NEW YORK – United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has just tabled ostensibly radical proposals for reform, at a proposed cost of more than $510 million, saying he aims to bring efficiency, high ethical standards and above all, transparency to his scandal-tarnished organization.
One part of the plan calls for clearing out deadwood in the U.N. Secretariat with buyouts costing about $100,000 per person — part of a process that Annan calls "investing in change."
Whether Annan's proposals will be adopted by the U.N. General Assembly is far from certain. But the secretary general might be able to make a more inspiring case for change if he started by casting more daylight on the workings and personnel of one of his own pet projects: the Alliance for Civilizations — a new U.N. initiative with a nebulous mandate that is now providing berths for an assortment of Annan's old U.N. associates, including his disgraced former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza.
What is the Alliance?
On the surface, it is simply a rarefied U.N. talking shop, which pays an elite panel of globe-trotting members to meet in comfortable locations around the world and deliver opinions on world peace, especially on frictions between the Islamic world and the West. Launched with relatively little fanfare last fall, the Alliance held its first meeting in November, in the Mediterranean resort of Majorca, Spain, with Riza present to deliver an opening message on Annan's behalf. Its first widely publicized session, however, took place in February when Annan himself — citing a need to "create dialogue" — sped to a meeting of the Alliance in Doha, Qatar, to talk about the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have been answered by riots among militant Muslims around the world. (Annan had previously issued his views on the cartoon furor during a Middle-East stopover to collect a $500,000 personal prize from the ruler of Dubai.) The resulting statement made no distinction between embassy-burning militants and media cartoonists — calling for restraint from all alike, and promising "concrete suggestions" to come.
Tasked by Annan to convene a series of meetings worldwide, the Alliance fields a staff of about 10, with its own director, working out of a U.N. office in New York. This office supports the part-time intellectual labors of a panel of 20 un-elected "eminent persons," all appointed by the secretary general. Annan has asked the group to come up by late 2006 — just before he is due to retire — with a "plan of practical action" to "bridge divides," again, apparently, as they exist between Islamic countries and the West.
As it happens, however, the U.N.-appointed Alliance is much less grand than its rhetoric would lead outsiders to believe — and much less representative of any international consensus. It is a venture initially generated not by the 191 member states of the U.N. General Assembly, but by just two states, Spain and Turkey, with a handful of other nations — Belgium, Luxembourg, Qatar and Syria — contributing to its $3.7 million in special funding.
The high-profile personnel involved are equally unrepresentative. In choosing the 20 eminences of the Alliance, Annan leaned heavily toward Islamic dignitaries and U.N. has-beens. On the Islamic side, these include a former president of Iran, Mohamed Khatami, and the president of the Alexandria Library, Ismail Serageldin (whose library in 2003 as part of its rotating collection displayed the slanderous anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"). Among the U.N. types are a former president of the Inter-American Development Bank, a former head of UNESCO, and a former head of the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, now an adviser to Annan.
Most interesting, perhaps, is the man Annan has chosen as his personal conduit to the Alliance. This person designated as a "special adviser" to Annan — with the U.N.'s third-highest rank of undersecretary general — is his own former chief of staff, erstwhile retiree Riza.
This is not auspicious. Riza, a Pakistani who served as Annan's chief-of-staff from 1997-2004 and also worked closely with Annan when he served as head of U.N. peacekeeping during the disaster of Rwanda, has been complicit with the secretary general in some of the U.N.'s worst debacles. In the multibillion-dollar Oil-for-Food scandal, Riza was featured as the shredder-in-chief whose office destroyed three year's worth of Annan's executive-suite documents, which Paul Volcker's inquiry had ordered preserved because they were of "potential relevance" to the investigation.
But that may be the least of it.
During the Oil-for-Food program itself, as Volcker reported in September, 2005, "Mr. Riza played a greater role than he was willing to state." According to Volcker, Riza dealt heavily with the graft-riddled program, meeting with Iraqi officials, and routinely handling important Oil-for-Food documents, some pertaining to corruption in the program. During at least the last two years of Oil-for-Food's seven years in operation, Volcker concluded, Riza — along with Annan and the now departing deputy secretary-general, Louise Frechette — was aware of both the smuggling and kickback schemes of Saddam, but withheld information from the U.N. Security Council.
