Cyprus Mail

‘Sensationalistic fiction and factually wrong’

Ben Kingsley (right) as the Benon Sevan character in Backstabbing for Beginners

New film digs up old, disputed dirt about top Cypriot UN official’s time in Saddam’s Iraq


By Jean Christou


What do you get when you mix the UN oil-for-food scandal from the early 2000s, a young UN official who seems to think he’s Jason Bourne, and a top UN official, a Cypriot, wheeler-dealing in order to get, in his mind at least, some help to sanctions-hit Iraqi people?

Well, you get a movie trying hard to be a thriller, complete with fictional murders and cloak-and-dagger antics about a scandal that in the real world had enough going for it in terms of intrigue without needing to dress it up with ‘alternative facts’ when it came to the oil-for-food programme (OFFP).

The titillatingly titled ‘Backstabbing for Beginners’, which was released on April 27, and directed by Per Fly, is based on Michael Soussan’s 2008 book of the same name.

Soussan, who in the film is a character named Michael Sullivan, was a junior UN official and credits himself, at least in the movie, with blowing the whistle on the OFFP, which ran from 1996 to 2003 when the US invaded Iraq.

In a nutshell, the OFFP was designed to soften the blow to civilians of UN sanctions against Iraq — imposed after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in 1990 — by allowing Baghdad to sell oil to finance purchases of humanitarian goods. The project was headed up by UN Under-Secretary-General Benon Sevan, an Armenian Cypriot and career UN official.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered the inquiry into the OFFP in 2004 after the corruption allegations came to light. The former government of Saddam Hussein had raised $1.8 billion through kickbacks and surcharges on the sale of oil under the UN programme. But Saddam was said to have earned $10 billion more from oil that he smuggled out of the country outside of the UN programme.

Allegations against Sevan surfaced in 2005 in a UN-established independent inquiry headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. More than 2,300 companies were also investigated over bribery allegations linked to the OFFP. Sevan, now approaching 80, had already returned to Cyprus in May 2005, long before the US issued an indictment against him in 2007, accusing him of being on the take based on the findings of the Volcker report, which he has repeatedly denied.

Now most people might find it interesting to have their character played by Ben Kingsley given that many might still think of him as the benign personification of Gandhi and hence basically a good guy, but in ‘Backstabbing for Beginners’ he plays ‘Pasha’ – the character supposed to represent Sevan – whose every second word is an ‘F-bomb’ or the Cypriot pronunciation, ‘Fack’.

The initially-naive ‘Sullivan’ was supposedly Sevan’s protege in the film who he was inducting into the world of realpolitik, a world of bribes and kickbacks, the necessary evil that was needed in order to get things done in Iraq amid a sea of corruption where everyone was on the take, the contractors, Iraqi officials, and of course the UN itself.

Benon Sevan

In the film, when it looks like the OFFP might be ended due to a report about to be submitted to the UN Security Council on the programme’s failures, Pasha tells our would-be Jason Bourne: “The choice can’t be to feed everyone or feed no one. We need to feed as many as possible.”

Then Pasha’s fictional boss, played by Jacqueline Bisset, is suddenly murdered, cue Sullivan’s suspicion that there might be more to the pragmatic but empathetic Pasha, who is seen early on shedding tears at the hospital bedside of an Iraqi child who desperately needs meds.

When he thinks his suspicions are becoming confirmed, Sullivan narrates ominously: “Pasha had a clear path to what he wanted”. The young official is then approached by the CIA and asked to spy on the programme and it’s all downhill from there for Pasha.

When Sullivan confronts him over being allegedly on the take, Pasha retorts: “The crime would be to do nothing. We try to do our best. The UN can take a leading role [in Iraq], and not the carpetbaggers. We can save the world. Trust me. What you call corruption is the growing pains of a new democracy.”

The Sunday Mail asked Sevan this week what he thought of the film. He was understandably reticent to relitigate the whole OFFP scandal more than 10 years since the indictment.

“The film is sensationalistic fiction.  It has nothing to do with the realities of the programme— how it operated, what it achieved, or the hard, dangerous work of the courageous people who worked on the programme and saved thousands of Iraqi lives,” he said.

Sevan called the film “factually wrong”, and indeed, anyone who has read the official documents can attest to the inaccurate and poorly drawn picture it paints in its attempt to make itself into something it’s not. Numerous reviews of the film since its release appear to agree.

According to the blurb: “Based on a true story, an idealistic young employee working at the UN investigates the grisly murder of his predecessor and uncovers a vast global conspiracy, that may even involve his own boss, in this gripping and timely thriller.”

