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Burying Genocide – The Un ‘oil For Food’ Programme


Mainstream media show an astonishing capacity for overlooking western crimes against the people of Iraq: a country utterly devastated by two US-UK wars, and by twelve years of sanctions that resulted in more than a million civilian deaths.

Recent coverage of allegations of corruption in the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme is a dramatic case in point.

The oil for food programme was set up in 1996 by Denis Halliday, then the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, as an ameliorative measure to counter some of the worst effects of sanctions. In 1998, Halliday resigned in protest at the devastating effects of the revamped programme.

“These sanctions,” he told journalist John Pilger, “represented ongoing warfare against the people of Iraq. They became, in my view, genocidal in their impact over the years, and the Security Council maintained them, despite its full knowledge of their impact, particularly on the children of Iraq.” (John Pilger, ‘Who Are The Extremists?’, Daily Mirror, August 22, 2003)

In a May 2000 interview, Halliday told David Edwards:

“Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy… That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.” (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000, http://www.medialens.org/articles_2001/iraqdh.htm)

Halliday’s allegations, which could hardly be more serious, were based on his own experience in Iraq, and also on detailed reports by the UN and aid agencies studying the effects of the sanctions regime.

Hans von Sponeck, Halliday’s successor as UN humanitarian coordinator, also resigned. In his letter of resignation, von Sponeck wrote:

“How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” (John Pilger, ‘Squeezed to death’, The Guardian, March 4, 2000)

In a co-written newspaper article for the Guardian, von Sponeck and Halliday cited a UN report which concluded: “the death of some 5-6,000 children a month is mostly due to contaminated water, lack of medicines and malnutrition. The US and UK governments’ delayed clearance of equipment and materials is responsible for this tragedy, not Baghdad”. (Von Sponeck and Halliday, ‘The hostage nation’, The Guardian, November 29, 2001)

In all the endless discussion on Iraq’s recent history and, now, on the oil for food programme, the ‘liberal media’ has completely buried these horrific facts. Halliday, for example, was mentioned in 2 of the 12,366 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq last year; von Sponeck was mentioned just 5 times. Halliday has been mentioned in 0 of the 2,703 articles mentioning Iraq this year; von Sponeck has been mentioned 4 times.

In similar vein, Channel 4 News declares:

“The sanctions against Iraq were always bitterly criticised for allegedly directing funds to Saddam Hussein rather than the Iraqi people. Now it’s questionable whether some of the profits also went abroad.” (Channel 4 News At Noon, April 22, 2004)

The bitter criticism of the genocidal costs of sanctions is not allowed to exist.

Compare this with an article in the Daily Telegraph:

“Critics of the programme say it swiftly became a way for Saddam to reward his friends in the West and manipulate the UN.” (‘Russian and French politicians “bribed to relax UN sanctions”‘, Philip Delves Broughton, Daily Telegraph, April 22, 2004)

BBC Online covers the same story making the same omissions:

“Recent media reports have accused individuals and companies from more than 40 countries, including a senior UN official, of being involved in corruption and bribery in connection with the oil sales.”

The report quotes von Sponeck:

“Former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq Hans von Sponeck said the allegations needed to be cleared up, but denied that the world body was closely involved in corruption.

“‘The major part of the transactions where graft, misuse [and] kickbacks were involved by-passed United Nations officials,’ he told the Today programme.” (‘UN orders Iraq corruption inquiry’, BBC News, April 22, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3648409.stm)

No mention is made of von Sponeck’s passionate denunciations of the effects of sanctions on the Iraqi people.

The Daily Telegraph twists the truth out of all recognition in another article:

“There was no more bitter argument in the run-up to the war than the allegation by Left-wing activists, Arab nationalists and Muslim extremists that United Nations sanctions were ‘murdering’ Iraqi children by denying them food and medicine.

“They blamed Britain and the United States, which had maintained the sanctions in the face of growing opposition from France and Russia.

“Saddam’s regime routinely arranged for critics of sanctions to tour hospitals and children’s homes to view the suffering caused.” (‘Saddam cronies grew rich on cash meant for the starving’, David Rennie, Daily Telegraph, April 22, 2004)

The “Left-wing activists” presumably include the senior UN diplomats who set up and ran the oil for food programme, and also UN and aid agency researchers.

