The programme was introduced by United States President Bill Clinton's administration in 1995, as a response to arguments that ordinary Iraqi citizens were inordinately affected by the international economic sanctions aimed at the demilitarisation of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, imposed in the wake of the first Gulf War. The sanctions were discontinued on November 21, 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the humanitarian functions turned over to the Coalition Provisional Authority.
As the programme ended, there were revelations of corruption involving the funds.
After an initial refusal, Iraq signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in May 1996 for arrangements to be taken for the implementation of that resolution.
The Oil-for-Food Programme started in December 1996, and the first shipments of food arrived in March 1997. Sixty percent of Iraq's twenty-six million people were solely dependent on rations from the oil-for-food plan.
The programme used an escrow system. Oil exported from Iraq was paid for by the recipient into an escrow account possessed until 2001 by BNP Paribas bank, rather than to the Iraqi government. The money was then apportioned to pay for war reparations to Kuwait, ongoing coalition and United Nations operations within Iraq. The remainder, the majority of the revenue, was available to the Iraqi government to purchase regulated items.
The Iraqi government was permitted to purchase only items that were not embargoed under the economic sanctions. Certain items, such as raw foodstuffs, were expedited for immediate shipment, but requests for most items, including such simple things as pencils and folic acid, were reviewed in a process that typically took about six months before shipment was authorized. Items deemed to have any potential application in chemical, biological or nuclear weapons systems development were not available to the regime, regardless of stated purpose.
Alternatively, if the sanctions were too harmful for Iraqis to sustain, critics argued, the sanctions should be removed (excepting clearly military items). Critics claimed that the Oil-for-Food Programme was responsible, under the blockage of dual-use equipment, for preventing Iraq from repairing the water purification and medical systems destroyed by the initial sanctions and during 1991 Gulf War, and others challenged the programme on the grounds that it would not permit Iraq to import the food and medicine necessary to prevent millions of easily preventable deaths. Former programme heads such as Hans von Sponeck questioned whether the sanctions should exist at all. Von Sponeck, speaking in University of California, Berkeley in late 2001, decried the proposed "Smart Sanctions", stating, "What is proposed at this point in fact amounts to a tightening of the rope around the neck of the average Iraqi citizen"; claimed that the sanctions were causing the death of 150 Iraqi children per day; and accused the US and Britain of arrogance toward Iraq, such as refusing to let it pay its UN and OPEC dues and blocking Iraqi attempts at negotiation.
Supporters viewed the programme as a way to keep Saddam Hussein in check without resorting to war.
The Clinton Administration opposed further liberalization of the proposal, which was pursued by both Iraq and France.
On 28 March 2003, Secretary-General Annan, the United States, and Britain asked the Security Council to ensure that nearly US$10 billion in goods Iraq ordered and already approved, including US$2.4 billion for food, could enter the country when conditions allow. The resolution under discussion made clear that the chief responsibility for addressing humanitarian consequences of the war would fall to the United States and Britain if they took control of the country. This refers to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention on the responsibilities of the occupying power.
On 22 May 2003, UN Security Council Resolution 1483 granted authority to the Coalition Provisional Authority to use Iraq's oil revenue. The programme's remaining funds of $10 billion were transferred over a 6 month winding-up period to the Development Fund for Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority's control; this represented 14% of the programme's total income over 5 years.
Benon Sevan of Cyprus, who headed the programme, defended it, claiming that it had only a 2.2% administrative cost and that it was subject to more than 100 audits (internal and external), blaming restrictions from the Security Council for making the situation difficult. He also claimed that 90% of Iraq's population relied on the programme for its monthly food basket. While Benon Sevan was in charge of the programme, he stonewalled efforts to review and investigate the programme. He ordered his staff that complaints about illegal payoffs should be formally filed with the whistleblower's country, making them public and allowing Iraq to bar any whistleblowers. In 2000, Dileep Nair, the UN corruption watchdog, wanted to determine the programme's level of vulnerability. Sevan, along with UN Deputy Secretary-General, Louise Frechette, rejected any such investigation, claiming that it would be too expensive to be worthwhile. Sevan ordered the shredding of years' worth of documents concerning the programme.
