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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Protests of Sanctions on Iraq
Should Be Wake-up Call to US

by Cliff Pearson, Dallas Peace Center

It was hard to miss. First there was a month of activism opposing the US/UN sanctions on Iraq, including 86 arrests at the US Mission to the United Nations. Then 70 Members of Congress signed a letter to President Clinton urging an end to the economic sanctions. Representative David Bonior even called the sanctions "infanticide masquerading as policy." And then came the protest resignations. Assistant Secretary-General Hans Von Sponeck, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, announced he is leaving his job in protest after 15 months. The next day, Jutta Burghardt, chief of the UN's World Food Program in Iraq, resigned too, also in protest of the economic sanctions destroying Iraq.

These events should have sent a powerful message to the White House. Denis Halliday, Mr. Van Sponeck's predecessor, quit the same position after 13 months—ending a 25-year career with the UN—also in protest of the economic sanctions responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Like Mr. Halliday, Mr. Von Sponeck also came to realize the devastation of the sanctions supposedly aimed at Saddam Hussein's regime. The fact that two high-ranking UN officials felt compelled to leave their jobs in protest of a US and UN policy should make all Americans sit up and ask themselves if that policy is sound. The resignation of a competent and respected WFP director should give added emphasis to the point.

Sadly, judging by the State Department's response to Mr. Von Sponeck's resignation, no such soul-searching is on the agenda. The most recent Security Council resolution—Resolution 1284—which Clinton administration officials like to claim would lift the sanctions, actually does no such thing.

It creates a new arms monitoring agency, and allows that, more than a year down the line, some restrictions might be temporarily suspended. But the default position remains that the sanctions stay, unchanged, unless the Security Council—including the US with its veto—agrees to keep them suspended after each four-month interval. Under such restrictions, no viable oil company is likely to risk large-scale investment in Iraq, however much they may want Iraq's oil wealth. But without such investment, reconstruction and repair of Iraq's oil industry itself will remain impossible, and Iraq's problems will only worsen.

The US-led sanctions, in place now for 10 years, have caused not only the deaths of about one million Iraqi people—half of them children, according to UNICEF—but also the destruction of the cultural, economic, political, and educational institutions of Iraqi society. As a result of the sanctions, food shortages and malnourishment remain a critical problem in Iraq. It was the World Food Program's director, the same Jutta Burghardt who just resigned, who told the Congressional aides that 70% of Iraq household income goes for food. By UN standards, she said, that is considered an indicator of imminent famine. Many people know that the UN created a provision—the "Oil-for-Food" program—under which Iraq can sell limited amounts of oil to purchase needed items. But this deal, created by UN Resolution 986, has failed to provide the food and medicine necessary to sustain life in Iraq.

Many who are aware of the Oil-for-Food program believe the Iraqi government is deliberately withholding and stockpiling food and medicine and that therefore Saddam Hussein is to blame for the deaths. But this is simply untrue. The proceeds from the sales of oil through the Oil-for-Food program go to a Bank of Paris escrow account in New York which is managed by the UN For Iraq to use any of this money to buy items for import, each item they need must be bid for to the UN sanctions committee. Theoretically any member of the UN Security Council may reject a bid for an import, but as reported by the Washington Post February 25, it is the US and Great Britain who do the vast majority of the rejecting—and they reject almost everything. This is a tendency that has been increasingly criticized by the other members of the Security Council and by UN Secretary-General Koffi Anan. According to Mr. Von Sponeck's predecessor, Denis Halliday, after allocations are taken out of the oil revenues to finance Gulf War reparations and UN administrative expenses, the amount of money which trickles down to the average person in Iraq is 25 cents per day.

...the amount of money which trickles down to the average person in Iraq is 25 cents per day.

Mr. Halliday, who left the UN in 1998 asserts that Iraq cannot currently afford to rebuild its infrastructure under the Oil-for-Food program. When items are allowed by the sanctions committee, they come in pieces according to Mr. Von Sponeck. In other words things like dental chairs arrive but compressors must be ordered from another company, or syringes arrive but needles take longer. Thus, items must be held in Baghdad until they are complete. This happens, Mr. Von Sponeck explained, with about one-half of the orders, so that the medicine in storage is not being intentionally withheld from the Iraqi people, but instead cannot be distributed. Additionally, Mr. Von Sponeck alleges that the sanctions committee takes longer to approve some orders than others, thus forcing Iraq to keep medicine in storage until the complements are approved. Temperatures in Iraq during summer time often reach 130 degrees. Air-conditioned trucks are therefore essential for shipping perishable goods, including cancer medication, surgical gloves, and foodstuffs. But air-conditioned trucks are practically nonexistent in Iraq, since the sanctions committee has banned them. Ms. Burghardt detailed how the Oil-for-Food program is hiding, but not stopping, the accumulated results of the sanctions.

"Iraq's middle class is disappearing," she said, "and the stunted children will never recover. The monthly food basket lasts only about 21 days. Many families have no other income, and so are living in a situation of complete deprivation." No one is arguing, however, that Saddam Hussein is a good guy. Like other UN officials in Baghdad, Ms. Burghardt speaks critically of the Iraqi government. She has said that the government of Iraq deals with the food problem only on an emergency basis, and has been slow to move toward a complete solution, apparently wanting to show the world the full effects of the sanctions. However, in describing the urgent need for effective humanitarian programs in Iraq, she explained the other side of the problem. She had tried to initiate such plans, she said, but her ideas "did not fly" with her superiors.

"Iraq's middle class is disappearing and the stunted children will never recover."

The US is the biggest contributor to the World Food Program, and played a primary role in stopping her new programs. It was Ms. Burghardt's team of WFP inspectors who monitored food distribution in Iraq. It was her people who checked that food got from port to warehouses to mills to neighborhood distribution agents. And it was her staff who tracked the inability of the food basket—nearly devoid of protein, fruits, vegetables, or vitamins—to feed Iraqi families. It is understandable that humanitarian workers, trained to end, not help maintain, humanitarian disasters, would find these sanctions-imposed conditions unacceptable.

What is incomprehensible to an increasing number of Americans—such as those of us at The Dallas Peace Center—is why our own government will not hear or take seriously these officials' legitimate concerns for the Iraqi people. Why will they not heed the concerns of the 70 Members of Congress who asked President Clinton to lift the sanctions? When will the White House get the message and wake-up? The sanctions must end now.

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