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Opinion: The Moral of the Oil-for-Food Tale

The UN oil-for-food program was born out of humanitarian good intention, but in the past months, there have been multiple accusations about the corruption practices which it spawned.

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The sanctions crippled the flow of food to the Iraqi people

It could be a lesson for future attempts to impose sanctions on a rich nation, on Iran for example, should it not back down on its nuclear program. It is immensely difficult to slap trade restrictions on such countries, and with the petrodollar threatening to seduce those whose governments led the calls for sanctions in the first place, it is even more difficult to make sure the restrictions are adhered to.

In the case of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, some 2,000 international companies succumbed to the temptation to make a virtue out of adversity -- or, moreover, to make a lucrative profit, for themselves and the dictator in Baghdad, from the sanction-induced destitution. Following the Kuwait war, the United Nations decided that food, medication and other essential goods should be paid for out of the limited Iraqi oil exports.

A 600-page investigative report into the oil-for-food program reveals how it developed into a miraculous money-making machine. Saddam Hussein systematically demanded kickbacks for almost every import, lining his pocket with billions, with which he was able to support the western opponents to sanctions, the so-called peace activists. By the same token, some of the world's most renowned companies and their representatives reaped great rewards from the system.

Germa n y got several me n tio n s

Even UN employees were not blind to what was going on. The German Hans von Sponek, who oversaw the oil-for-food program in Baghdad, became one of the most prolific opponents of the regime of sanctions. The report certified that the former United Nations employee had "not violated UN regulations," but added that those same regulations should be reviewed. Since leaving the UN, von Sponek has worked for at least two companies involved in "Iraq business" during his time in Baghdad.

But let's get back to the kick-backs and bribes. Some of Germany's most important companies also get a mention in the report. Some have declined to comment, whilst others are trying to play down their role in the corruption scandal or say that even prosecutors have not been interested so far (that's no longer the case as state prosecutors in Stuttgart are mulling an official probe).

There have been some suggestions that operating a system of bribery and corruption when dealing with less democratic countries to out-smart competitors, was in fact, all in a day's work. And perhaps there is something in that, as for a long time, it was even possible to set such expenditure off against tax.

Given that backdrop, how should anyone suddenly develop a sense of moral value? Business is business and morals are something for others to worry about. Political leaders themselves show signs of this all too frequently. Why then, should those who are on the front line when it comes to earning money, be struck by pangs of conscience?

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