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Hans von Sponeck
AL AHRAM (Egypt)
The policy of punishment
ROGUE CHIEFS: They believed in the system -- and it failed them. On the fringes of last week's conference, Nyier Abdou catches up with former UN humanitarian co-ordinators for Iraq Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday to talk about warmongering, doublespeak and life after the UN
"Even in America there are plenty of groups who are totally opposed [to war] ... But in between there are the 'foxes'... the ones who listen to Fox news, who are accepting of superficial clichés. There [you have] the US department of strategic information -- or, as it was initially [called] for a week, the department of strategic dis-information. Then someone said, Hey listen, that's too blunt, that's a little bit too blunt. The terms of the department didn't change. But the title changed."
Hans von Sponeck
Hans von Sponeck -- affable, careful, eloquent -- did not spend 36 years at the United Nations to be a "glorified accountant", although that is the role he found himself in when he ran the UN Oil-for-Food programme as the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq from October 1998 to March 2000. When he resigned, his long history of diplomacy and professional observation did not expire with his post in Baghdad. They were channelled into a cause that has allowed him to exploit the full extent of his experience. Though tireless in his efforts to raise awareness of the impact of sanctions on Iraq and rally resistance to another war in Iraq, von Sponeck is neither a revolutionary nor a fanatic. "I am simply someone who has seen, and cannot unsee," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
For activists fighting the sanctions regime, it is hard to imagine what could be better than having someone like von Sponeck, with his dual arsenal of irrefutable credentials and inside knowledge, on their side -- except having two people with those credentials, which is exactly what has happened. Denis Halliday, von Sponeck's predecessor as assistant secretary- general and chief UN co-ordinator in Iraq, blazed the trail before him when he resigned in 1998, after 34 years with the UN, and publicly decried the sanctions regime.
Speaking of the uphill battle they have fought to expose the narrow focus of the US and British administrations, as well as the full implications of sanctions on human development indicators, social welfare and instability in the region, von Sponeck seems almost overwhelmed with what is essentially self- imposed responsibility. "Who are Denis and I?" he asks. "There are not many people who've had this kind of experience. We want to speak out, with no back up. We're one- person road shows."
No system of sanctions, says von Sponeck, however modified, can pull Iraq out of the disastrous state it has sunk into under 12 years of what he specifies as deliberately punitive sanctions. In theory, he says, sanctions can work, but "it's too late for Iraq." Freezing bank accounts, introducing travel restrictions, barring senior officials from meeting -- all adjustments suggested to "smarten up" sanctions -- are irrelevant in the case of Iraq today. "I would say the only thing we can do now is de-link the disarmament discussion from economic sanctions," argues von Sponeck. "Because economic sanctions have certainly not punished the leadership, but [they] have punished the Iraqi people. So after 12 years of such a wrong policy, I guess it's time to end it."
Without waiting to take a breath, von Sponeck launches into the counterargument: "People will immediately say, 'Well if you do that, then Saddam Hussein will again have access to resources that will enable him to do evil things.'" Von Sponeck calls this the "typical stereotype" with which one approaches the Iraq file, because it indicates a lack of familiarity with the situation on the ground in Iraq. Noting that inspectors have yet to find anything that belies the assertions of the Iraqi leadership that the country's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme has been dismantled, von Sponeck cites his own informal experience in Iraq during visits, most recently in November, and before that, in July, as reason to believe that "what is destroyed can't be a threat."
Asked if he thought that there is ever enough evidence to justify a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, von Sponeck is careful, suggesting that in the hypothetical case that there is a nuclear explosion about to take place, "I guess, then, one would have no time to lose." Rather than dwell on the hypothetical, however, von Sponeck stresses instead that in the last 12 years, Iraq has not used WMD, even if it may have tried to develop them further. For the eight years that weapons inspectors were active in Iraq -- "eight long years" -- von Sponeck maintains that the country was "largely disarmed -- and we have no evidence to date that they have anything that they said they wouldn't".
With the US long fixated on an Iraq without Saddam Hussein, sanctions seem to have served as an unpalatable solution to fill the interim before the US and Britain can seize an opportunity to go back into Iraq. In fact, sanctions are distasteful to everybody involved -- from the US and Britain, who want regime change, to the UN itself, which must defend them in the face of overwhelming evidence that they have engendered a massive humanitarian crisis. And the more that this becomes clear, maintains von Sponeck, the less the Security Council wants to know it. "I lived in Iraq, I've seen the Security Council, I've seen the effects of a wrong policy on people," says von Sponeck. "These are innocent people whose lives have been destroyed. Many of them don't live. And those who live, what kind of life do they lead?"
