Fri February 11, 2005 7:04 PM GMT+05:30
By Evelyn Leopold
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Veteran U.N. official Benon Sevan, embroiled in the Iraq oil-for-food-scandal, is a larger-than-life figure who calls himself the most “politically incorrect person in the U.N.”
Sevan, a Cypriot of Armenian descent, was chosen to direct the $67 billion program after a distinguished 40-year career with the world body in which he was involved in some of the most intractable, and often dangerous, world crises.
Sevan, 67, a big man with white hair and dark eyebrows, is admired by colleagues for an ability to solve problems fast, his blunt retorts and a store of anecdotes for all occasions, told in rapid-fire heavily accented English.
“He has a heart as big as a cathedral” said one veteran U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
All that made the sharp criticism against him this month by a U.N.-appointed independent committee all the more painful for the U.N. employees who knew him in the many jobs he held.
Sevan is accused by an investigation headed by Paul Volcker, the former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, of steering an oil contract to a small Panama-registered trading firm in what the report called “a grave and continuing conflict of interest.”
The inquiry, still investigating how Saddam Hussein subverted the U.N. program, is also probing whether Sevan benefited personally from the trade, which netted the firm involved $1.5 million.
Sevan, who had retired but is on a $1 year contract while the inquiry continues, denies the allegations, saying he never “took a penny” and was made a scapegoat in the anti-U.N. political climate in Washington.
“I think I’m not the only who was shocked by what we read in the report,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. “He has been here working with many of us for quite a time and we had not expected anything of the sort.”
Raised by an aunt in Cyprus, Sevan, who is married and has one daughter, studied ancient Greek philosophy at New York’s Columbia University before joining the United Nations in 1965.
In his long U.N. career he served in Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia and Lebanon and in myriad jobs at U.N. headquarters in New York, including security coordinator and Security Council administrator.
In Iraq, he narrowly survived the bombing of U.N. headquarters in August 2003, leaving the office of Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, the mission chief, to smoke a cigar minutes before the blast, which killed 22 people.
It was left to Sevan to recite Vieira de Mello’s dying words — “Don’t pull the mission out” — as his body was carried aboard a Brazilian presidential plane at Baghdad airport for his last journey home.
Sevan’s 1988-92 term in Afghanistan included the pullout of Russian troops in 1989. He persuaded Najibullah, president of the Soviet-backed government, to step down in exchange for safe exit out of the country.
But Sevan was turned back by soldiers when he tried to take the former president to the airport. Najibullah sought refuge in the U.N. compound for four years until the Taliban broke in and hanged him from a lamppost.
Sevan was named by Annan in October 1997 to run the oil-for-food program under which Iraq, squeezed by international sanctions imposed for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, was allowed to sell oil to buy goods for its people.
“He was considered tough and unsentimental and knew the political game,” said one envoy. Key Security Council members, like the United States, went along with the appointment.
“People took it as a given he would do his duty,” said Samir Sanbar, a retired U.N. assistant secretary-general.
But Sanbar said the scandal was a great disappointment for those who had devoted their lives to the world body. “The only thing the U.N. has is its credibility. What else do we have?”