In response to these criticisms, and to evidence acquired after the United States invasion of Iraq, UN Secretary-General accusations were made that skimmed profits were being used to buy influence at the UN and with Kofi Annan himself.
According to an interim report released on February 3, 2005 by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker's commission (see #Investigations below), much of the food aid supplied under the programme "was unfit for human consumption". The report concluded that Sevan had accepted nearly $150,000 in bribes over the course of the programme, and in 2005 he was suspended from his position at the United Nations as a result of the investigation of fraud in the programme.
Peter van Walsum, the now-retired Ambassador of the Netherlands to the United Nations and chairman of the Iraq sanctions committee from 1999 to 2000, speculated in a recent book that Iraq deliberately divided the Security Council by awarding contracts to France, Russia, and China but not to the United Kingdom and the United States. He also stated he encountered a number of cases in which he felt the lack of Iraqi cooperation was designed to exacerbate the suffering of its own people. He also claimed that it was his opinion that the sanctions were not an effective deterrent.
Until 2001, the money for the Oil-for-Food Programme transited through the BNP Paribas bank, whose main private share-holder is Iraqi-born Nadhmi Auchi, a man estimated to be worth about $1 billion according to Forbes, and ranks 13th in Britain according to The Guardian. Auchi received a 15-month suspended sentence for his involvement in the Elf scandal, which has been qualified by the British newspaper as "the biggest fraud inquiry in Europe since the Second World War. Elf became a private bank for its executives who spent £200 million on political favours, mistresses, jewellery, fine art, villas and apartments". Elf, an oil company, merged with TotalFina to become Total S.A. in 2003.
Named in the list of beneficiaries were British MP George Galloway and his charity, the Mariam Fund; former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua; and Shaker al-Kaffaji, an Iraqi-American businessman. India's foreign minister was removed from office because of his role in the scandal. Many prominent Russian firms and individuals were also included on the al Mada list. Even the Russian Orthodox Church was supposedly involved in illegal oil trading. The former assistant to the Vatican secretary of state, Reverend Jean-Marie Benjamin, is said to have received rights to sell . George Galloway subsequently won two libel actions against the Christian Science Monitor and Daily Telegraph, which reported the allegations.
The president of Oilexco Ltd, Arthur Millholland, whose name also appeared on the al Mada, list denied any wrongdoing, but confirms the charges that illegal surcharges were being paid to the Iraqi government by contractors. However, the al Mada list does not discuss bribes paid to Iraq - it discusses bribes paid to individuals so that they would support Iraq. Few deny that in Iraq, like in many third-world countries, bribes and kickbacks were regularly paid to the leadership in order to get contracts, but some suggest that kickbacks would normally not occur in such countries when a UN-run programme was involved.
Contracts to sell Iraq humanitarian goods through the Oil-for-Food Programme were given to companies and individuals based on their willingness to kick back a certain percentage of the contract profits to the Iraqi regime. Companies that sold commodities via the Oil-for-Food Programme were overcharging by up to 10%, with part of the overcharged amount being diverted into private bank accounts for Saddam Hussein and other regime officials and the other part being kept by the supplier.
The involvement of the UN itself in the scandal began in February 2004 after the name of Benon Sevan, executive director of the Oil-for-Food Programme, appeared on the Iraqi Oil Ministry's documents. Sevan allegedly was given vouchers for at least 11,000,000 barrels (1,700,000 m³) of oil, worth some $3.5 million. Sevan has denied the charges.
The final official version of the report cites only France, Russia and China (countries who were also strongly anti-war) as violators who paid kickbacks The Duelfer report's list (volume 1, annex B, p. 302) of all "Known Oil Voucher Recipients" includes each recipient's nationality, as well as a chart broken down by nationality (figure 16, p.166). The list indicates that 30 percent of the recipients were Russian; 15 percent were French; 10 percent were Chinese; 6 percent each were Swiss, Malaysian, and Syrian; and 4 percent each were Jordanian and Egyptian. American and German recipients were included in the approximate 20 percent of "recipients from other nations."
On June 5th, 2007, the German chapter of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International (TI) lodged a complaint with the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) against 57 German companies for allegedly paying $11.9m in kickbacks in the United Nations’ Oil for Food Programme in Iraq.
