United Nations officials today welcomed initial findings by an independent probe into the UN Oil-for-Food programme for Iraq, acknowledging deficiencies in the way the multi-billion dollar humanitarian operation was run and pledging to revamp the world body's current overall management structure.
The preliminary analysis released last night by the Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC), headed by former United States Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, "is just one step in the progress of an inquiry which the Secretary-General initiated, and which continues to enjoy his full support and cooperation," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told a press briefing in New York.
Earlier Monday while in the Maldives, where he visited areas affected by last month’s tsunami disaster, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the latest developments “show that the Programme was being audited and that attempts were made to try to correct” whatever was wrong in the system.
“I’m happy that we have now been able to release the documents,” he said in response to questions on the issue, explaining that this accorded with the intention of both the UN and Mr. Volcker to make the reports public “in an orderly manner.”
Mr. Dujarric said the UN would study the IIC's briefing paper carefully, and looked forward to the broader findings that will be contained in an interim report to be released in the coming weeks.
"What this initial briefing from the Committee does show is that there was a dynamic auditing process generated by the UN itself, as well as the reports of external auditors which have already been made public," Mr. Dujarric said. He noted that all audits - both internal and external - were conducted in accordance with internationally recognized standards.
Mr. Dujarric also acknowledged that the briefing paper already shows "that there were deficiencies in the management of this unique and highly complex programme, which had to be implemented in an acutely difficult political environment."
In its introduction, the paper notes that the relief effort was conducted amid severe "political sensitivities in an area of the world where corruption is rife."
The IIC has said that its interim report will examine how far the UN's management safeguards and responses were sufficient or deficient, Mr. Dujarric noted. "We ourselves are already focused on issues of management and accountability, and engaged in a critical review of the way we work, which will lead to a broad overhaul of the UN's management structure and systems in order to improve performance and accountability."
He added that some lessons are already being applied, citing the fact that, on the financial side of the tsunami relief effort, the UN is implementing procedures for greater accountability and transparency. "The tsunami effort, like Oil-for-Food, is a humanitarian programme on an unusually large scale, although they differ from each other in nearly all other respects," he said.
Meanwhile, the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCooper has offered its services for free to help the UN track assistance being provided to victims of the 26 December catastrophe. The Director of the UN's Coordination and Response Division, Kevin M. Kennedy, told a separate press briefing that Mr. Annan has welcomed "this generous and timely offer."
In a related development, former US President Bill Clinton, in New York today to launch a Tsunami Water and Sanitation Fund with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), voiced confidence in the world body's ability to lead the relief effort.
"No one has questioned the commitment or the integrity or the impact of the United Nations humanitarian efforts," he said in response to a question on the Oil-for-Food allegations. "That has not even been a matter in dispute."
The White House website, he pointed out, has UNICEF and the overall UN relief effort on its list of charities that are reliable. "So there is absolutely no dispute about that as far as I know across the political spectrum in America," he said.
Mr. Dujarric pointed out that the Oil-for-Food programme "did fulfil its main objective by providing humanitarian relief to 27 million Iraqis and thereby helping to maintain political support for the sanctions which, in turn, prevented Saddam Hussein's regime from acquiring weapons of mass destruction."
Responding to press questions, the spokesman stressed that there has not yet been a final accounting. "All of the audits that were released today are just one snapshot of the programme. A full conclusion should not be reached from them; they are part of a whole process."