Iraq – Sanctions

IssueApril 2007
Feature by Gabriel Carlyle , Hans von Sponeck
  • PN: In February 2000, after more than 30 years of working for the UN you resigned to protest the sanctions on Iraq. Why?

  • H: If we reported on the humanitarian situation it was ignored. If we tried to suggest measures that would improve the flow of humanitarian supplies either it wasn't acted upon or only with much delay.

    When we reported on the conditions in Iraq, the US State Department and the British Foreign Office would give a totally different interpretation even though we were on the ground and had direct access to people. What we saw with our own eyes in Iraq was pitiful. For example the conditions in the schools, there were no teaching aids, not even chairs. There was no chalk, no blackboards, there were no windows. All destroyed, all dilapidated. I remember vividly a school library containing 50 books, when I took one out it fell to pieces because it had been used so many times.

    I became increasingly aware that I was being misused-had become a tool for somebody else's policies-that we were up against an insurmountable wall of disinformation.

  • PN: You've written about the “amazing diversity” of activists from all over the world who interviewed you in Iraq “doctors, priests, ministers, professors, retired civil servants, students and housewives” What role do you think this international grassroots mobilisation against the sanctions played in changing the situation in Iraq and in the UN?

  • H: In the UN practically no role at all, but in the international conscience I would say it played a big role, because it generated information about the conditions and it also proved to people around the world that there was a conscience. Every year the Spanish buses would come to Iraq, the Italians would come; and much to my surprise the largest single group of people came from the United States - they wanted to inform themselves.

  • PN: How does the humanitarian situation in Iraq today compare with that under sanctions when you were in Iraq?

  • H: The main difference is the security. Today no-one knows whether or not they will not be victims of an attack because attacks have taken place across the country. But at the same time the conditions in the hospitals, the water supply, the sanitation, are absolutely worse than during my time in Baghdad.

  • PN: The IMF has been pressuring the Iraqi Government to cut back the food ration that millions of Iraqis depend on. What would be the impact of such a move?

  • IH: The same as with petrol. Petrol was affordable, and today because of IMF policies it has become totally unaffordable. I don't know when the IMF and the World Bank will learn-after so many decades of interference in the pricing of commodities which the poor need, like water and sanitation and electricity. To introduce market-determined pricing under normal circumstances creates a lot of difficulties-it has created havoc in many African countries-you can imagine what it means in Iraq, it's simply ridiculous.

  • PN: Do you see any way out of the current nightmare in Iraq? And do you see the UN, in particular, as having any constructive future role in Iraq?

  • H: It may sound simplistic when I say the first step towards a healing process in Iraq is the end of the occupation. No more foreign troops unless they are UN peacekeeping forces rather than a combat force as exists right now.

    It is again part of this misinformation machinery that makes people believe that a chaos of unimaginable dimensions will break out when the troops are leaving. Nonsense! How can the chaos be worse than it is already?

    What you see right now with the recent conference in Baghdad is a good step in the right direction. But it's no good for just Syria, Iran, the Maliki government, the Americans, the British-with the UN as a timid appendix-to sit there and talk, the insurgents have to be there too. So troops out, monologues ending, dialogues to begin, and maybe then the UN can again play a stronger role.

    As an outsider I can speak as I think, but I don't think any differently now than I did when I served for 32 years in the UN. I still feel like a UN officer because what I do is totally consistent with what the UN Charter is advocating.

Topics: Iraq
See more of: Interview