Book Review of The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq by H C von Sponeck
In this book Hans-Christof von Sponeck, a German diplomat who had been with the UN for 30 years, details the devastating impact of sanctions on the people of Iraq, and the determination of the US and UK governments led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, not to acknowledge this or take action to improve conditions for the Iraqi people. Even though this book was published back in 2006 the lessons to be learned are manifest and need to be aired again in 2022.
Throughout his presidency of Iraq, Saddam Hussain lived a life style far removed from that experienced by the people of Iraq. His rule was autocratic and brutal; beatings and torture were common place. Presidential decrees catalogued the brutality that could be inflicted on offenders (p. 295). During the time that he was president, Iraq was engaged in three wars: in 1980 Iraq launched a war with Iran that lasted eight years, in 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, and in 2003 a US led coalition invaded Iraq.
Iraq had been a relatively prosperous country; there was an oil industry, agriculture, water, sanitation, power, healthcare and education. The wars with Iran and Kuwait had severely degraded the national infrastructure. After the liberation of Kuwait, comprehensive economic sanctions were imposed by the United Nations (UN) with exemptions for humanitarian supplies.
The ‘Oil-for-Food’ programme was how the UN managed what Iraq could spend its money on, it was not aid. The Iraqis were allowed to produce a certain amount of oil but the income was managed by the UN, with 30% (later 25%) set aside to pay compensation arising from the invasion of Kuwait, with most of the remainder used to buy goods exempt from sanctions. The responsibility for the administration of the scheme was United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq. In November 1998 Hans-Christof von Sponeck took over this role following the resignation of Denis Halliday who had resigned saying:
“I was driven to resignation because I refused to continue to take Security Council orders, the same Security Council that had imposed and sustained genocidal sanctions on the innocent of Iraq. I did not want to be complicit. I wanted to be free to speak out publicly about this crime”.
The people of Iraq
The mindset in the US and UK governments was that one was either for Saddam or against him; neither it seems was on the side of the Iraqi people (p. 12).
The revenue from the sale of Oil, provided just $0.32/day per person for food and medicine (p. 14). The result was that one in five children was chronically malnourished (p. 87) and child mortality in Central and Southern Iraq rose to more than 10% (p. 165). This wasn’t the result of the world not having enough food, or Iraq not having enough money to buy food, or by Saddam hoarding all the food in warehouses, or ignorance by the UN of the consequences of their policies. The reason why the charge of genocide hangs over this period, is down to the failure of the UN to change its policies, and the role of the UK and US in blocking change.
Examples were given of some of the victims (p. 169)
- an old man in Erbil died because the medicines he needed were not available
- a child in Basrah who died because the hospital had no re-hydration fluids to treat cholera
- twins in Baghdad were disabled due to severe stunting in early childhood because their parents couldn’t feed them
The US and the UK maintained that: “The suffering was entirely due to Saddam” (p. 100). Peter Hain would argue that: “it’s not right to blame sanctions for the suffering, nor would the situation necessarily improve if they were lifted” (p. 127).
Special rapporteur Andreas Mavromartis explained that the UN could not brush aside the humanitarian issue and that the UN was not innocent (p. 245).
Here are some quotes on the situation:
“If we subject a country to the tightest mediaeval style sieges, bankrupt its economy, and freeze its international assets how much food and medicine can it buy?”(p. 125).George Galloway
“The weak and the innocent cannot pay for the mistakes for which they are not responsible”.Pope John Paul II
“We have had 11 years of sanctions, there is no doubt that they bite, unfortunately they have bitten the wrong people” (p. 128).Archbishop George Carey
“A policy intended to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction has become a weapon of mass destruction” (p. 151).Agam Hasmy – Ambassador for Malaysia
Once it was shown that sanctions were having such a devastating effect on the people of Iraq, the failure of the UN to take corrective action meant the sanctions became genocidal. Human rights violations by Saddam, appalling as they were, had nothing to do with the right of Iraqis to have their basic human needs provided (p. 278).
