- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

NEW YORK — In a bid to regain public confidence, officials of the United Nations promised swift action after the release Thursday of a highly critical evaluation of the U.N. oil-for-food program.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday pledged to take unspecified disciplinary action against two senior U.N. officials, with his aides adding that he would strip away diplomatic immunity of the pair, if necessary. Such an action would take away their protection from prosecution in any trial.

“We are as determined as everyone to get to the bottom of this,” Mr. Annan told reporters on his way into the Secretariat yesterday. “We do not want this shadow to hang over the U.N.”

The Independent Inquiry Committee, appointed by Mr. Annan last year after several U.S. lawmakers began their own investigations of the $64 billion, seven-year program, issued a report Thursday outlining influence peddling, conflicts of interest, and more.

The 219 page-report also calls for greater autonomy for the U.N. auditors, and far more transparency in decision-making.

It is not clear what sort of disciplinary action the organization can take against the two men, both nationals of Cyprus, who were accused of the influence peddling that tainted the whole program, and, therefore, the United Nations.

Oil-for-food program chief Benon Sevan was accused of demanding oil vouchers from the Saddam Hussein regime on behalf of a small Swiss-based company.

Mr. Sevan retired from the organization in November, after 40 years of service.

Security Council liaison Joseph Stephanides, who is said to have steered an inspection contract, is scheduled to retire before the end of the year.

U.N. officials said any disciplinary proceeding against him likely would take longer than his remaining time, and would involve a fully paid suspension.

Mr. Sevan, in particular, posed “a grave and continuing conflict of interest” that “seriously undermined the integrity of the United Nations,” said the Independent Inquiry Committee, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

Mr. Sevan, through his attorney, maintained late Thursday that he “never took a penny” from the program.

It is clearly in the interests of the United Nations for Mr. Annan to act quickly.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has begun an investigation into criminal wrongdoing, while six Capitol Hill inquiries are in various stages and intensity.

Yesterday, Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, reintroduced the Oil-for-Food Accountability Act to withhold an escalating portion of U.S. contributions to various U.N. budgets until the Government Accountability Office and the FBI have full access to all documents, and the organization repays all missing or reallocated funds to the Iraqi government.

“Until we can fully grasp the extent of corruption and fraud involved in the administration of the oil-for-food program, and until the United Nations decides to cooperate in the investigation, no American taxpayer dollars should go to the United Nations,” Mr. Ensign said.

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