It is now beyond doubt that - however noble the intentions behind the oil-for-food programme when it was established in 1996 - it resulted in corruption. And the affair has taken a toll on the UN's reputation. Even the secretary general, Kofi Annan, has been implicated - although the Volcker report has exonerated him of all direct charges of venality.
The oil-for-food affair demonstrates that there is too little democratic oversight of the functioning of the UN. This absence of accountability was also demonstrated recently by the suppression of a report looking into allegations of sexual harassment against the former High Commission for Refugees chief, Ruud Lubbers. All this advances the case for reform of the UN when it meets for its world summit next month.
Yet it is important to bear in mind the context of this scandal and the recent excoriation of the UN by its critics. The oil-for-food programme was administered by the UN Security Council's sanctions committee. The Bush administration has been energetic in making the charge of corruption against the UN. But the US was a member of the sanctions committee and - according to a report published by Democrat minority members of the Senate investigations committee - turned a blind eye to the former Iraqi regime's trade in oil. Several US firms have been implicated in the illicit trade.
And what replaced the oil-for-food programme in Iraq has not been an obvious improvement. The so-called Development Fund for Iraq - established by the US interim government after the invasion - has been criticised by auditors for keeping inadequate records and for awarding oil contracts without competitive bidding.
But perhaps the most important piece of context to bear in mind when considering the oil-for-food scandal, is the opposition the UN displayed to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This has sparked a campaign of vilification from the Bush administration. The pressure being brought to bear over oil-for-food must be seen as part of this attempt to discredit the UN for its stance over Iraq. President Bush's provocative choice of John Bolton - a man who believes that "the UN is valuable only when it directly serves the United States" - as UN ambassador must also be seen as part of this campaign. Pushing Mr Bolton's appointment through last week, even in the face of the opposition of the US Congress, is further evidence of the President's continuing animosity towards the organisation.
The oil-for-food case shows the UN must set its house in order. It also urgently needs to become a more efficient platform for multilateral action. The Security Council should be restructured to represent new centres of global power, rather than merely the post-Second World War order that existed when the UN was created in 1945. The discredited Commission on Human Rights, which in the past has ludicrously included serial human rights abusers such as Libya and Sudan, should also be scrapped. But the extent - and the pace - of reform must be dictated by the international interest and the principle of collective security, rather than the United States' desire to punish the UN for its wholly vindicated stance over the invasion of Iraq.Reuse content