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Mr. Sevan, I Presume

Claudia Rosett
28th December 2005 - Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

At the United Nations, as a year of many scandals draws to a close, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been trying to stuff some big unanswered questions down the memory hole--with mixed results. No, I'm not talking only about the files Mr. Annan's former chief of staff shredded during the Oil for Food investigation, or the discounted duty-free Mercedes allegedly shipped to Ghana in late 1998 by the secretary-general's son, Kojo Annan, under false use of his father's name and diplomatic perquisites. Hanging over all this is another mystery that despite the magnitude of the question seems of strangely small concern to the secretary-general: What has become of the former head of the U.N. Oil for Food program, Benon Sevan?

In the matter of the shredded U.N. files, which Paul Volcker's probe into Oil for Food described as being of "potential relevance," Mr. Annan during his press conference last week unilaterally revised the Volcker findings to say the destruction of these files "did not impede the work of the commission, so do let that go." As for the matter of the missing Mercedes, Mr. Annan, in trying to squelch the question, actually did much to put it on the map--by way of insulting the inquiring reporter as an "overgrown schoolboy." That wayward Mercedes has now become a handy emblem of even bigger questions still swirling around the U.N.

Which brings us to Mr. Sevan, the longtime U.N. staffer to whom the secretary-general entrusted from 1997 through 2003 the running of Oil for Food. That blew up into the biggest scandal in U.N. history--involving billions in graft and smuggling, a global network of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, payoffs by Saddam meant to bribe members of the U.N.'s own Security Council, and assorted instances of alleged bribes to U.N. officials. One of those officials, allegedly, was Mr. Sevan himself, who while running Oil for Food took some $147,000 in payoffs from Saddam's regime, according to the Volcker committee. Mr. Sevan, through his Washington lawyer, has denied these allegations.

Mr. Sevan has not been called to account under any regime of law. Having been retained in New York by Mr. Annan after Oil for Food ended as a $1-a-year "special adviser" to assist in the inquiry into the program, Mr. Sevan skipped town in mid-2005, shortly before Mr. Volcker weighed in with his allegations on Aug. 8 of this year. Since then the U.N. has said that Mr. Sevan, despite the allegations against him, is entitled to collect his U.N. pension--which a spokesman for Mr. Annan confirmed to me again this week is "untouchable." The U.N. will not give out any information on Mr. Sevan's current location. At last week's press conference, when Mr. Annan was asked in passing about Mr. Sevan, he did not even address the question. Anyone inquiring further has had to make do with hearsay that Mr. Sevan has returned to his native Cyprus, which does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

But to such sketchy accounts, investigators for Rep. Henry Hyde's International Relations Committee are now prepared to add some illuminating details--starting with their encounter with Mr. Sevan himself, less than three months ago, in Cyprus. As it happens, they were not expecting to find Mr. Sevan in person. They went to Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, trying to track down details of the case, including the fate of Mr. Sevan's deceased aunt, Bertouji Zeytountsian. By Mr. Sevan's account to Mr. Volcker, this aunt, while living in Nicosia as a retired government worker on a pension, had sent him funds totaling some $160,000 during the last four years in which he was running Oil for Food, 1999-2003. The day after the U.N. investigation into Oil for Food was announced, in March, 2004, Zeytountsian fell down an elevator shaft in her Cyprus apartment building. A few months later, she died.

Mr. Hyde's investigators decided while in Nicosia to have a look at the elevator shaft. On Oct. 14, a Cypriot police official showed them the way to the building. There, printed plainly on a mailbox at the entrance to the apartment block, was the name not of Mr. Sevan's aunt, but of Benon Sevan himself. After shooting the picture shown nearby, the investigators went up to the eighth-floor apartment where the aunt had lived. They knocked, and the door opened.

There stood Benon Sevan. As one of the investigators describes it, Mr. Sevan came to the door "In shorts, no shirt, and sandals, smoking a cigar." Apparently everyone was surprised to come thus face-to-face. Mr. Sevan was polite but did not invite them in. They chatted across the threshold. He told the congressional investigators to address all questions to his lawyers, saying, "My conscience is clear."

The investigators turned to go, and, as one of them recounts, as they headed for the stairs, Mr. Sevan told them, "You can take the elevator. It's fixed now."

The U.N., however, remains broken. This account of Mr. Sevan living in plain sight in Cyprus, as recently as October, raises even more questions than those Mr. Annan tried to duck at last week's press conference. Why has Mr. Annan, who waxed so indignant over a simple question last week from a reporter, remained so serene about the alleged deeds of Mr. Sevan, which touch massively on U.N. integrity, or lack of it, at the core? One of the virtues of the U.N. is supposed to be that it is an institution with global access, run by a secretary-general whose phone calls will be answered by national authorities world-wide. And while the secretary-general himself has no powers of law enforcement, he commands at least some attention--if he wants to--from those who do.

Does he want to? The same Kofi Annan who had no qualms about pronouncing "illegal" the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's corrupt and murderous regime has met Mr. Volcker's findings about Benon Sevan with such bland responses as his statement last week: "We have all looked at the report and drawn the right lessons from it, and we are trying to take steps to correct the situation."

There are provisions quite likely available for taking real steps to correct the Cyprus aspect of the situation. But someone has to act, and that someone may well be Mr. Annan himself.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office opened an investigation into Mr. Sevan earlier this spring, and confirmed to me Tuesday that the investigation is continuing, but the New York prosecutor has no jurisdiction in Cyprus and cannot in any event bring charges against Mr. Sevan unless Mr. Annan lifts his diplomatic immunity--which it seems Mr. Annan has not done. A spokeswoman for the Cypriot mission to the U.N. says that "the issue" of Mr. Sevan is "on the desk of the attorney general in Cyprus, who is studying the case."

Mr. Volcker's committee, which is maintaining an office until at least March 31, 2006, to assist authorities inquiring into Oil for Food-related issues, did not reply to queries Tuesday about whether Cyprus has sought any information or cooperation. And Interpol, which might have the ability to help pursue the case across borders, cannot act except upon request of an existing investigation--either by national or possibly even U.N. authorities. One precedent might be Interpol's recent cooperation with the U.N. investigation led by Detlev Mehlis into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. But when I phoned Interpol's offices in France on Tuesday to ask whether the U.N. or any other authorities, including the Cypriot attorney general, had asked for help in the case of Mr. Sevan, Interpol referred the question back to that black hole known as the U.N.

That leaves Henry Hyde's investigators, one of whom tells me the attorney general of Cyprus, Petros Clerides, assured them during a meeting in Nicosia, in October, just before they came face-to-face with Mr. Sevan, that if given the evidence, Cyprus "would prosecute." But since then, says this investigator, Cypriot authorities have been "uncooperative." It seems that Mr. Volcker's committee will deliver the evidence only if asked, and there is no sign yet that Cyprus is asking. Mr. Hyde's investigators say they are "going to follow up" and "will be in touch with the Cypriot ambassador."

Perhaps when Mr. Annan gets done tracking down that missing Mercedes, he could lend them a hand.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.

 

Tags

oil-for-food, united-nations