And in 2003, both Annan and Riza were present at a meeting in which the head of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, suggested — falsely — to the post-Saddam Iraqi Governing Council that the U.N. had only recently learned of Saddam's 10 percent Oil-for-Food kickback scheme. This falsehood, reports Volcker, "went uncorrected" by Annan and Riza, both of whom had known about the graft for at least two years, or so Volcker concluded from "clear reports" conveyed to their offices on the U.N.'s executive 38th floor.
Riza, along with Annan, was also at the epicenter of the U.N.'s failure in 1994 to stop the Rwandan genocide in which more than 800,000 people were murdered. Annan was then the head of U.N. peacekeeping, and Riza was his deputy. Warned of the impending slaughter by the U.N. peacekeepers on the ground, they told the same U.N. peacekeepers in Rwanda not to raid the weapons caches of the Hutu killers who were preparing for slaughter. When the killings then took place, Annan and Riza failed to raise the alarm. Asked in a 1999 PBS interview about these horrors, Riza took the heat, saying he had sent the initial non-intervention order under his own signature before briefing his boss, Annan. Asked whether the U.N. Secretariat had withheld important information about this from the Security Council, Riza replied: "Possibly we did not give all the details."
That same pattern of omitted details has been a hallmark of the current Alliance of Civilizations, which was shaped quietly last spring by Riza and another of Annan's special advisers, Giandomenico Picco, who has also been embroiled recently in controversy. A star U.N. diplomat of the 1980s and one of the U.N. negotiators during the early attempts to set up the scandal-riven Oil-for-Food program, Picco left the U.N. in 1992 and went into private business, setting up his own consulting firm, New York-based GDP Associates. Picco was brought back to the U.N. by Annan in 1999 as an undersecretary general to set up and lead the precursor of the Alliance of Civilizations, a U.N. venture called the Dialogue of Civilizations, which had been proposed in 1998 by Iran.
When he began work for Annan on the Dialogue in 1999, Picco apparently neglected to disclose a potentially large conflict of interest: He was also serving as chairman of the board of a private company called IHC Services, which at the time was doing millions in business with the U.N. Procurement Division — the purchasing department that spends about 85 percent of the U.N.'s core budget, plus billions more on peacekeeping. Picco appears to have resigned his IHC post in early 2000. But his role at IHC, with its potential conflict of interest, was never disclosed by the U.N. It came to light only last year, by way of a FOX News investigation that exposed IHC's close ties to a U.N. procurement officer, Alexander Yakovlev, who has since pleaded guilty in federal court to taking hundreds of thousands worth of bribes on at least scores of millions worth of U.N. contracts.
As for the Dialogue project, it served in 2001 as a vehicle for Picco's high-level U.N.-credentialed meetings around the globe, and about the time of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., clocked in with a banal report — which now resides, largely forgotten, in the U.N. library.
Annan continued to retain Picco as a part-time special adviser until early this year, and last spring Picco helped Riza convert the remnants of the Dialogue into the current Alliance. Around the time FOX News broke the U.N. procurement scandal in a story last June mentioning IHC, Picco's direct involvement with the Alliance quietly faded away.
But some interesting ties remain. Among the 20 eminent persons named by Annan to the Alliance is one with close business ties to Picco: former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. As recently as last fall, when the Alliance was being launched, Picco's consulting firm, GDP Associates, listed Alatas as one of the associates (although Alatas' biography, as provided by the U.N. Alliance, does not mention this connection). Since then, the GDP Web site has vanished from public view. GDP did not return a call from FOX News asking whether Alatas is still one of Picco's consulting associates.
Meanwhile, Riza, according to Annan's office, is working not for a U.N. salary, but at the special rate of $1-per-year. (He already has his full U.N. pension.) If that sounds like a good deal for a U.N. where the secretary general is now trying to invest in change, possibly we have not yet heard all the details. For while Riza is virtually unpaid in his latest responsibilities, what he is actually doing on Annan's behalf remains deeply in the shadows.
Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. George Russell is Executive Editor of FOX News.