The Age
Officials criticise sanctions


Saturday 19 February 2000

New York -  The resignations this week of two United Nations officials overseeing aid to Iraq have highlighted the UN's conundrum in trying to make Baghdad play by the world's rules. Economic sanctions, the officials say, are enriching the country's elite while hurting the general population. And they no longer want to be part of it.

Mr Hans von Sponeck, who was responsible for distributing humanitarian goods in Iraq, and Ms Jutta Burghardt, the director of the World Food Program, stepped down this week, calling the situation there "a true human tragedy" that has no end in sight. Mr von Sponeck's predecessor, Mr Denis Halliday, quit in 1998 for the same reasons.

"The sanctions are taking their toll on the wrong people in every respect," Mr von Sponeck said. "I consider it ethically unacceptable."

An economic embargo imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 has blocked most imports and, until December, restricted oil exports until Iraq can show that it has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction. At the time, the sanctions were supposed to last six months. Instead, it has turned into a nine-year standoff.

The sanctions have reduced Iraq's gross national product by 75per cent and doubled the child mortality rate, according to a 1999 Unicef report. Malnutrition and mental illness are growing, Mr von Sponeck says, and the chronic deprivation is "ripping holes in the fabric of society".

But instead of compelling the Iraqi Government to cooperate with UN arms inspectors to have the restrictions lifted, the embargo has given President Saddam Hussein a foreign enemy to blame.

"People are resigning because they could no more be silent on the genocide which is taking place in Iraq," said Mr Saeed Hasan, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations.

But United States officials, who are driving the hard-line policy in the UN Security Council, say the blame for Iraqi suffering lies with Mr Saddam. The embargo does not restrict the import of food or medical supplies; until December, it limited the amount of oil Iraq could sell to buy them. A Security Council resolution in December lifted the ceiling on oil sales, and with the price of oil the highest in nine years, Mr Saddam's choices about how to provide for his people will be more conspicuous, a US official said.

Indeed, while chronicling the decline in health, the Unicef report and others also criticise the Iraqi Government for not rushing aid to its people. Food is distributed quickly, but nearly half the humanitarian goods languish in warehouses.

But the embargo is eroding. For profit or principle, Iraq's neighbors and allies are sneaking around the sanctions. A Russian tanker was caught allegedly smuggling Iraqi oil this month; dozens of others elude interception, according to the US State Department. Iraq was able to smuggle out a record $US70million ($110million) worth of oil in January, or about 100,000 barrels a day, a State Department spokesman said.

But most of that money goes into the pockets of members of a powerful elite running the black market.

"There's no indication that the money is going to humanitarian purposes," the US official said.

Even grassroots and church groups are getting into the act, openly defying the sanctions to make a philosophical point. The Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness has organised 30 trips to Iraq to deliver medicine and toys.

Original article