Annan says some Oil-for-Food charges 'outrageous,' probe will clarify issues

Annan says some Oil-for-Food charges 'outrageous,' probe will clarify issues

While reiterating his determination to "get to the bottom" of allegations surrounding the United Nations Oil-for-Food programme in Iraq, Secretary-General Kofi Annan today stressed that some of the issues have been blown out of proportion and the UN has been unfairly blamed for things that had been beyond its control.

"[S]ome of the comments that I have read have been constructive and thoughtful. Others have been rather outrageous and exaggerated," the Secretary-General said, responding to questions from reporters during a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York. "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 UN."

Referring to the frequently cited issue of oil smuggling, for instance, Mr. Annan emphasized that the UN actually had no mandate to stop it. "There was a maritime task force that was supposed to do that," he said. "They were driving the trucks through northern Iraq to Turkey. The US and the British had planes in the air. We were not there. Why is all this being dumped on the UN?"

On the general process for the approval of contracts, he noted that the Security Council's "661 Committee" was responsible for approving contracts or putting them on hold. "Of course the Member States are not coming out saying, 'We had a role,' or, 'We had an oversight responsibility,' so all is dumped on the Secretariat."

Mr. Annan, who last week named former United States Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker to lead an independent probe of the alleged improprieties, voiced hope that the inquiry "will clarify the issues."

In response to other questions, the Secretary-General defended his son's involvement with a company that did business with the Oil-for-Food programme and said the allegations against him were groundless.

"Let me say that there is nothing in the accusations about my son. 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. Neither he nor I had anything to do with contracts for Cotecna. That was done in strict accordance with UN rules and financial regulations," he said.

"Be as it may, these allegations are doing damage, and we need to face it sternly and do whatever we can to correct it," he added, expressing hope that "once the panel's report is out some of the issues of corruption will also be dealt with, because we want to get to the bottom of that too."

The Secretary-General also noted that the panel had the full backing of the Security Council, which adopted a resolution including language calling on countries' regulatory agencies to cooperate fully with its work. "The Council members have indicated they would [cooperate fully], and they are urging other Member States to do the same," he said.

"If at the end any UN staff members are found guilty of wrongdoing, we will deal with them," he emphasized. "In some situations we may even want to lift the immunity of the staff so that we do not impede the judicial process."