The Times’ editors write:

“It was always obvious that the scheme was not working as intended; Iraqi children went hungry, and hospitals went without drugs, while Saddam furnished more palaces.”

The programme is described as merely “defective” in supporting the Iraqi people. Of the literally millions of Iraqis who died and suffered terrible privations, the Times writes blandly:

“The UN stands accused of rank mismanagement, if not outright complicity, in a scandal whose victims were vulnerable civilians, some of whom died for lack of medicines.” (Leader, ‘Food for scandal’, The Times, April 22, 2004)

Exchange with The Independent

Exactly the same omissions are found in our most highly respected ‘liberal’ press. Andrew Buncombe, Washington correspondent of The Independent, wrote that:

“The controversial Oil-for-Food programme was set up in 1996 with the aim of helping Iraqis who were suffering because of UN sanctions imposed after the 1990-91 Gulf War. The scheme allowed Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil, supposedly under tight UN supervision, to finance the purchase of food and humanitarian goods.” (‘Saddam may have bribed head of UN Oil-for-Food [OFF] programme’, The Independent, April 22, 2004)

Buncombe says that the OFF programme was “controversial”. But he neglects to mention either Denis Halliday or Hans von Sponeck, former heads of that programme, who resigned in protest at the devastating effects of UN sanctions?

I emailed Buncombe, reminding him that a 1999 Unicef report calculated that more than half a million children had died as a direct result of sanctions. Why had he deemed this irrelevant to his report?

Buncombe replied: “my short answer to your question is that given more space and time i wd not only quoted halliday and van sponeck, as you suggest, but everybody else associated with the entire sanctions controversy. i wd have quoted madeleine albright (‘it was worth it’);, ritter, etc, and wd have lifted large sections from geoff simons’ seminal work, targeting iraq: sanctions and boming in us policy.”

Buncombe then gave the standard excuse of lack of space: “as it was i had, 460 words – and 20 minutes, given the other piece i was writing yesterday morning – to write a short piece on the investigation into the alleged corruption at the UN food programme involving three of its senior officials. in my – perhaps misguided – view, i think most people are aware of the controvery surrounding the sanctions and given the limited space i had, i had to make choices on what information i used.”

It is remarkable that in all of the media space represented by the Independent, the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, Channel 4 News and website, BBC News and website, and so on, there is somehow insufficient space to mention that Britain was complicit in genocide. Are we seriously to believe this silence is the result of a lack of space? In fact there is no shortage of space in the media – it is systematically denied, not lacking.

It is true that some readers are aware that “controversy” surrounds the UN sanctions regime. Not many, however, will be aware that senior UN diplomats have accused the US-UK of actual genocide in Iraq for the simple reason that it has very rarely been mentioned. Even if readers were aware, the extraordinary importance of the allegation surely merits emphasis. The media, after all, never tires of reminding us of Saddam’s gassing of civilians at Halabja – a trivial crime, by comparison.

Exchange with The Guardian

I also wrote a similar letter to Gary Younge of The Guardian regarding his equally selective and elite-friendly article, ‘UN backs oil for food inquiry’ (April 22, 2004).

Younge replied:

Dear Mr Cromwell, First of all my article was 350 words long which means many things are going to be left out. Given that it was a new article for a daily newspaper I chose to concentrate on the day’s news which was the launching of an investigation into corruption into the oil-for-food program.

Second, the reasons why two men resigned several years ago in protest at devastating the effect [sic] of sanctions – facts reported in the Guardian previously – maybe relevant to the broader story but not the immediate issue of corruption, kickbacks and the investigation that I was covering. With more space and a more discursive brief they may have been included and and, depending on the brief, time and space, I may include them future articles, if I am called on to write on that subject. Gary Younge

Again, Younge cites lack of space. Comment seems superfluous. Younge’s second point – that the Guardian has already given due coverage to Halliday and von Sponeck’s allegations, and on the effects of sanctions – is simply false as Media Lens has shown repeatedly in our Media Alerts.

The performance of the media on this issue fails to meet even our low expectations. Once again we find that the ‘free press’ is able to match totalitarian systems of power in suppressing even the most credible voices attempting to draw attention to the gravest abuses of power.

David Cromwell is co-editor of Media Lens (www.medialens.org). He is also co-founder of the Forum for the Study of Crisis in the 21st Century (www.crisis-forum.org.uk).

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