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December 6, 2001



By Larry Everest


On October 27, Hans von Sponeck, the former Assistant Secretary General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, and Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness described, for an overflow crowd at the Berkeley Friends Church, what 11 years of sanctions have done to the people of Iraq.  Afterward, I was able to talk with von Sponeck, a 36-year UN veteran who worked in Ghana, Turkey, Botswana, Pakistan and India before going to Iraq in 1998.  He resigned in March 2000.


LE: Why did you resign your UN post?


HvS: I resigned because I increasingly became aware that I was associated with a policy of implementing an oil-for-food program that couldn’t possibly meet the needs of the Iraqi people, and I felt that I was being misused for a United Nations policy that was punitive, that tried to punish a people for not having gotten rid of their leader. And I simply could not associate myself with that, and therefore decided to offer my resignation to the Secretary General [of the UN], and he accepted.


LE: Some commentators argue: ‘well, Iraq can now sell its oil and get food in return.  What’s the problem?  Sanctions are OK, they only block military weapons.’


HvS:  When it is argued that Iraq is now allowed to pump oil and therefore generate the revenue it needs to meet the needs of the Iraqi people then this in itself is a very dishonest statement already, because the lifting of the oil ceiling in March of 2000 was a political ploy.  They are not allowing the rehabilitation of the Iraqi oil industry and therefore Iraq cannot extract oil as it wishes. If you look at the production figures before and after the lifting of the oil ceiling you will see there is practically no difference. If you look at the revenue picture you see a better income situation for Iraq since that time, but that is entirely due to better oil prices and not to larger volume of oil extracted.  So when it is argued that we have removed the oil ceiling, now there is no more problem, that this is another good example of the basic approach towards Iraq which is misleading and dishonest.


LE: What sorts of things did you see in Iraq that made you understand that this was punitive?  If you could give us some examples, most people don’t have a picture of what it’s like for Iraqi civilians.


HvS: There’s a whole range of examples one can give.  One is the sheer financial inadequacy of the oil-for-food program.  If you look at what actually was made available on a per capita basis for Iraq under the oil-for-food program, in the first year and a half -- from 1996 to early 1998 -- then you will get the sobering figure of $113 per person per year.  $113 per person per year.  Now how can that possibly be adequate? 


Now at the same time, even though there was this severely restricted amount available, the UN decided to take out of every dollar of oil permitted at that time – there was still a ceiling - 30 cents to go into what is call the UN Compensation Commission, an organization of the UN based in Geneva that has as its objective to entertain complaints and requests for compensation from governments, organizations, and individuals who feel that they’ve been victimized because of Iraq’s invasion into Kuwait.  So here is an amount siphoned off that could have, and should have in the early phases, remained to be available to Iraq in order to finance very badly needed humanitarian supplies - but that was not the case.


Then another example of the punitive nature is the fact that the northern part of Iraq, where the Kurds live, is getting a disproportionate amount of oil revenue for the humanitarian program.  Thirteen percent of population living in that area is getting 20 percent of the oil revenues.  It’s clearly, again, an example of punishing Baghdad, punishing the Iraqi people for having retained their leader.


There are other examples, there is for example the role of the UN Human Rights Rapporteur on Iraq.  His role is entirely limited to identifying hr violations by the government of Iraq. He’s not permitted by his mandate to look at human rights violations as a result of sanctions - the external factor. The fact that today, on average, according to UNICEF, 5,000 children are dying every month because of sanctions is a violation of human rights.  The Convention of the Rights of the Child is violated.  The Covenant on Political and Civic Rights is violated.  The Hague Convention is violated.  He cannot comment on this.  So these are just a few examples - there are more - that show the punitive nature of the treatment of the Iraq situation.  And while this is deeply hurting the Iraqi people, it is at the same time marginalizing the UN.


LE: My understanding is that that the US has blocked equipment that could repair Iraq’s water and electrical system under the rubric that this equipment could supposedly be used to rebuild Iraq’s military, and that this is a big contributing factor to the suffering of the people. What can you tell me about that?


HvS: Well of course that has happened ever since the oil-for-food program started in 1996.  This has been a problem, because it is contributing to making this oil-for-food program even more disjointed. At this very moment, as of 2 weeks ago, there were $4 billion worth of humanitarian supplies kept back by the U.S.  And this despite all the pleading, and also the fact that we have a whole army of observers, foreign observers, in Iraq...


LE: How many?