A few review comments include: “laughable script… flat, unimaginative two-dimensional direction… appearing in Backstabbing for Beginners is hazardous for your career.”

“It’s all very detailed, and it’s all very dull,” wrote another. “This film fails as a conspiracy thriller…”

Variety said: “the title misleads” and the film “is so respectful of the complexities of realpolitik that it could become a little turgid.” However, it sums the movie up as a “compelling impression of the compromises and corruptions of the international aid world, and the compromised, corrupt, but not necessarily evil people who run it”.

Sevan told the Sunday Mail that the reality on the ground was that UN officials running the programme were “operating in a minefield” between the US/UK and other factions on the UN Security Council, including China, France, Germany and the Russian Federation, as well as the government of Iraq, which were preventing the programme from being implemented, fully and quickly by placing on hold or delaying the approval of contracts, including medicine for children.

“It was a constant fight to persuade governments to expedite the approval of contracts,” he said

The US/UK on one occasion held up a shipment of pencils under the ‘dual-use’ sanctions because, in their view, the lead could be used to create presumably the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that never actually existed.

While Sevan was turned into the single focus of what was a major scandal involving billions of dollars that went down a black hole in Iraq, according to the report issued by the Iraq Survey Group, known as the Duelfer Report, the bulk of the illicit oil revenue obtained by Saddam came through smuggling to Jordan, Syria, and Turkey and only a relatively small amount from kickbacks through the OFFP.

Reading the Wall Street Journal when the scandal broke you would think the opposite: “Saddam Hussein managed to pull off the $100 billion Oil for Food scam right under the noses of the United Nations officials charged with administering it.”

It was not only this article that placed all of the blame on the UN for the fact that Saddam raked in well over $10 billion on the side.

Saddam Hussein was said to have earned $10 billion from oil that he smuggled out of the country outside of the UN programme

Most neglected to mention that the UK and US turned a blind eye. In early 2005 the Washington Post reported that the US provided assurances in early 2003 that Washington would not obstruct two companies’ plans to import millions of barrels of oil from Iraq in violation of the UN sanctions. The US acknowledged it had acquiesced in the trade to ensure that crucial allies Turkey and Jordan “would not suffer economic hardships”.

Many media outlets also strategically slipped in a paragraph hinting that Sevan, a man at the end of an unblemished 40-year career, might have had something to with the death of the woman who raised him, all for the sake of $160,000. He has said the money in question was given to him by his aunt over the years and was all fully declared to the UN. His aunt, a retired civil servant, died in 2004 after falling into an elevator shaft in Nicosia. Cyprus police declared her death an accident but that did not stop some media outlets in the US from implying that Sevan might be culpable even though he was not in Cyprus at the time.

“This is the media world in which we live. I could not mourn the death of a second mother who died in an accident, because the tabloids want to create villains, irrespective of the facts,” said Sevan

In an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune in September 2005, Sevan said there was a misconception, “reinforced by the familiar echo chamber of the Murdoch press, the Wall Street Journal, the UN bashers in the US Congress, and neocon think tanks, that the programme was a failure of epic proportions, riddled with corruption and pliant to Saddam Hussein’s every manipulation”.

The reality, he said, was that the programme was highly successful in its fundamental mission of addressing the acute humanitarian crisis caused by sanctions, in channeling most of the Iraqi oil proceeds of over $65 billion into food, medicine, and other approved humanitarian supplies, including oil spare parts, with a total value of $46 billion.

“We succeeded in providing food to 27 million Iraqis, doubling the daily caloric intake amongst the entire population, and saving tens of thousands of innocent people from death, starvation and disease.  The programme cut acute child malnutrition in half, eliminated polio, reduced other communicable diseases, and restored critical water, sanitation, electricity and communications infrastructure,” Sevan said.

“I would not and did not jeopardise my long, successful career culminating in this multi-billion-dollar programme in return for $160,000 or any other amount. The political pressure required scapegoats… Volcker , whose investigation cost almost $35 million, financed from the programme’s revenues, unfairly targeted the Secretariat, including the Office of the Iraq Programme (OIP) and me, for problems that were essentially inherent in the design of the programme and in the inevitable reality of politics among member states,” he added.

Sevan said he was proud of thousands of his UN colleagues, both international civil servants and Iraqi nationals, who were involved in the OFFP, “who worked tirelessly to help the Iraqi people”.

He referred to the 23 friends and colleagues who died in the line of duty when their headquarters in Baghdad was bombed in August 2003, with over 160 staff members injured.

“Those responsible for the bombing reported that they had killed me as well; I was fortunate to survive, because of my last-minute decision to change the venue of my meeting,” said Sevan.

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