Iraq, once a wealthy nation, attracted the best facilities -- they could afford it. Impressive health care, reliable infrastructure and strong education were the norm. But by the year 2000, Iraq had plummeted to 126 out of 174 countries in the UN Human Development Index. In 1990, it was 50 out of 130. The damage to infrastructure caused by the Gulf War, combined with the inability to rebuild many crucial systems due to sanctions, have spawned manifold sub-crises, which permeate the painfully slow and well documented degeneration of Iraqi society. Poverty due to economic sanctions has forced families to take their children out of schools and put them to work. Lack of basic services like potable water, preventive medicine and electricity, lead to outbreaks of diseases that feed off the malnutrition caused by poverty.
Today, according to a study carried out by UNICEF, out of 188 countries, Iraq is at the bottom -- the 188th country in terms of increase in child mortality. In 1990, child deaths were 56 per thousand. In 1999, they were 131 per thousand. "In my own country, in Germany, it is five," says von Sponeck. "This is a trend in Iraq; it continues. Children die because of polluted water, lack of medicine, [and] malnutrition -- three factors that have something to do with sanctions."
Von Sponeck notes that Saddam Hussein, "the same dictator" so reviled by Washington, received a prize from UNESCO for having brought down illiteracy to 20 per cent. Today illiteracy is estimated around 45 per cent. "An enormous increase. In a way, it's a 'mental genocide'." Less obvious factors, like the link between drops in literacy and health, will become increasingly more obvious, although the connection may not always be drawn. Female education, for example, has been shown to be tied to good health.
Though there is much that von Sponeck can draw on to feed his outrage, nothing seems to get him more worked up than the subject of the US and Britain's efforts to keep blinders on the Security Council. "The UN, unfortunately, is discouraged by the Americans from doing what the UN should be doing," he says. "And that is to make sure that the Security Council at any one time knows the impact of its own policies." But when he tried to introduce this kind of awareness, he was actively discouraged.
Among the most misrepresented notions about the sanctions regime is that the Oil-for-Food (OfF) programme allows the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people to be met. Up to 4 December, says von Sponeck, the money from OfF amounted to $174 per person per year. "That's it. That's all that people in Iraq got for food, for medicine, for agriculture, for electricity, for water, for sanitation and for education, and, recently, from a year and a half ago, for housing. That's it. Now don't come and tell me that this is a figure that is even remotely what should guarantee a minimum of life." When UN resolution 1284 allegedly removed the ceiling on the amount of oil Iraq was allowed to export in order to boost the revenues of OfF, the end result was in fact little change in output. In order for Iraq to produce more oil, it would need to rebuild most of its oil industry -- something impossible to do without the permission of the Security Council.
Von Sponeck is adamant that from his own experience, and that of Denis Halliday before him, it is clear that the US and the UK "systematically tried to prevent us from briefing the Security Council", on the full impact of sanctions in Iraq. "This is really not speculation, this is first-hand information," he warns. "Even when I had resigned and the secretary- general, encouraged by the French, the Russians, by the Malaysians, by the Chinese, [asked] for me to come and brief the Security Council, the British and the Americans tried to prevent that. They didn't want to hear what we had to say -- what I had to say at the time -- about the conditions."
It was here that von Sponeck came up against the full force of the restrictions of his post. His reports were meant to be conspicuously mundane: What has come in, how was it distributed? What were some of the bottlenecks? "Now that isn't the kind of analysis that should be the only reporting that we do in a country where others [aid NGOs] are reporting, like CARE, like Caritas, like Save the Children, UK. They come out and they regularly report that the sanction policy has a devastating effect on the innocent population. And the UN is not allowed to report this; not as an emotional statement -- we all have plenty of emotions when it comes to Iraq -- but actually showing, doing service, trying to report, doing political analysis -- nothing."
Despite his efforts to introduce this kind of human impact analysis, von Sponeck says he was consistently told that there was no interest. Undaunted, he tried to "sneak it back in", by inserting a box in his reports in which a specific human condition, such as health or education was highlighted. "It was discouraged. They didn't want it," he says.
The "worst offence", however, was the regular air strike reports coming out of von Sponeck's office. Though it is not often emphasised, von Sponeck's position as humanitarian co- ordinator also meant that he carried the title "designated official for security for the UN". At the time, every day, there were some 300 to 500 international staff travelling in Iraq. "I said, 'If these people travel, then it becomes a security issue for us', if nothing else. This was my excuse, if you want." Von Sponeck asked his security chief to tell anyone travelling in Iraq or returning to Baghdad to report any security situations. "And what happened? In 1999, the figure is well in my head: he had only 132 -- compared to now it is 'only' -- 132 air strikes. Out of those, 28 times, my colleagues were at the site when it happened. Or near the site."
