The Magazine

Cash-for-Kofi

The U.N. secretary-general wins a half-million dollar prize in Dubai.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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Such non-answers have a familiar ring to anyone who has followed the saga of the sporty green Mercedes, shipped into Ghana in 1998 by Annan's son, Kojo Annan, who saved $14,000 in customs duties at the time via inappropriate use of his father's name and U.N. privileges. In that instance, the transaction was obscured behind a humanitarian façade, with the U.N. Development Program office in Ghana setting its U.N. seal on the paperwork. Annan, despite wiring his son $15,000 to help pay for the car, claims he knew nothing about it, and that it had nothing to do with him or the U.N. Perhaps Annan intends to more carefully supervise and account for his prize-seeded future foundation; but it must be admitted that the Mercedes experience is not a promising portent.

Nor is it a good sign that Annan, while enthusing about his prize in Dubai, appeared to have forgotten--if he ever took it on board in the first place--that from 1999-2003, Dubai was one of the hubs of kickback activity under the Oil-for-Food program. According to the U.S. Treasury and the U.N.'s own probe, led by Paul Volcker, at least two major front companies for Saddam Hussein's regime set up shop in Dubai: Al Hoda and Al Wasel & Babel. Between them, they secured more than $500 million worth of U.N.-approved contracts, and funneled tens of millions in kickbacks to Saddam. Volcker reports that a Dubai businessman, Ibrahim Lootah, owned 51 percent of one of these companies, Al Wasel & Babel, which received a commission for kickbacks processed through its account. Asked last year by Volcker's investigators about this commission, Lootah replied, "Why not get easy money?"

Why not, indeed? While the United States, India, Australia, and even France have investigated Oil-for-Food wrongdoing by their citizens, there is no sign Dubai has opened any such inquiry. Nor is there any sign that Annan ever brought it up with them. That's no surprise, given that in London, a week before receiving his prize, he brushed aside the entire Oil-for-Food debacle with the astounding phrase, "If there was a scandal."

If this year's Zayed prize money from Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai is to be dedicated to helping Africa, as we have been told, there is no good reason to channel the funds through the wallet of the U.N. secretary-general. Under the U.N. charter, Annan is paid to serve as the U.N.'s chief administrative officer, not its Prize Recipient-in-Chief. If Annan feels he cannot with good grace reject the honor of the Zayed prize, then in the interest of curbing future scandals, he might at least return the purse.

Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.