NEW YORK – After the epic disaster of Oil for Food, one might imagine the United Nations would tread carefully before launching any new and controversial efforts. Hardly.
Still reeling from scandals on many fronts, the U.N. has launched another questionable initiative, called the Alliance of Civilizations, which is due to hold its first meeting this weekend in Spain. The program has been widely touted by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a bridge across cultural and religious divides, but it involves a daisy-chain of dubious associations that casts serious doubt both on the project itself and on the U.N.’s ability to cut loose from the scandals of the past decade.
Originally proposed by Spain and Turkey, both of which have contributed funding, the Alliance was announced by Annan in July as a kind of one-year talking shop to ease tension between Islamic nations and the West. In a Sept. 2 letter soliciting money for the Alliance from member states, Annan described the program more generally as an initiative meant to bridge the divides “between different cultures and religions.”
But one lane of the bridge is a lot wider than the other: the panel of 18 “eminent persons” whom Annan named to the Alliance (a 19th, representing all of East Asia, has yet to be named) is weighted heavily on the side of Islamic states, including representatives of Egypt, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco, Pakistan and the former president of Iran, Mohamed Khatami. There are two representatives from the U.S., but none from Israel.
Nor is it exactly clear what the Alliance is intended to accomplish. According to a statement issued by Annan in July, the Alliance is supposed to “overcome prejudice, misconceptions, misperceptions, and polarization” and assemble by late next year an action plan meant “to promote effective responses to emerging threats to world peace.” But in the short term, the Alliance has so far been mainly busy hiring its own secretariat on an initial budget of $3.7 million, and preparing for the first meeting of its ‘High-level Group” this weekend in Majorca, Spain.
Beyond its hazy mandate and vague chain of command — both similar to some of the flaws in U.N. methods criticized by Paul Volcker’s investigation of the Oil-for-Food scandal — the most striking things about the Alliance are the close aides Annan has used to organize and supervise the venture.
Two names in particular stand out: Iqbal Riza, Annan’s former chief of staff from 1997 to 2004, and Giandomenico Picco, a longtime U.N. senior staffer who returned to the organization as a part-time personal envoy of the secretary-general and then as a special adviser, under a contract that does not expire until January 1. Riza was badly tarred in the Oil-for-Food scandal and its subsequent investigation; Picco has been involved in an equally high-profile conflict of interest arising from the multimillion-dollar scandal in the U.N. procurement department that is still under investigation.
Riza, a native of Pakistan, is currently the most important U.N. figure involved with the Alliance, aside from Annan himself. Since last spring, he has been deeply involved in creating the Alliance, as the main selector of personnel and chief go-between to the secretary-general’s office. Indeed, Annan’s office has announced that Riza will attend the first meeting of the "High-Level Group" in Annan's place because the secretary-general is unable to attend.
Riza’s close ties with Annan go back at least to the early 1990s, but were clearly underlined when he became the secretary-general’s chief of staff in 1997, a position in which he was deeply involved in the management of the now disgraced Oil-for-Food program. He abruptly left that job early this year after Volcker’s investigation revealed that on April 22, 2004, the day after the U.N. Security Council authorized an investigation into Oil-for-Food, Riza had approved the shredding of mountains of documents in his office pertaining to the early years of the program, from 1997 to 1999. The shredding took months. These were files that Volcker had specifically ordered the Secretariat to preserve as having “potential relevance” to the investigation.
The years covered by the shredded documents include the stretch in which Annan’s hand-picked chief of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, is alleged to have taken bribes from Saddam Hussein, as well as the period in 1998 in which the secretary-general’s son, Kojo, met with his father in South Africa, New York and Paris while working for a company that soon afterward won a lucrative oil-for-food inspections contract with the U.N. Riza claimed that the documents were merely copies of those already in the Volcker committee’s possession, but the committee found that argument “not persuasive.” In examining what remained of U.N. files after Riza’s shredding, Volcker’s investigation failed to find evidence implicating the secretary-general in the scandal, and his committee accepted Riza’s claim that the shredding was unintentional.