HvS: Altogether there are roughly 670 international staff, and over 1,000 Iraqis who are helping us.  Out of this international staff, there are about 300 that have no other job but to ply the roads of Iraq to look at warehouses, to look at hospitals, to look at educational facilities, to look at electricity companies, to insure that the items that arrive actually went where they were supposed to go. And the picture that has emerged is a totally acceptable picture - things go where they should go.  But what do you do if, out of pieces of equipment needed to rehabilitate an electricity supply center, 10 percent hasn’t arrived because it’s blocked by the U.S.?  Then that means that the other 90 percent are useless or have to be stored, and this has been the picture. The main culprit in holding equipment back is the US.  Ninety-eight percent of all contracts blocked are blocked by the Americans.


LE: What kinds of things are we talking about being blocked?


HvS: We are talking about a wide variety ranging from educational materials at times - this has improved, this is not so severe a problem anymore.  What really continues to be a severe problem, with implications for health treatment, healthcare, for electricity and water supply, is [the blocking of] anything that has to do with chemicals, laboratory equipment, generators, chloride, any water purification inputs, communication equipment.


For example, it took over a year to release ambulances because they were blocked since they contained, as they should – in America you don’t have an ambulance without communication equipment inside - but they had communication equipment and they were blocked. So the Iraqis did not have access to such an important thing as an ambulance.  So it is a saga that is really unbelievable.  But it’s all part, in my view, of insuring that the sanction road on which Iraq must travel is never a smooth one, it is always a rocky one.


LE: You were commenting earlier in the evening that U.S. has continuously moved the “goal posts” on Iraq -- in other words, expanded the list of demands that Iraq must fulfil before sanctions can be lifted.  Could you expand on that?


HvS: Well, goal posts have continuously been shifted.  Initially, sanctions were imposed because Iraq had occupied Kuwait.  When Iraq vacated Kuwait, it became an issue of disarmament.  And then you had to deal with resolutions that were so intangible, so loosely defined – for examples, phrases like ‘Iraq before sanctions can be lifted must have cooperated in all respects.’  What does “in all respects” mean?  It’s very open to interpretation and therefore to prolongation of sanctions if you have in mind to keep your thumb on Iraq.  And this is what we have seen. So the looseness of international sanctions law, plus poorly worded resolutions -- or to paraphrase the U.S. government, resolutions with “constructive ambiguity;” I’m sorry, ambiguity yes, constructive I’m not so sure -- have facilitated this whole 11 year drama involving the Iraqi people.


LE: One current justification for attacking Iraq is that it’s still producing “weapons of mass destruction.”  But hasn’t much of Iraq’s military capacity been dismantled, and didn’t UNSCOM largely complete its work?  I know this wasn’t your specific job, but what is your understanding of this?


HvS.  The International Atomic Energy Commission testified in 1998 that on the nuclear side things were in order. Ballistically things were in order.  Chemically the certification by UNSCOM was about to be taken.  The outstanding area involved biological weaponry, where there were questions, serious questions, which UNSCOM had, which had not be satisfactorily answered.  This is the gap.  If you listen to people who understand much better than I do – people like [former UNSCOM Chief Inspector] Scott Ritter, or even Hans Blix the new chief arms inspector of UNMOVIC, the successor to UNSCOM, then you begin to wonder how fair it is when one reads about all these fears that Iraq may still harbor or may have restarted production of weapons of mass destruction. 


First of all, I don’t believe that intelligence agencies wouldn’t conclusively know whether that’s the case or not. Secondly, as Scott Ritter explains so well in professional journals, it will take years, many years, before the systems can be rebuilt. The capacity to manufacture may be there.  Maybe there is some manufacture.  But to get from the laboratory onto a weapons system is a long distance, and people who know the situation have repeatedly stated that these systems are down, that qualitatively Iraq has been disarmed.  And therefore I think this is a very overstated case in order to prepare for another round of attacks on Iraq.


LE: The U.S. press claims that Iraq forced UN weapons inspectors to leave the country in December 1998, but in your talk tonight you said that UNSCOM actually left of its own accord, that you and your team stayed in Baghdad, and that the report that Richard Butler, the head of UNSCOM, submitted just before was used as a justification to attack Iraq.


HvS: That’s absolutely correct.  I mean there was no decree or request by the government of Iraq for UNSCOM to leave. They left in time because Iraq was subjected to a bombardment, and the letter of Mr. Butler to the Security Council I am sure will ultimately, in the books of history, be judged as the key to the justification for the Americans to attack Iraq.  His letter said that Iraq had not cooperated, and therefore the warning by the U.S. government had not been heeded, and this provided the opening to attack.




Larry Everest is a correspondent for the Revolutionary Worker newspaper and producer of the video Iraq: War Against the People (available from Revolution Books Berkeley: 510.848.1196/  He can be reached at