Annan says exoneration by Iraq Oil-for-Food report 'great relief'

Kofi Annan briefs correspondents

29 March 2005 – Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today it was a "great relief," after so "many distressing and untrue allegations," that an independent committee probing alleged misconduct and mismanagement in the United Nations Oil-for-Food programme for Iraq had exonerated him of any wrongdoing in the award of a contract to a firm that employed his son.

But he added that he was "deeply saddened" his son, Kojo, had not fully cooperated with the Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) into the allegations surrounding the now defunct multibillion dollar programme, and he urged him to do so.

Mr. Annan also told a news conference, held just hours after receiving the report from IIC chief Paul Volcker, former United States Federal Reserve Chairman, that he had no intention of resigning as he had lots of work still to do. "Hell no," he replied amid laughter to a question on the subject, referring to his agenda of reform for the world body.

"I was well aware that among the most serious allegations was an insinuation that I myself might have improperly influenced the procurement process in favour of Cotecna Inspection Services, because that company employed my son," he said in an opening statement.

"But I knew that to be untrue and I was therefore absolutely confident that a thorough inquiry would clear me of any wrongdoing. The Committee has now done so after an exhaustive 12-month investigation.

"After so many distressing and untrue allegations have been made against me, this exoneration by the independent inquiry obviously comes as a great relief," he added.

The IIC report states, "There is no evidence that the selection of Cotecna in 1998 was subject to any affirmative or improper influence of the Secretary-General in the bidding or selection process. Based on the record and lack of evidence of impropriety, it is the finding of the Committee that Cotecna was awarded the contract in 1998 on the ground that it was the lowest bidder. The Committee also notes that, in keeping with normal United Nations policy and practice, the Secretary-General is not involved in procurement decisions."

Cotecna was contracted to inspect goods entering Iraq under the Oil-for-Food programme, which ran from 1996-2003 and allowed the sanctions-bound regime to use oil-sale proceeds to purchase humanitarian supplies.

The Secretary-General did accept criticism in the report for not referring the matter to the UN's Office for Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) or its legal office for formal investigation after being made aware that Cotecna had been awarded a contract in January 1999.

"However, I have through my attorney provided a comment to the Committee explaining my reasons for ordering a different kind of inquiry, in the light of the information available to me at that time. The steps I took were fully consistent with UN regulations," he said.

On the critical findings raised against three senior management colleagues, the Secretary-General said he needed to study carefully the "different and complex issues in each case" before deciding what steps to take.

"For reasons that parents everywhere will understand, the most difficult and painful moments for me personally throughout this past year have been those when it appeared that my son Kojo might have acted inappropriately or might not have told me the full truth about his actions," he went on.

"I love my son and have always expected the highest standards of integrity from him. I am deeply saddened by the evidence to the contrary that has emerged and particularly by the fact that my son had failed to cooperate full with the inquiry. I have urged him to cooperate and I urge him to reconsider his position and cooperate."

The Secretary-General noted that Mr. Volcker expressed the hope that the Committee's finding would contribute to the larger objective to UN reform that Mr. Annan outlined last week. "I think that hope is fully justified. The reforms I'm proposing, particularly the improvement in the management of the Secretariat, are intended among other things to correct the failings that the inquiry has brought to light," he declared.

He said that he was already acting and would continue acting on the interim findings while awaiting "with great interest" the Committee's final report later this year.

"The Member States of the United Nations and their peoples certainly have the right to expect that, and from now on we in the Secretariat will be more fully transparent in the way we carry out their mandates and their wishes, and that managers will be held clearly accountable for their performance," he added.

He concluded his statement by stressing that despite the distractions and difficulties the allegations had caused over the past year, the UN had been able to "make very significant contributions to the successful and historic elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, Burundi and in the Palestinian territories," as well as coordinating relief efforts after December's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami.

"We are also helping to advance the peace process in the Middle East and many other parts of the world, often away from the headlines, [in] the hidden crises, UN staff are working around the clock to help their fellow human beings," he added. "There is always much to be done and we will stay focussed."

Mr. Annan was asked whether, in view of criticism not just in Washington but even among some of his own staff, as well as other issues, such as the resignation of Ruud Lubbers as UN High Commissioner of Refugees amid allegations of sexual harassment and findings of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he felt it was time "for the good of the organization" to step down.

"Hell no," he replied, noting that the UN was looking into some of the issues and that others had been settled. "I think it is also unfortunate that you keep bringing back issues which have been resolved. The Lubbers issue was resolved," he added. "That issue is settled; please leave Lubbers alone. On the other issues you raised on the sexual exploitation in Congo and others we are looking into it very energetically.

"We are setting up systems to ensure this doesn't happen – not only not in Congo – but in any of our operations around the world. It is not unusual that in institutions this size, whether it's government in this country or elsewhere or companies, that problems do arise. We deal with the problem and draw the lessons and move on. I have lots of work to do and I'm going to go ahead and do it and I think you know the agenda ahead of me."

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