Word of Riza’s shredding leaked out last December, and Riza retired almost immediately afterward, early this year. But he did not actually leave the U.N. Annan retained him as a $1-per-year adviser, providing him with a corner office, with a river view, on the 10th floor of a U.N. office building just across the street from the main headquarters complex. In that new office, Riza was once again observed to be shredding large numbers of documents. By spring of this year, Annan was specifically employing Riza’s services as an adviser in setting up the Alliance of Civilizations — not long before the Volcker committee severely criticized both Annan and Riza for their lack of effort to bring to light or curtail the corrupt, multibillion-dollar fiasco of Oil for Food, which Volcker’s report says both men were aware of for years.
Giandomenico Picco’s connection with the Alliance is more nebulous, but also problematic. Earlier this year, Picco was involved in helping Riza set up the Alliance, but his ties date back to his key role in a closely related predecessor U.N. program, called the Dialogue Among Civilizations, initially centered around the year 2001 (a dialogue that evidently failed to avert Sept. 11) but which lingered on for years in the form of various U.N. conferences and panels. Picco’s role in the Dialogue finally dissolved into a new role in the Alliance this spring, which he then relinquished amid a welter of questions about his outside business connections and their relation to the U.N. procurement department.
The Dialogue Among Civilizations was first proposed in 1998 by the Islamic Republic of Iran and launched by Kofi Annan in 1999. Picco, the head of his own consulting company at the time, was tapped by Annan to work on a part-time basis as the secretary-general’s personal envoy responsible for the dialogue, a slot that gave him the U.N.’s third-highest rank of under-secretary general.
At the same time, though this was not publicly known, Picco was also serving as chairman of the board of a private company, IHC Services, which was a registered supplier with the U.N. procurement department. IHC’s dealings with the U.N. are now under investigation by both the U.N. and U.S. authorities looking into a U.N. bribery scandal in which one U.N. staffer, Alexander Yakovlev, was convicted in a Manhattan federal court this past August, and the head of the U.N. budget oversight committee, Vladimir Kuznetsov, was indicted in September. (Kuznetsov, who denies the charges, was recently let out on $500,000 bail, posted by the Russian government).
Picco stepped down as IHC’s chairman in 2000, and has not been linked to the bribery scandal.
But he appears not to have declared his potential conflict of interest to the U.N. at the time he was concurrently heading the Dialogue of Civilizations and chairing the IHC board, a spell from August 1999 until at least February 2000. During that time IHC signed or brokered millions of dollars worth of contracts with the U.N. Asked repeatedly since September whether the U.N. had any information about Picco’s IHC role, Annan’s office has repeatedly refused to clarify the matter. Picco himself denied to FOX News that his IHC chairmanship overlapped with his U.N. appointment, but IHC board meeting minutes showed otherwise.
As it happens, Picco is still on contract with the U.N. until January, as a special adviser to Annan. And last spring, according to both U.N. and Spanish sources, Annan brought in Picco to help advise Riza on setting up the Alliance. In a phone interview last month, the Spanish Ambassador to the U.N., Juan Antonio Yanez Barnuevo, confirmed that Picco “was the link between the first effort and the new one” -- meaning the link between the Dialogue and the Alliance. Picco’s active role in the Alliance appears to have quietly ended about the time FOX News broke open the U.N. procurement scandal with a report in June implicating IHC Services.
Last week Annan finally appointed an executive director for the Alliance, a historian based in Slovenia, named Tomaz Mastnak. But according to Alliance deputy director Shamil Idriss, Riza will continue to serve as the program’s liaison with the U.N. Secretary-General. If so, Riza will hold a position from which to shape a plan of action that will affect the world well beyond Annan’s own retirement at the end of next year. And that plan of action for “effective responses to emerging threats to world peace” will have been shaped and nurtured by two men who have been tainted by some of the worst scandals in U.N. history.
Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.