Oil-for-food scandal hindering Annan's attempts to reform U.N., chief of staff says

Secretary-General Kofi Annan keeps trying to put the global spotlight on his sweeping proposals to reform the United Nations but every time he does another oil-for-food scandal comes "tumbling out of the closet," the U.N. leader's chief of staff says.

As Annan headed to Jakarta to push the reform package at the Asia-Africa summit, which starts Thursday, his top envoy to North Korea, Maurice Strong, suspended work while investigators probe his ties to a South Korean businessman accused of wrongdoing in the humanitarian program in Iraq.

At the same time, the United Nations is preoccupied with discovering the identities of two high-ranking U.N. officials cited in a criminal complaint against the businessman, Tongsun Park.

And Annan's own actions were under fresh scrutiny following Wednesday's revelation that two senior investigators in an oil-for-food probe resigned because they believed a report that cleared the secretary-general of meddling in the $64 billion operation was too soft on him.

Every revelation "is incredibly troubling, and worries him ... more than it does anybody," Mark Malloch Brown said of the secretary-general. "It's a very unfortunate fact of life."

"Obviously, we yearn and long to get the conversation back to these vital reforms that we believe, and the secretary-general believes, are the real solution to the problem - a reformed, strengthened, restructured, refocused, U.N.," Malloch Brown said in an interview Wednesday with two reporters.

"Now, oil-for-food keeps on tumbling out of the closet to confront us as many times as we hope we've closed the door on it. And I recognize that. But we're going to keep trying, because it is the solution," he said.

Annan's trip to Indonesia, including a speech Friday to the Asia-Africa summit and a host of one-on-one meetings, is "an extraordinary opportunity" to put the U.N.'s case for reform to more than 100 leaders from two key regions whose support is vital, Malloch Brown said.

The secretary-general is pressing leaders from all 191 U.N. member states to adopt the reform package at a summit in September - not cherry-pick the proposals that they like.

But reform of the powerful U.N. Security Council has already run into serious trouble, with China opposing Japan's bid for a permanent seat, and supporters of two rival plans for council expansion refusing to budge.

Malloch Brown expressed hope that before September - when Annan said he would like the question of council expansion resolved - the rivals will negotiate, but so far they are not talking.

"Obviously, we are very worried that the rest of the package not get lost in this," he said.

In addition to reform, Annan wants world leaders to adopt new proposals to meet the goals they agreed to 2000 to reduce the number of people living in dire poverty by half by 2015, and ensure that by that date every child has an elementary school education and every family has access to clean water and basic sanitation.

While European countries are backing the secretary-general's call to boost development assistance to 0.7 percent of gross national product to help meet these goals, "a lot of other donor countries are not looking good at all," Malloch Brown said.

He named four countries that have not set timelines to increase development aid - the United States, Japan, Canada and Australia.

The United Nations also needs to work to overcome strong opposition from some countries to other proposals in the package, he said.

These include creation of a new Human Rights Council, criteria for the Security Council's use of force, and collective action to protect civilians in cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Whether Annan can make headway on U.N. reform at the same time as he tries to deal with the oil-for-food scandals remains to be seen.

Malloch Brown said the United Nations has expressed concern to the State Department and the U.S. Mission that the U.S. Attorney's complaint citing two U.N. officials without naming them put the world body in "a very difficult position."

"We would like to know who the U.S. Attorney's office has in mind," he said.

But Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. Mission, said "the U.S. Attorney's office is a completely independent body. We have no control over how they conduct their business, and we would assert that their independence is a valuable asset."

In the run-up to September's summit, oil-for-food is certain to remain in the spotlight.

At least five investigations are under way in Congress in addition to the U.S. Attorney's probe in New York and the independent inquiry led by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker.

His final report, due in midsummer, is expected to focus on how the oil-for-food program was set up and managed - which will include Annan's oversight.

EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press Writer

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Author`s name: Editorial Team