15 June 2005

It looked like an orchestrated hit. The same version was repeated through the usual accommodators with almost no variation. The thrust of it was to show that Secretary General Kofi Annan was taking firm action by firing Joseph Stephanedes, who was made to look like a major culprit in the Food-for-Oil mismanagement crisis. For added impact, there was a mysterious reference to 40 staff members fired by Mr. Annan since taking over. No indication was given as to who they were and when they were fired. They do not seem to include the resilient Ali Baba nor the Omega man in Geneva who was recently extended. Certainly none of those with Under-Secretary General rank, not even those specifically mentioned in the watered-down Volcker report was seriously shaken. Former Chef de Cabinet Iqbal Riza, who shredded documents for months even after all other staff had received a memo instructed not to do so, received a letter of glowing praise. Ironically, he must deserve much recognition from Mr. Annan for his initiatives in handling correspondence (like before the Rwanda massacre), aerial maps and, last but not least, shredded documents. Riza will never be touched as he will no doubt continue his advisory services (with impunity and immunity) now that he is entrusted with the delicate task of promoting dialogue among cultures. Even Benon Sevan, who was set up for a public barbeque, managed to survive with so many of his former colleagues wishing him the best in what he decides. His contract was just renewed. A media outburst about his legal fees died down after his lawyer reminded Mark Malloch-Brown that it was he in a previous capacity who had proposed that the U.N. should pay them. Why did the former UNDP Chief and current Chef de Cabinet initially volunteer to mediate is a matter of speculation. What is certain is that Mr. Sevan, an experienced survivor, knows where most of the bodies are buried and, despite persistent media roasting, has not spilled the beans -- yet.

Back to Joseph Stephanedes. A veteran Security Council staffer close to retirement was taken to task for steering an Inspection Contract to British firm Lloyd's Register rather than a French underbidder. He was not suspected of receiving any financial reward. The report stated that there was "no evidence that any person authorized" him to solicit a revised bid. ("No evidence" seems to be a favoured Volcker term!)

It is up to the person directly affected to respond in his own way. Meanwhile, it is assumed that someone in daily contact with Security Council members, the Secretary General, and the Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs was not likely to rush to the U.K. mission on his own steam. Anyone following closely the sensitive maneuvering over Iraq may consider that as French Bank BNP had received the major depositary for the Food-For-Oil Program, granting the Inspection to another French firm will create a political imbalance, if not an outcry by other Security Council members.

Now that the career reputation of a long-serving and normally dependable Stephanedes has been publicly questioned by the Secretary General, it is up to him to contest or accept the decision. In any case, \ he will have to demonstrate convincingly the extent to which he consulted, for example, U.S. Ambassador at the time Dr. Madeleine Albright. It would also help if he kept a copy of the memo to the officer-in-charge of Procurement and Transportation Division about approaching Lloyds. Did that memo include the signed approval of his boss, the Under-Secretary General? And could a decision with such magnitude on such a volatile political issue have been taken without the approval of the most senior officials, whether tacitly or on record? The Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative at the time, Ambassador Ed Gneihm backed the Stephanedes version. He said he had told the Volcker team who had interviewed him that the U.N. official acted in line with the position of the Iraq Steering Group and that Security Council members would not have tolerated another contract to go to one more French firm; but that statement was not reflected in the Volcker report. Why not? When asked in a television interview, the ambassador diplomatically did not wish to speculate. But he made the point clearly: Stephanedes had been appropriately authorized.

A general reaction among current and former staff, particularly those familiar with the personalities and the case, was astonishment at single out Stephanedes. Not because his case is still questionable, but because there were other more glaring missed targets. An indicative comment was that the Greek Cypriot was sacrificed because 1) he has little political backing, 2) because deals may been fixed elsewhere, or 3) because he doesn't know where the other bodies were buried. Pick the right answer.