THE seriousness of the allegations over the UN's Iraq oil-for food programme became clear last year, Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, appointed a high-level investigating committee to look into the matter and asked one of America's most distinguished public servants, Paul Volcker, to head it.

Mr Volcker has now published his report; at first sight it gives the impression of raising almost as many questions as it answers. In the first place, however, it should be said that the report does not support the wild accusations against the UN and Mr Annan personally that have been heard in the US Congress recently. But neither does it give the UN administrators and auditors a clean bill of health. It seems clear that although some UN auditors were drawing attention to serious failings in the management of the programme, others failed to detect the corruption that was taking place at various operational levels.

The more puzzling issue raised by Mr Volcker is why the ultimate responsibility for the good management of the oil-for-food programme was not more clearly defined. Did it rest with the administration of the United Nations or with the Security Council? And if it was the latter, did member states choose to overlook its sloppy handling because they were focussed on denying Iraq weapons of mass destruction? The Volcker report merely raises this question; further investigation will be needed to determine the answer.

Two comments are worth quoting. Volcker says that the UN's audits found no evidence of corruption, “no flaming red flags”. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that responsibility for the oil-for-food programme rested in part with the Security Council, “and the US is a member of the Security Council.”


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