UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) said Friday an independent panel will have complete access to U.N. officials "regardless of their seniority" as it probes allegations of corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program (search).
Annan announced plans last week for for the independent commission and an investigation that will go beyond a current internal U.N. probe into the program which ended in November after almost seven years.
The U.N. chief did not provide any other details then. But Friday he outlined the mandate, saying the panel — whose members will be named later — is directed to comb through any United Nations documents and records it wants, and interview whatever U.N. officials it believes necessary.
The details of the investigation were contained in a letter Annan wrote to the Security Council (search) president, French Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sabliere.
Annan's letter says the panel will investigate companies that contracted with the United Nations in the oil-for-food program, but its authority with them will be far less.
The allegations of corruption first surfaced last January in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada. The newspaper had a list of about 270 former government officials, activists and journalists from more than 46 countries suspected of profiting from Iraqi oil sales.
Among the names on the list is Benon Sevan (search), the U.N. official who was executive director of the program. He has denied wrongdoing. The claims have been a major embarrassment for the United Nations, and Annan wants to take swift action and clear the world body of blame.
U.S. congressional investigators have also looked into the program, charging earlier this month that Saddam Hussein's government smuggled oil, added surcharges and collected kickbacks to rake in $10.1 billion in violation of the oil-for-food program. The Iraqi Governing Council is launching its own investigation as well.
The panel's main work will be investigating the claims of United Nations wrongdoing. It will try to determine if the oil-for-food program — and the monitoring of it — were violated, and who might have been guilty. It will also try to determine if the oil-for-food accounts were maintained by proper U.N. rules.
The oil-for-food program, which was established in December 1996 and ended in November, allowed the former Iraqi regime to sell unlimited quantities of oil, provided the money went primarily to buy humanitarian goods and pay reparations to victims of the 1991 Gulf War.
The panel will have three months to submit a report to Annan on its status and must complete its work "as soon as practicable." Its final report will also be made available to the public, the letter said.
Annan's letter says the panel will have a so-called whistle-blower clause to protect officials who meet with the commission from "improper repercussions resulting from their cooperation with the inquiry."
The panel will also try to investigate firms that worked with the United Nations, a point that was a key concern for Security Council members reluctant to give it too much power.
Annan says only that the panel will "be authorized to approach and seek the cooperation of member States and their relevant authorities" — well short of requiring that they turn over potential evidence.
"It's not within his competence or his authority to initiate an investigation of the actions of governments or private companies," Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard said Thursday. "So, in putting together this panel, he's looking for a nod from the council."
The final version came after Annan had presented an early draft and met with the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council about the idea.
A U.N. diplomat said on condition of anonymity Friday that all members of the council were supportive during the Thursday meeting. The diplomat said Russia — home to several companies implicated in the claims — still had questions about its scope, and Moscow wanted to make sure cooperation among member states would be voluntary.
Changes to a draft presented Thursday included how the panel will be paid for. The panel was originally to be budgeted out of an escrow account from the oil-for-food program, which several delegations opposed, the U.N. diplomat said.
"Nobody wanted to see Iraqi money being used to fund an investigation into how Iraqi money was spent," the diplomat said.