Monday, November 29, 2004

NEW YORK — U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday he was disappointed in his son for accepting payments from a key contractor in the oil-for-food program for more than four years longer than had been previously acknowledged.

Kojo Annan, 31, had been employed from 1995 to 1997 at Cotecna Inspection SA, a Geneva-based firm that had been inspecting humanitarian goods imported by Iraq with U.N.-administered proceeds from its oil sales. He served briefly as a consultant until 1998.

But the younger Mr. Annan continued to receive as much as $2,500 a month from Cotecna until February 2003 as part of a “no compete” agreement, according to chagrined U.N. officials, who have said for years that the payments ended in late 1998.

“Naturally, I was very disappointed and surprised, yes,” the secretary general told reporters yesterday morning. “I understand the perception problem for the U.N., or the perception of a conflict of interest and wrongdoing.”

Mr. Annan said he had warm family relations with his son, “but he is in a different field. He is an independent businessman. He is a grown man, and I don’t get involved with his activities and he doesn’t get involved in mine.”

Mr. Annan and other U.N. officials have long said that it was a coincidence that Mr. Annan’s son worked for the company that was awarded the contract to manage the program, and that the U.N. office responsible was not aware of Kojo Annan’s role at Cotecna.

But the appearance of a payoff to the secretary general’s son was just the latest in a series of revelations about the Iraqi oil-for-food program to shake the U.N. Secretariat.

A Senate inquiry recently calculated that Saddam Hussein’s regime may have milked more than $20 billion from the humanitarian program, which ran from Dec. 1996 until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. U.N. officials and perhaps scores of international companies are suspected of complicity.

“The oil-for-food charges are very serious, if they turn out to be correct they do go to the integrity of the organization,” U.S. Ambassador John Danforth said yesterday. “The important thing is that all the facts are out there. Any investigation has to be thorough.”

Competing investigations by a U.N.-appointed independent panel, by the U.S. Treasury, by several congressional committees and by the Iraqi government have so far produced more questions than answers.

U.S. lawmakers repeatedly have accused the United Nations of “obstructing” their investigations by refusing to share internal documents, lift gag orders on contractors and make staff available for questioning.

The most damning charge so far — that former Iraq program administrator Benon Sevan accepted bribes from the former regime — was made in October by former U.N. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer, who led a Senate investigation into the scandal.

U.N. officials fear that interest in the inquiries will overshadow interest in a landmark report to be issued on Thursday that will examine the role of the updated United Nations in an increasingly globalized world.

While the organization scrambles to respond to oil-for-food inquiries, other troubles are piling up at the organization’s doorstep.

The U.N. peacekeeping department is wracked by accusations of rape, sexual harassment and extortion by blue helmets and civilians in the U.N. mission in Congo. By last summer, 150 separate transgressions had been documented — sometimes by the soldiers’ own cameras.

International pressure also is building on the United Nations and the Security Council to do more to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Mr. Annan repeatedly has spoken out about the routing of civilians in western Sudan, but has been unable to negotiate with Khartoum for the deployment by an international force.

Internally, a group that represents some 5,000 U.N. employees in New York is seeking to reopen an investigation of the U.N. inspector general, Dileep Nair, over charges of sexual harassment and favoritism within the organization’s main oversight agency.

An anonymous letter was circulated earlier this year charging preferential treatment of Indian nationals and sexual harassment by Mr. Nair and others in his office. Mr. Nair has denied the charges.

The U.N. staff union also has criticized Mr. Annan’s willingness to exonerate Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette for failing to adequately protect U.N. staff members in Iraq. Miss Frechette tendered her resignation, but Mr. Annan refused to accept it.

The secretary-general also threw out an internal report finding merit in a sexual harassment complaint filed last summer against High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers.

But it’s the oil-for-food scandal, which blooms anew every few weeks, that is casting the greatest shadow over Mr. Annan.

U.N. officials have been urging the media, U.S. politicians and others to withhold judgment about the unfolding saga until the organization’s own investigation has concluded.

That inquiry, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is expected to issue another interim report in January, which may address the Cotecna and Sevan accusations.

The full report could take another year, and cost as much as $30 million — to be funded with leftover cash in the oil-for-food program.

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