If there was a "major disaster", involving civilians, von Sponeck says he would go himself to survey the damage. "I witnessed it myself. I wanted to be fair with the Americans and the British. When I travelled to New York I would give them the documents. I would sit them down every three months, and I would say, 'Your pilots, [they] see it out of the distance up there. This is how it looks, it's terrible.' We made photographs ... So we showed them. And the British ambassador said to me: 'You are off your mandate. It's a scandal that you do this, and you should stop that -- and in any case, what you're doing is you're putting a UN stamp on Iraqi propaganda.'"
The same diplomat, the deputy manager of Operation Desert Storm, offered the excuse von Sponeck has come to deplore from government officials. "He said, 'You don't understand Iraq.' I said, 'I'm sorry. I lived there. Have you lived there?' And then he made this comment about the stamp of approval. And I said, 'I'm sorry, this is carefully collected material and you should not insult our professionalism.' But this is what you're are up against: 'You're naïve, you're in the pocket of Baghdad.'"
Rather than take a hard look at the evidence offered, diplomats have preferred to build a wall of wilful ignorance, choosing instead to turn the blame back on the UN teams themselves. "How many times have the Americans and British argued that the UN team in Baghdad has lost objectivity because we live there?" asks von Sponeck. "And to some extent, we have lost objectivity, but we haven't given up our professionalism. And when UNICEF does these important studies, they're not done by do-gooders, by people who only have emotions, and not professionalism. This is all part of a systematic effort to avoid that the truth gets where it should be, and that facts are hidden and distorted."
The same goes for manipulation of facts, argues von Sponeck. "How many times have you read, and I read, that food and medicine is being withheld by the Iraqi authorities? And every month there's a distribution report. The monitors are verifying it. It wasn't Mr Halliday, it wasn't me, it was our successor [Tun Myat], who said the best distribution system that he has ever seen in his life, as a Word Food Programme official, was the one that he saw in Iraq."
Von Sponeck is quick to point out that in terms of development and the spread of democracy, the US's record is far from impeccable, from the disreputable regimes it continues to make strategic alliances with, to its development spending. "And whatever you don't accept, if they want to accept it, then you don't understand the bigger picture. How often have we heard this in the UN -- how often have I been told this? 'This man doesn't understand the bigger picture'. Because the bigger picture is their picture. If you have a different album with photographs that don't show that picture, then you're out of order."
"The Americans are refreshingly candid sometimes," says von Sponeck. "When the Secretary of Defence made the point: 'We choose our coalitions as we need them,' then this is pragmatism par excellence. I do what serves me, me, and me. Or, as a hate mail the other day said to me -- I get those -- 'You fool don't you realise it's about oil? Cheap oil, and more cheap oil.' They are very selfish. Ultimately, they are very selfish."
Although the US has been pressured into taking its course through the UN Security Council, it is hard to imagine that a war in Iraq can be avoided. Asked what he thought would be the immediate impact of a new war in Iraq, von Sponeck is willing to offer "hard words". "First of all, it would be a war of cowards. You fly high altitudes, you bomb -- the Afghanistan pictures are still fresh in our minds. And when things stop moving on the ground, then you start moving in, and in the case of Iraq, with ground troops. And then you realise that not everything's dead. And there will be resistance, and body bags will be needed, for Americans also." Next will come refugees, he notes, and because there is so little in terms of food reserves in Iraq, the prospect of famine and disease is high.
How will the day after look? Von Sponeck is unabashedly morbid: "Chaos. Death. Destitution. Hunger. A few of these characters will be caught alive, and be put away somewhere, like in Guantanamo Bay." Here, his penchant for sarcasm creeps in. "You will see pictures of US flag-waving Iraqis, like you saw for a few days, women in Afghanistan throwing their burqas off -- today they continue to wear them."
"I'm sorry. This will be a massive show -- that the Americans and the British did the right thing. It will immediately 'show' that the UN inspectors were naïve, incapable, and that the 'real stuff' was found, and lethal, and it wasn't a moment too early to attack. We will be in this Orwellian game of doublespeak, and misleading. I'm so convinced of that."
"I personally therefore conclude that the most sane and fair course is to let the arms inspectors do their job," suggests von Sponeck. "If they have something to disarm, let them disarm it. The ultimate objective is disarmament. Economic sanctions must be lifted, but let us then monitor, and this will be the lesser evil. It's not the ideal solution, but it's the more humane solution." He noted that in a recent debate with a Yale professor, his interlocutor put forward the claim that war is the "more humane alternative" to Saddam Hussein. "What a statement to make?" marvels von Sponeck. "Does she realise what that means in terms of lives, in terms of people?"
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