The GAO estimates that the Saddam Hussein regime generated $10.1 billion in illegal revenues. This figure includes $5.7 billion from oil smuggling and $4.4 billion in illicit surcharges on oil sales and after-sales charges on suppliers. The scale of the fraud was far more extensive than the GAO had previously estimated. A U.S. Department of Defense study, cited by the GAO, evaluated 759 contracts administered through the Oil-for-Food Programme and found that nearly half had been overpriced, by an average of 21 percent Unlike the 661 committee, members of the Security Council had the authority to launch investigations into contracts and to stop any contract they did not like. The British and the Americans had turned down hundreds of Oil-for-Food contract requests, but these were blocked primarily on the grounds that the items being imported were dual-use technologies.
To quote the GAO report, in its summary:
Joseph A. Christoff, director of international affairs and trade at the General Accounting Office, told a House hearing that UN auditors had refused to release the internal audits of the Oil-for-Food Programme Benon Sevan, with support from Kofi Annan, had written letters to all former Oil-for-Food contractors asking them to consult Sevan before releasing any documents to GAO or US congressional inquiry panels Throughout its history, the programme had received both complaints from critics saying that it needed to be more open and complaints from companies about proprietary information being disclosed.
The United Nations has denied all requests by the GAO for access to confidential internal audits of the Oil-for-Food Programme.
While attempting to determine the complexity of the Oil-for-Food Programme for an article in the New York Times, investigative journalist Claudia Rosett of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies and the Hudson Institute discovered that the UN treated details such as the identities of Oil-for-Food contractors; the price, quantity and quality of goods involved in the relief deals; and the identities of the oil buyers and the precise quantities that they received as confidential. The bank statements, the interest paid, and the transactions were all secret as well. Rosett has come under harsh criticism from Denis Halliday and Benon Sevan , who have claimed that many of Rosett's claims (such as Oil-for-Food funding the approval of an Olympic stadium, and where responsibility for various issues lay according to the UN resolutions) were incorrect.
The US House Committee on International Relations investigated the Oil-for-Food Programme and discovered that money was provided by Sabah Yassen, the former Iraqi ambassador to Jordan, to pay the families of Palestinian suicide bombers between $15,000 to $25,000. From September 2000 until the invasion of Iraq, the families of Palestinians killed or wounded in the conflict with Israel (including 117 responsible for suicide bombings in Israel) received over $35 million. It is alleged that this money came from the UN Oil-for-Food Programme.
The following individuals were chosen in April 2004 to head the United Nations' Independent Inquiry Committee :
On April 22, 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed a unanimous resolution endorsing the Volcker inquiry into corruption in the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme for Iraq, calling upon all 191 member states to cooperate. (NYT)
A leaked internal UN audit, which surfaced on mineweb.com, shows massive discrepancies between Cotecna reports and UN agency reports for the value of the shipments into northern Iraq. The audit found that Cotecna did no "value" inspections on nearly US$1 billion worth of aid shipments for the Inter-Agency Humanitarian Programme into northern Iraq. However, in a subsequent report published by the Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) (October 27, 2005) it was concluded that “there were no major complaints by the United Nations or its member states about Cotecna’s performance” and that “the audit did not report any deficiencies in Cotecna’s inspections”. Benon Sevan was briefed in December 2002 on the findings of the audit.
The audit is available here Its summary states:
After reading the leaked audit, congressman Henry Hyde wrote to Kofi Annan wondering why "The U.S. Congress — which provides 22 percent of the U.N.'s budget and which has publicly requested copies of the 55 internal audits — should be required to depend on media leaks for source documents."
Although the report makes no specific allegations of criminal activity by Sevan, Volcker does not rule out the possibility that charges might be filed by authorities in countries with relevant jurisdiction. The report called Sevan's conduct "ethically improper”, noting that Sevan had received large cash payments totalling $160,000 dollars each year he had headed the programme. Sevan claims the money came from an aunt in Cyprus who has since died, but the panel found no evidence to back this claim.
Volcker also reported in January that a review of 58 confidential UN internal OIF audits showed UN officials ignored early signs that humanitarian goods shipped to Iraq before the 2003 Invasion war were given little if any inspections by the Swiss company Cotecna. However, Volker concluded in the October 27, 2005 IIC report that “the audit did not report any deficiencies in Cotecna’s inspections”. Cotecna paid Kojo Annan, Kofi Annan's son, consulting fees until November 2003. Volcker said that future reports would deal with questions regarding Kojo Annan.
