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ABC viewers were shocked to learn last week that the man who spent six years administering the UN's Iraqi oil-for-food program stood accused of receiving millions of dollars in bribes from Saddam Hussein's regime. The official, Benon Sevan, had conveniently slipped off to a Queensland resort as the scandal broke and gave reporters who showed up on his hotel doorstep a brusque "no comment" before retreating to the comforts within.
But the ABC that aired the story and tracked Sevan down in Noosa Heads was not Australia's taxpayer-financed broadcaster but the American television network. Meanwhile, Australia's ABC has remained virtually silent on the story, choosing to run little more than a couple of newswire stories on Sevan's trip on their website.
The editorial decision to turn a blind eye to the story puts the ABC in good company with other Western news outlets, most of which have taken a see-no-evil approach to one of the biggest corruption scandals in modern history: the systematic purchasing of friends and allies by the Iraqi dictator.
The scheme was elegant in its simplicity, but huge in scale. From 1996 to 2003, Iraq's government was allowed to sell some of its oil through a UN program and, theoretically, buy food and medicine for its citizens.
But any humanitarian goods that were purchased with this money were doled out to Baath party supporters, while the rest of the cash went to building Saddam's lavish palaces and maintaining his terrifying security apparatus.
[SIZE=3][b]Far worse was the abuse of oil given to "non-end users" (that is, not sold to refineries and petroleum companies). Documents found in Iraq's old ministry of oil reveal that hundreds of prominent individuals received vouchers to buy Iraqi oil at cut-rate prices and sell it on the open market -- at tremendous, often seven-figure, profits.
[i]Those named include not just Sevan but a vast array of Russian politicians, close friends of French President Jacques Chirac (including France's former minister of the interior), British Labour MP George Galloway, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter and, closer to home, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. [/i][/b][/SIZE]
In short, it's a who's who list of high-profile anti-war and anti-sanctions voices, all revealed to be shills for Saddam.
But by far the biggest recipient of Saddam's largesse was the UN. During the program's existence, more than $US1 billion was kept by the organisation as a fee for administering the program. As one senior UN diplomat recently told London's Daily Telegraph: "The UN was not doing this work just for the good of Iraq. Cash from Saddam's government was keeping the UN going for a few years."
Amazingly, though, it has taken an incredible amount of time for this story to get what little traction it has so far gained in the media. (Certainly the anti-war Left, which is happy to believe that George W. Bush toppled Saddam to kick a few contracts to Dick Cheney's old pals at Halliburton, has been deafeningly silent on the topic.)
Perhaps because of all the DIY international lawyering engaged in by the world press corps in the run-up to Iraq's invasion, many journalists are reluctant to admit that the UN they put so much faith in was many times more corrupt than they could imagine the Bush White House being.
Or maybe they just don't want to admit that so many of the anti-war voices they used to support their stories were bought and paid for with money belonging to the long-suffering, if little-mentioned, Iraqi people.
But the naive belief among journalists with little or no international law background that no military action is legitimate without the UN's seal of approval is one thing. The continued fetishistic belief of politicians and opinion-makers in the supposed good intentions of the UN is another -- and it is something that needs to end immediately.
Any outfit that can keep a straight face while electing Libya to chair its human rights commission, claim to stand for peace while virtually ignoring genocides in Rwanda and elsewhere, and routinely condemn the Middle East's only democracy for defending itself against suicide bombers has lost all moral legitimacy and needs to be wound down.
The world may need some sort of forum to help nations sort out their political disputes, just as there are bodies that help sort out, say, trade disputes; a community of democracies is one idea being kicked around in Washington and Geneva to counterbalance the UN, where the votes of dictatorships such as Cuba and Zimbabwe carry the same weight as democracies such as Australia and the US.
But this latest scandal proves that the UN, with all its structural flaws and moral failings that have led to the deaths of millions, can no longer claim the role of legitimate and neutral broker anymore. If, indeed, it ever could.
James Morrow is co-author of the Institute of Public Affairs backgrounder, Anti-American Biased Collective: Your ABC and the Iraq War