general the U.S. has ever had.”

Beyond the Secretary-General’s position and whether or not he will be maintained in it until the end of his term December 31, 2006 lie the broader and deeper troubles of the U.N. and the problems ranging the earth, among them, the upcoming nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, May 2-27, at U.N. headquarters in New York. Some observers are predicting that the conference will end in a “train wreck.” Up to now, the U.S. has blocked the adoption of a conference agenda.

Leslie Cagan, head of United for Peace and Justice, says that 50,000 to 60,000 persons are expected to take part May 1 in a 12 p.m. march past the United Nations and a Central Park rally supporting the treaty.