The US has been harshly critical of the KPMG probe led by associates of Ahmed Chalabi, accusing it of undermining the main probe established by Paul Bremer. That probe had been run by the head of Iraq's independent Board of Supreme Audit, Ehsan Karim, with assistance from Ernst & Young. The Board of Supreme Audit is within the Iraqi Finance Ministry. In June 2004, Karim's investigation agreed to share information with the Volcker panel. However, on 1 July 2004, Karim was killed by a bomb magnetically attached to his car
Claude Hankes-Drielsma, a British national and long-time friend of Ahmed Chalabi, was appointed by the IGC to coordinate its investigation of the Oil-for-Food Programme. Drielsma testified in front of the US Congress (on 21 April 2004) that the KPMG investigation "is expected to demonstrate the clear link between those countries which were quite ready to support Saddam Hussein's regime for their own financial benefit, at the expense of the Iraqi people, and those that opposed the strict application of sanctions and the overthrow of Saddam". He also testified that Chalabi was in charge of the investigation for the IGC.
In late May 2004, on the same day that Chalabi's offices at the Iraqi National Congress were raided by coalition forces, Drielsma claimed that an individual or individuals hacked into his computer and deleted every file associated with his investigation. He also claimed that "a back-up databank" was also deleted When asked by Caludia Rosett if he had been physically threatened as well, Drielsma replied with "no comment". Drielsma has also been an outspoken critic of the UN's refusal to release any internal Oil-for-Food audit information to the IGC.
It is estimated that as much as $10 billion to $21.3 billion went unaccounted for and/or was directed to Saddam Hussein and his government in the form of kickbacks and oil smuggling. Record keeping of illegal behaviour is hard to come by and rare at best. To date, only 1 of 54 internal UN audits of the Oil-for-Food Programme have been made public. The UN has refused all requests for its audits.
Staff from the Senate investigations committee presented documentary evidence that the Bush administration was made aware of illegal oil sales and kickbacks paid to the Saddam Hussein regime but could do nothing to stop them. The Senate report concludes the United States ended up with a majority of the oil lifted from Iraq after vendors paid illicit surcharges of 10 cents to 30 cents a barrel to Saddam, though U.S. firms directly purchased less than 1 percent of the crude. However, the two countries to profit most from the programme were allegedly France and Russia. These two countries supported of efforts to lift the UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq and were also against the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
US Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) is quoted in an interview for the New York Times as saying, "There is no question that the bulk of the illicit oil revenues came from the open sale of Iraqi oil to Jordan and to Turkey, and that that was a way of going around the Oil-for-Food Programme [and that] we were fully aware of the bypass and looked the other way."
One of the names given by the Independent Inquiry Committee into The United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme was Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Malaysia was the fourth highest purchaser of oil under the programme. The report names Mastek Sdn Bhd as one of the companies that paid bribes to Iraqi officials amounting to US$10 million. The people involved in running the company are Noor Asiah Dato' Mahmood (Abdullah Badawi's sister-in-law), Faek Ahmad Shareef (Noor Asiah's ex-husband) and Jaya Sudhir (businessman). During one phase of the programme, Malaysia's oil allocation rose from 7.5 million barrels to 39.5 million. This coincided with the time when Abdullah Badawi cemented his position as the Deputy Prime Minister, after the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim. Abdullah Badawi's role in the scandal skirts dangerously close to the definition of corruption.
On January 6, 2006, South Korean businessman Tongsun Park was arrested by the FBI in Houston after he was indicted for illegally accepting millions of dollars from Iraq in the UN Oil-for-Food Programme. The criminal charges against him were unsealed in a U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
On January 16, 2007, Benon Sevan was indicted by a Manhattan federal prosecutor for taking about $160,000 in bribes. Michael J. Garcia, the U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York, issued a warrant through Interpol for the arrest of Sevan at his home in Cyprus, as well as a warrant for Efraim "Fred" Nadler, a New York businessman who was indicted on charges of channelling the illegal payments to Sevan. Nadler's whereabouts are unknown.