Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented on Tuesday that his 10 years as U.N. leader may end up being remembered only for the oil-for-food program for Iraq, saying blame for a financial scandal was misdirected.
One of his top regrets as secretary-general, he said, was that the allegations of U.N. mismanagement of the $64-billion (32.5 billion pounds) Iraqi humanitarian program had been "exploited to undermine the organisation."
"When historians look at the records, they will draw the conclusion that, yes, there was mismanagement. There may have been several U.N. staff members who were engaged," said Annan, a Ghanaian who is due to leave his post on December 31 and be replaced by South Korean Ban Ki-moon. True blame, Annan told a farewell news conference, lay with some governments and the more than 2,300 companies accused of paying surcharges or kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's government in exchange for purchasing Iraqi oil or selling goods.
He described them as "the companies that made a deal with Saddam behind our backs."
Following the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Annan opposed because it lacked U.N. Security Council approval, several U.S. congressional committees investigated the aid program and some lawmakers called for Annan's resignation, saying U.N. corruption and mismanagement had enriched Saddam. But a lengthy outside inquiry led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker spread the blame among governments, the Security Council, private firms in 40 countries and a handful of U.N. officials.
The oil-for-food program allowed Iraq to sell oil to finance purchases of humanitarian goods, despite international sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War. The companies diverted $1.8 billion to Saddam's officials, governments turned a blind eye to commercial activities, the Security Council ignored $11 billion in smuggled oil and other illicit earnings outside the oil-for-food program, and top U.N. officials tolerated corruption, the Volcker inquiry concluded.
"I hope the historians will realise that the U.N. is more than oil-for-food," Annan said. "I know we have vocal critics in the United States. They may be a minority, but they are very vocal. They are not always fair in their criticism. We do accept honest and fair criticism."
Annan called on those advocating the weakening or elimination of the United Nations to ask themselves: "If the U.N. is no longer here, how do we deal with some of the issues which cross borders? Who is going to speak out and stand up for the poor, the weak and the voiceless?'"