By Ian Williams***
In ancient times, the Danes raided England every few years, looting and pillaging. And the King had the bright idea to pay them not to. He levied a tax called the Danegeld to pay them to go away. The Danes thought it was a bright idea too. They came back every year for more. As Rudyard Kipling said:
“But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.”
In the face of the wildly exaggerated, scurrilous, inaccurate and politically motivated furor over the Oil for Food programme, from the beginning the UN has appeased the attackers, and conceded ground to them when a vigorous counter-attack was in order.
When the UN summarily dismissed Joseph Stephanides last week, even some of the press who had been in the van of the witch-hunt could see that this was a fall guy dangling in the wind in front of them.
Stephanides was accused of securing the contract to inspect cargoes going into Iraq for Lloyd’s Register and breaking the rules to do so. He was not accused of taking money himself, nor of costing the organization any money, and it was confirmed that he thought he was acting in the best interests of the organization. Even if he had broken the rules, as determined by an American Volcker committee investigator whose ethical standards encompassed waltzing off to Congress with box loads of purloined UN documents, there is no justification whatsoever for firing him.
But in fact, he has documentation that makes it clear that he was following the decision of the ranking UN committee, the Iraq Steering Group, and that he was doing his job as the official liaison between them and the Sanctions Committee of the Security Council. Between them they had taken a sensible political decision: the lowest bidder was a French company, BureauVeritas. But France already had two other crucial contracts, and also the company proposed to use inspectors from the region and in effect just to sample inspections rather than examine each cargo, both of which were precluded by the invitation to bid.
It is worth remembering that a lot of the paper work and anxiety at the time had been generated by yet another American coup de personnel. It was almost deja vue all over again. In 1993 also the UN was strafed by a press barrage of, as the mantra of the time had it “UN mismanagement and corruption,” and Boutros Ghali was under attack. So when Madeleine Albright claimed she had evidence that eight UN procurement staff were being bribed to give air transport contracts to a Canadian company instead of to a CIA linked American company, Boutros Ghali suspended them all.
Of course there was no evidence whatsoever. It took some years, but all the staff involved were reinstated, and paid compensation, so yet another politically motivated American attempt to clear up “mismanagement and corruption” ended up costing millions.
However, at least one of those initially fingered was in a crucial position in the Oil For Food contract process. Determined not to be fingered again, he insisted on documentation for any attempt to award the contract to the next lowest bidder.
That paper trail really shows how unfair the dismissal of Stephanides is. Far from asking Lloyds to submit a lower bill to win the tender as the Volcker Report suggested, the relevant committees had already decided that the company would get the contract. Stephanides saved the UN, and the Oil For Food programme $900,000 because he used the leverage of the lowest bid to chisel down Lloyds.
He has citations from German, American French and British diplomats substantiating his story. And he was fired.
A lifetime UN Civil Servant, Stephanides is deeply concerned at the damage to his reputation. He only has a few months to retirement, and so he loses only his repatriation grant and five per cent of his pension, but after a career of glowing reports he has been made a scapegoat.
He points out that neither he, nor his lawyers, which he had to pay for himself, were allowed to cross examine confidential witnesses. He has not been in front of any juridical tribunal where he could present his case. He is confident that he will be vindicated by the UN Tribunal, as indeed are many senior UN officials – but the backlog is several years. His hope is for a Joint Disciplinary Committee to hear his case quickly so that he can retire with his reputation intact.
It is ironic, that if that is refused, then far from being appeased, those who have manufactured the scandal will almost certainly shout that it is a cover up and that he is a scapegoat being cast into the wilderness to carry off the sins of those higher up. The lesson that the UN needs to learn is that as far as American Conservatives are concerned, whatever it does is always wrong.
Sacking Stephanides is wrong in principle and in tactics. They will be back for more.
*** Ian Williams is The MaximsNews Global Pundit. He is also a journalist, U.N. Correspondent for The Nation and the past president of the United Nations Correspondents Association.