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Ole Peter Kolby (AP/Photo by Osamu Honda, file)

Peace, peace

UN | The Nobel, Norway, and Saddam: There's little evidence that anything has been learned from past mistakes

On Jan. 4, 2001, Ole Peter Kolby was appointed head of the UN sanctions committee for Iraq. Kolby's boss in Oslo, Norwary, at that time was Thorbjorn Jagland, the currently lionized chairman of the Nobel Committee that last week awarded its 2009 Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. Jagland, a former prime minister and, like Kolby, member of Norway's Labor Party, served as the country's foreign minister during the time Kolby was its ambassador to the UN.

By the time Kolby became head of the sanctions committee, which was established by the UN Security Council after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, so-called sanctions had turned into a $15 billion a year venture-five times the value of the UN's core budget-with the creation of the Oil for Food program. The way it worked: The sanctions committee authorized the sale of Iraqi oil and approved the list of "humanitarian" commodities, including food and medicine, which Iraq could purchase with the proceeds. The UN collected a 2.2 percent commission on every barrel of oil sold, in this way bringing in for the world body more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

With the benefit of hindsight we now know that what was conceived (by the Clinton administration) as a way to provide for the Iraqi people while at the same time restricting funds available to the Iraqi dictator was in fact a vast web of corruption and criminal abuse. Somewhere between $10 billion and $21 billion went not to humanitarian purchases but to Saddam Hussein and his government in the form of kickbacks and oil smuggling fees involving thousands of companies, individuals, and government officials around the world-all with UN acquiescence and a nod from the sanctions committee. The Saddam Hussein regime undersold its oil and overpaid on imports, then extracted illicit surcharges from contractors at both ends.

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Lengthy investigations-ordered in the United States by Congress and the Government Accountability Office, in France by its judiciary, in Iraq by the Governing Council, and others along with the UN's own independent inquiry-all led to condemnation of the program and a criminal indictment for its head, UN careerist Benon Sevan. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his son Kojo narrowly avoided criminal charges for their involvement in the scheme. But Kolby and other ambassadors, cloaked in diplomatic immunity, went uninvestigated and unpunished.

Kolby did not, however, escape criticism. His tenure over the sanctions committee encompassed the period when both complaints and corruption reached their apex. In 2006 a report by the Swedish foreign ministry charged that the Norwegian delegation led by Kolby "was well aware" in 2001 that Iraq was diverting billions in violation of the Oil for Food program "but was in doubt about taking up the issue in the committee." Swedish UN diplomat Gunnar Blom accused Kolby of refusing to blow the whistle for fear of being blacklisted by "Iraq-friendly countries."

Others went unheeded, too, including major oil companies that said they filed complaints with the sanctions committee in late 2000 over Saddam's illegal fees.

Kolby responded, "It was Iraq who decided who should get the contract, it wasn't the UN or the sanctions committee. Iraq wanted to place the contracts with those countries that were the friendliest towards Iraq."

It is not too large a leap from that kind of apologia to the rubric used by the Nobel Committee, made up of four politicians all serving five-year terms under Jagland (overall three from the left, two from the center-right). Kolby and his cohorts for years looked the other way as Saddam Hussein depleted the Iraqi populace while building up his own political and military machine. In like fashion, notes Stratfor president George Friedman, "The Norwegian politicians gave their prize to Obama because they believed that he would leave Europeans in their comfortable prosperity without making unreasonable demands. That is their definition of peace, and Obama seemed to promise that."

Anyone listening to the Sept. 29 speech to the UN General Assembly by Norway's current foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, could see the Nobel writing on the wall: "These weeks we are witnessing a resurrection of the authority of this Assembly and a new belief and commitment that multilateral cooperation can and must be made to work. The new tone of voice we have heard from the United States here in New York is setting forceful persuasion above persuasive force and extending a hand to those who are willing to unclench a fist."

According to Friedman, "The Norwegians awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the president of their dreams, not the president who is dealing with Iran and Afghanistan." But the president who is currently dealing with Iran and Afghanistan (and Iraq) is also poised to turn large sectors of a future bought by U.S. military blood to UN-affiliated management.

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