Hans von Sponeck resigns March 31 as the director of the United Nations humanitarian program in Iraq. Normally, the comings and goings of UN officials isn’t a subject for headlines or a source of encouragement for activists, but von Sponeck is now the second person to resign from this position, which involves oversight of the UN’s oil-for-food program. Like his predecessor, Denis J. Halliday, von Sponeck has issued a clear call for an end to the sanctions after seeing first-hand their devastating consequences for the Iraqi people.
“Sanctions must be lifted,” von Sponeck told a delegation from Voices in the Wilderness and Fellowship of Reconciliation that I accompanied to Iraq in early March. “It cannot continue that [the UN] punishes the most vulnerable and the most innocent.”
Von Sponeck’s resignation follows the highly publicized public departure of Halliday as humanitarian coordinator in fall 1998. Halliday had worked for the UN for 34 years; von Sponeck has worked there for 36 years. Since his resignation, Halliday has dedicated himself to the cause of ending the sanctions, speaking to audiences internationally about what he describes as a “genocide” against Iraqis. Von Sponeck says he is now interested in speaking out about the impact of sanctions, too, and is committed to working to see them lifted.
In announcing his resignation, von Sponeck noted that “I’m not at all alone [in the United Nations in ] in my view that we have reached a point where it is no longer acceptable that we are keeping our mouths shut” about the tragedy in Iraq. In fact, his resignation was immediately followed by an announcement from Jutta Burghardt, the director of the World Food Program’s operations in Iraq, that she would also be stepping down. “It is a true humanitarian tragedy what is happening here and I believe any human being who looks at the facts and the impact of the sanctions on the population will not deny that [von Sponeck] is right,” Burghardt said.
The resignations of Halliday, von Sponeck, and Burghardt have sent the State Department and British Foreign Ministry — the two main defenders of the war being waged against the Iraqi people — into a frenzy. State Department spokesperson James Rubin attacked von Sponeck, suggesting that he was unsuitable for the post of humanitarian coordinator and that he had acted “beyond the range of his competence or his authority” in pointing to the problems of the oil-for-food program he administered. “His job is to work on behalf of the Iraqi people and not the regime,” Rubin asserted. Others charged that von Sponeck had come under the influence of Halliday. One diplomat told the Financial Times that “There was a feeling that Halliday had become a kind of militant, and it was thought Von Sponeck, who is very calm, would be different. But he too started to speak about sanctions.”
Pro-sanctions forces are increasingly on the defensive. Explaining why the Clinton administration held a March 23 press conference in Washington, DC, at which it attempted to raise fears that the Iraqi government is building a base for rebels fighting the government of neighboring Iran, one unnamed senior administration official said, “This is a propaganda campaign. There’s no question that this is what we are doing here. This is part of our effort to show the world the danger Saddam [Hussein] would pose if the controls on the access to his oil revenues were lifted.” Because of that potential threat from its former ally — which the United States happened to have supported against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War –, the twisted logic goes, ordinary Iraqis must suffer a state of siege that has doubled under-five child mortality in central and southern Iraq (Unicef); destroyed its once highly advanced medical system; eroded literacy; caused mass unemployment; and deprived a generation of any hope.
It’s not only the United States that is losing “the propaganda campaign.” Noting that the UN sanctions committee, dominated by the United States, has held up $1.7 billion of Iraqi purchases under the oil-for-food program, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered a report to the Security Council on March 24, in which he said, “We are in danger of losing the argument or propaganda war–if we haven’t lost it already–about who is responsible for this situation, President Saddam Hussein or the United Nations.” Annan added: “The United Nations has always been on the side of the vulnerable and weak … yet here we are accused of causing suffering to an entire population.”
The Washington press conference about the Iran bases was clearly timed to coincide with the UN Security Council meeting and to hold the line on sanctions in the council. Only Britain and the United States voted for the most recent resolution maintaining sanctions, Resolution 1284. China, France, and Russia abstained, reflecting the further erosion of support for the US position. France and Russia, for reasons of self-interest more than humanitarianism, are eager to gain access to Iraq’s enormous oil reserves. Iraq owes Russia more than $6 billion from the Gulf War; and France has an edge on Iraqi oil concessions, should sanctions on Iraq be lifted. France has already set a precedent for sanctions busting when a buck is to be made. The French-based oil corporation Total defied US sanctions on Iran a few years ago, signing a multi-billion dollar oil arrangement and openly challenging the United States government to retaliate.
These are not the only signs that the tide is turning against sanctions. Britain’s ITV recently devoted an hour and a half to John Pilger’s important new documentary, “Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq,” which was seen by millions of viewers. British papers were dominated by anti-sanctions arguments in the following weeks. The Economist, hardly an ally on such matters, recently questioned sanctions, noting that “Saddam Hussein remains implanted in power without, for the past 15 months, any UN inspectors on the spot to discourage him from reinventing his nastiest toys. At the same time, sanctions have all but destroyed his country: its health and educational systems have collapsed; its infrastructure has rusted away; its middle classes have disappeared into poverty; [and] its children are dying.”
A parliamentary committee in Britain, the Select International Development Committee, has just issued a report in which it argues: “although sanctions may well represent a low-cost alternative to war in financial terms, they are all too often as damaging–in humanitarian and developmental terms–as armed conflict…. There is a clear consensus that the humanitarian and developmental situation in Iraq has deteriorated seriously since the imposition of comprehensive economic sanctions whilst, at the same time, sanctions have clearly failed to hurt those responsible for past violations of international law as Saddam Hussein and his ruling elite continue to enjoy a privileged existence.”
Closer to home, a delegation of five Congressional staffers that traveled to Iraq in August and September 1999 with Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies has recently issued a report challenging the sanctions regime. The team concluded that “oil for food program funds are barely enough for Iraqis’ urgent and immediate physical needs, with nothing made available for intellectual needs. The result is complete intellectual deprivation…. The image of emaciated babies and malnourished young children ill or even dying in Iraq is by now well-known in the U.S. The staff delegation, visiting hospitals in Baghdad, Amara and Basra, found that reality unchanged, with most of the children dying from treatable diseases, usually the result of unclean water and exacerbated by malnutrition.”
In “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Bob Dylan sang the damning lines “Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” capturing a moment in the 1960s which the tide was turning against media and government lies in the service of power — at home and abroad. Internationally, the tide is now turning against sanctions, but the US and UK are not going to drop them without a significant fight. “The United States is, and will remain, second to none in enforcing sanctions,” James Rubin emphasized in a recent letter to the Washington Post.
The movement against sanctions is reaching a critical mass, but we still have our work cut out for us if we are going to see the embargo and the ongoing bombings ended. On April 4 and August 6 (Hiroshima Day and the ten-year anniversary of the imposition of sanctions), activists will be coming to Washington, DC, to engage in education, protest, and civil disobedience to pressure Congress to end the sanctions. We owe it to the Iraqi people to be there.
Anthony Arnove (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor of Iraq Under Siege (South End Press). He recently traveled to Iraq with members of Voices in the Wilderness and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. For information on the demonstrations in Washington, DC, contact Voices in the Wilderness at email@example.com.