U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has lashed out at critics of the world body's role in the Iraq oil-for-food program, describing some of the charges as outrageous and exaggerated. Mr. Annan categorically rejected allegations that his son may have been involved in any illegal activities.
Asked Wednesday about the effect of the oil-for-food scandal on the world body's reputation, the secretary general rose immediately to the defense of his son. Kojo Annan worked in the mid-90s for Cotecna, a Swiss-based company chosen to monitor what Iraq was importing under the humanitarian program.
Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Annan said there is nothing to the accusations that his son somehow benefited illegally from oil-for-food contracts. "He joined the company even before I became secretary general, as a 22-year old, as a trainee in Geneva and then he was assigned to work for them in West Africa, mainly in Nigeria and Ghana," he said. "Neither he nor I had anything to do with contracts for Cotecna. That was done in strict accordance with U.N. rules and financial regulations."
On the broader issue of the U.N. role in alleged fraud in the oil-for-food program, Mr. Annan was equally outspoken. "Some of the comments that I have read have been constructive and thoughtful," he added. "Others have been rather outrageous and exaggerated. If you read the reports, it looks as if the Saddam regime had nothing to do with it. They did nothing wrong. It was all the U.N. You take the oil smuggling. There was no way the UN could have stopped it."
Mr. Annan noted that smuggling accounts for the majority of the illegal profits Saddam Hussein allegedly made from the oil-for-food program. He suggested member states, in particular the United States and Britain, were in the best position to prevent smuggling.
"There was a maritime task force that was supposed to do that, they were driving the trucks through northern Iraq to Turkey," he said. "The U.S. and the British had planes in the air. We were not there. Why is all this being dumped on the U.N.?"
The secretary general said he is deeply concerned about the potential damage to the world body's reputation from the oil-for-food scandal. Describing the accusations "serious," he pledged to cooperate with investigations and said in some cases, diplomatic immunity of U.N. staff may be lifted so as not to impede the judicial process.
The oil-for-food program was launched in 1996 to allow Saddam Hussein's government to sell some of Iraq's oil to purchase food and other goods to ease the burden of U.N. sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. Investigators allege Saddam's regime pocketed more than $10 billion in proceeds from smuggling and imposing illegal surcharges on oil sales.