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No fuel for this fire

The parliamentary debate on the allegations made by the Volcker Committee on the UN oil-for-food programme for Iraq ended in a whimper.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2005 18:06 IST

The parliamentary debate on the allegations made by the Volcker Committee on the UN oil-for-food programme for Iraq ended in a whimper. The leader of the opposition, L.K. Advani, in fact, ended the debate by stating that if the clarifications that emerged during the debate were known earlier, then the issue itself would not have been raised.

Notwithstanding this, it is, indeed, welcome that Parliament, after a long gap, has discussed issues of allegations of corruption at high places, on motions which ended in a voting. The NDA, during the six years of its tenure, refused to allow such discussions on allegations of a more serious nature. It is also welcome that the government heeded the call for a probe into the allegations made by the Volcker Committee. There are, however, larger questions that need to be discussed with a view to strengthen India’s sovereignty.

The tables annexed to the report include sales by non-contractual beneficiaries; surcharge payments made by oil companies and actual or projected payments on contracts for humanitarian goods. About 130 or so Indian companies allegedly made payments on contracts

for humanitarian goods. Table 3 on ‘Oil Sales by Non-Contractual Beneficiaries’ lists four individuals/entities from India — Reliance Petroleum Limited, the Congress, Bhim Singh and K. Natwar Singh.

The text of the report should not blind us to the context, which is equally important. It will be recalled that Secretary General Kofi Annan had told the BBC that US action in Iraq was “illegal”. The sanctions imposed by the US and Britain and a pliable UN Security Council on Iraq were clearly illegal in terms of international law. The sanctions caused the death of more than a million women, children and others from the marginalised sections of the Iraqi society.

They grossly contravened the principle of ‘Jus Cogens’, which is peremptory and customary international law that no treaty or Security Council decision can supersede. The then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, it will be recalled, did not deny the death of about a million children and was brutal enough to call the sanctions “worth the price”.

The sanctions, of course, totally weakened and disarmed Iraq and thereby prepared the terrain for a quick American military victory (though not a successful occupation). It is, therefore, somewhat bizarre to inquire into or consider that which went against or mitigated this illegality to be legal. For instance, any service charges or inland transportation charges made against humanitarian goods contracts both in themselves and in terms of providing resources to the then Iraqi government for public social expenditure aimed at saving children’s lives seem legal though the Volcker Committee considers these illegal. In the absence of these resources, even more children would have perished and, therefore, these are justified in terms of ‘Jus Cogens’.

We, therefore, have to concentrate on whether political influence was exerted, any impropriety committed, and any domestic Indian law broken. In this context, it will be instructive to recollect the experiences of the impact of this report in other countries. George Galloway, the British MP who opposed the Tony Blair government’s role in the Iraq war, was accused of receiving allocations of oil and money from Saddam Hussein. The Daily Telegraph and the other newspapers that published these allegations had to pay big damages for defamation when it was proved in the courts that the documents were forgeries committed under US occupation of Iraq.

Further, the press release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation dated October 29, 2005, quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to this effect: “The need for a thorough examination of all the circumstances cited in the report regarding Russian participation in the oil-for-food programme is prompted, in particular, by the fact that in a number of earlier cases the commission gave us some rather questionable or downright fake documents. The Russian side has repeatedly queried the commission about the sources from which such documents were obtained but has never received any answer.”

It is well-known that the Volcker Committee has itself said that it did not give any notice or observe due process in the case of the so-called non-contractual beneficiaries; there was no investigation and, therefore, no adverse conclusion.

The Volcker Committee report focuses both on the management and contractual aspects of the oil-for-food programme, that is on corruption by UN officials as well as on entities that entered into contracts with the UN or with Iraq under the programme. Incidentally, it is understood that a member of the Volcker Committee who resigned because of alleged manipulation of evidence to exonerate Secretary General Kofi Annan has given evidence to the US Congress and the Henry Hyde report condemning the Volcker Committee report is expected shortly.

Anyhow, the aforementioned two aspects of the Volcker Committee report are being used by the US to have its cake and eat it too — to justify illegal actions in Iraq and discredit those who criticised these and use all this to consolidate control of the UN and of foreign governments. It is a classic manoeuvre of US imperialism.

In the case of the second aspect of the Volcker report, the actual agenda is similar. It is no accident that — with some exceptions to provide an air of credibility — the list of ‘non-contractual beneficiaries’ consists of communist, socialist, Leftist and anti-US nationalist parties, representatives from developing countries and entities or individuals opposed to the sanctions regime and the deaths and hardships this imposed on Iraq.

As I have said earlier, we need to probe objectively and thoroughly any exercise of undue political influence, any commission of impropriety, any violation of domestic Indian law. At the same time, we have to be vigilant that we do not let this be used to facilitate the dominance of US imperialism in India on the government or on the polity. It would be a great pity if some forces that want to serve US imperialism use this probe to strengthen themselves and, thereby US interests.

These sections would do well to look at recent reports in the international press from which it is clear that even such a loyal junior partner of the US like Britain is finding it difficult to obtain even routine military equipment from the US except through a complicated process because the US Congress is refusing to give blanket waivers. (Only Canada gets these.)

Apart from doubts being voiced by our Department of Atomic Energy, the reports are clear that the US Congress first wants to make India divide its civilian and military programmes and hobble its strategic autonomy and the fast breeder and advanced heavy water as well as the thorium programme before giving any waivers (if at all) on supply

of technology including civilian nuclear power plants. Under these circumstances, it would be disastrous for India to adopt an approach during interactions where an exchange of views means that we go into negotiations with India’s views and come out with US views.

With a view to strengthen India’s sovereignty, it would be welcome if an even broader probe which would include the oil contracts under the NDA regime, the charges in various defence and other deals made by Tehelka and Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat is undertaken by the UPA government.

The writer is Rajya Sabha MP and member, CPI(M) Politburo

First Published: Dec 01, 2005 02:07 IST