Mark Lennihan  /  AP file
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker,
updated 4/16/2004 6:18:48 PM ET 2004-04-16T22:18:48

Russia said Friday it strongly opposes a U.N. resolution endorsing an investigation of the U.N. oil-for-food program which diplomats say former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker is insisting on before agreeing to chair the inquiry.

Russia’s Deputy Ambassador Gennady Gatilov said a letter from the Security Council to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on March 31 pledging cooperation with the inquiry into allegations of corruption and urging all countries to do likewise was sufficient for the panel to start work.

“We don’t mind for the secretary-general to appoint the commission, but we don’t see the need to support his decision in the form of a resolution,” Gatilov told The Associated Press.

Russian companies will undoubtedly come under scrutiny in any oil-for-food investigation because they were major buyers of Iraqi oil and major suppliers of humanitarian goods to the program. It 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.

Gatilov said Russia doesn’t want “to look backwards into the history, and to stir up the old issue of the humanitarian program, which is closed.” He also said creating the panel isn’t “strictly speaking the issue of the Security Council” because it doesn’t relate to maintaining international peace and security.

‘Resolution would be extremely helpful’
Under the oil-for-food program, which began in December 1996 and ended in November, Saddam Hussein’s government decided on the goods it wanted, who should provide them and who could buy Iraqi oil — but a U.N. committee monitored the contracts.

The United Nations confirmed Friday that Volcker and two others were prepared to serve on the panel but indicated “that a Security Council resolution would be extremely helpful for the work of the inquiry.”

Diplomats said it was Volcker who was insisting on the resolution — not the two other prospective panelists — apparently because the investigation will include the U.N. Secretariat, which the secretary-general heads, as well as dealings with governments and companies.

Volcker’s office said he had no comment on the panel.

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 that were part of the U.N. program.

Annan launched an internal inquiry into the allegations in February but canceled it in March to allow a broader, independent examination that will also cover dealings with governments as well as companies and other entities that signed contracts with the United Nations or with Iraq.

Skepticism over U.N. probe
Many U.S. lawmakers, who are conducting their own investigation, have expressed skepticism about the U.N.’s ability to create an independent panel that could implicate some of its own high-ranking officials. So U.S. diplomats pressed for an American to lead the panel, and backed Volcker, who has a reputation for integrity and fairness.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador James Cunningham said the United States supports Annan’s initiative.

“We want the investigation to start soon and to be effective, and if it’s useful to have the council support that, then we think it would be a good thing to do,” he said. “Even a resolution that codified ... the council’s concern about the allegations, the council’s interest in seeing that they be adequately addressed, and the council’s support for the panel could be useful for the panel in its operations.”

Gatilov said he expects the president of the Security Council, Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Gunter Pleuger, to inform Annan of Russia’s opposition. He said there is no draft resolution yet and refused to say whether Russia would use its veto.

Pleuger refused to discuss his next steps.

U.N. associate spokeswoman Marie Okabe confirmed Friday that Annan had chosen a three-member panel: Volcker, former Yugoslav war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone of South Africa and Swiss criminal law professor Mark Pieth, who is an expert in money laundering for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

At a meeting Thursday, she said, Annan told council president Pleuger and ambassadors from the five permanent council nations — the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — that the prospective panelists indicated a resolution “would be extremely helpful for them to carry out this inquiry.”

But Okabe said “the panel will not be formally announced before the Security Council members reach a decision” on a resolution.

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