Distortion and blocking
The role of any manager is to collect data, analyse and share the results to help those involved in the project make better decisions. At a briefing by the Humanitarian Coordinator, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was astonished to learn that the reporting and monitoring structures were so inefficient (p. 23). The author put a great deal of personal effort into improving the data collection and reporting; but struggled to change the reporting structures outside his control.
Rather than respond in a positive way to address the humanitarian crisis, the US and UK repeatedly tried to clamp down on the flow of information about the impact of sanctions and visits to the UN Security Council by the Humanitarian Coordinator were blocked (p. 125). The US and UK even sought to have the Humanitarian Coordinator replaced, but he continued to enjoy the confidence of the Secretary General.
In September 1999 the US and UK government stated that billions of dollars of aid were undistributed, but no supporting details were provided. In contrast the UN in Iraq could show transparently and in detail that 88% of all supplies had been distributed. Another claim was that 32% of all medicines had not been distributed, but in fact these were buffer stocks held at levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in case of outbreaks of epidemics (p. 77-8). The UN was often too timid in setting the record straight (p. 276) and failing to protest the serious distortion of facts for fear of retribution by the US (p. 78).
Following illegal airstrikes by the UK and US, data was collected by various UN staff about their impact. For the UK and US these reports were out of order; for von Sponeck they were evidence of serious wrong-doing. The UK Deputy Representative at the UN, Sir Stewart Eldon, questioned why these reports were even produced, claiming that they were Iraqi propaganda (p. 212).
Violations of International Law and Human Rights
By the end of a long opening chapter (170 pages!), the reader is no longer shocked to learn that the actions of UN had violated the following:
- The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child;
- The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; and
- The International Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights (p. 171).
The establishment of the ‘No Fly Zones’ by the US and UK violated international law and was not even debated by the UN Security Council (p. 209). When the US and UK bombed Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) the UN Secretary General could do no more than note the grave breach of international law (p. 192).
The UN Security Council even managed to break international law when it the lifted sanctions in 2003, as it failed at the same time to declare that Iraq had complied with UN resolutions 687 and 1284, and so fulfilled its obligations for disarmament and was free from weapons of mass destruction (p. 136).
This book should be read by the leaders of the western world so that they learn not run the risk of precipitating a similar genocide in Afghanistan. Surely mechanisms can be found to distribute aid without lining the pockets of the Taliban.
Money and resource
Perhaps the most significant error made by the UN was the decision to fix the funding formula based on oil production, without first evaluating what the humanitarian requirements would be(p.19,103). How could anyone think that $0.32/day per person for food and medicine was realistic?
The flow of goods into Iraq was slowed by overly complex procedures, an example is given that lists 23 major steps to be completed to bring Water equipment from Spain to site for installation (p.71). Other barriers and restrictions included: a ban on using revenue to buy locally produced vegetables or meat; essential equipment to repair the infrastructure would be blocked by the UN Sanctions Committee on the grounds of potential use by the military (even though the UN had people on the ground to monitor the deployment of goods).
The people of Iraq were forced to continue paying for goods that were not fit for purpose, as the standard procurement contract didn’t include the usual clause that would allow some of the payment to be withheld until the goods had been delivered and checked for quality. An attempt to correct this was blocked by the US and UK at the Sanctions committee, where in the author’s words “rational argument was unsuccessful” (p.73-4).
This book is a damning condemnation of the role the UK played at the United Nations in the period before the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. The critical lessons to take and share from this work are:
- The extent to which it has become acceptable for those in power to ignore inconvenient truths, distort facts, and seek to discredit those who are critical of policy, rather than seek to understand genuine concerns and address them.
- That government and wider society in general, doesn’t seem to understand the importance of complying with international law and human rights. There is a compelling argument that the government of the UK was complicit in genocide.
- In 1999-2003 people in the UK didn’t know what Denis Halliday and Hans-Christof von Sponeck knew. The few who took the trouble to find out and speak up were discredited or ignored by the media and the government. The concentrated ownership and control of the news media in the UK ensures that: only a narrow range of views are represented, falsehoods and distortions are widely shared, and that government can get away with murder.