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Former U.N. official travels, speaks out for fairness to Iraq

Paterson, N.J.

Dozens of heads nodded in agreement when Hans von Sponeck told a crowd of Muslims that one does not have to be an American to have feelings of sadness, compassion and anger over the terrorist attacks on America. Many in the audience at the Islamic Center of Passaic County here Oct. 25 were immigrants from Egypt, Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations.

“All decent people will feel American when it comes to the events of Sept. 11,” said the former United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. But he reminded them that “a World Trade Center incident happens every month in Iraq,” where some 5,000 children die from malnutrition and disease. The United Nations estimates that more than a million Iraqis have died due, directly or indirectly, to 11 years of sanctions.

Von Sponeck cautioned against applying one yardstick to America and a different one to human tragedy elsewhere.

Like his predecessor Denis Halliday of Ireland, who resigned his post in protest of the U.N.-imposed embargo, Von Sponeck quit last year after 32 years as a career U.N. official. Before taking up his job in Baghdad in 1998, he had served as U.N. resident coordinator in Pakistan and in India for 12 years. He is a citizen of Germany and lives with his American wife in Geneva, Switzerland.

Von Sponeck said he could not be silent in the face of “punitive” measures against civilian Iraqis, many of whom were born after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

He spends his time lobbying for an end to sanctions and the opening of dialogue with Iraq. He has met with anti-sanctions groups across Europe and has brought his views to the United States at the invitation of Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the economic sanctions against the people of Iraq.

Late last month he talked with members of Pax Christi Metro New York, addressed crowds at Riverside Church and Fordham University in New York, and at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J., before spending a week at universities in California.

Von Sponeck acknowledged that Saddam Hussein has contributed to the suffering of his people and said that it makes sense to fear a despot with such a poor human rights record. But Americans suffer from “political amnesia,” forgetting that the Iraqi dictator is not “a self-made man.” He said the United States should not be so self-righteous about Saddam, after backing him for a decade in Iraq’s war with Iran.

When the United Nations imposed a trade embargo in 1990, including a stop to oil exports, it was to punish Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait and to prevent it from importing technology to make weapons. In 1996 the United Nations allowed Iraq to sell limited stocks of oil in order to purchase essential goods under U.N. supervision. After extracting funds to feed the Kurds in Iraq and to compensate Kuwait, Iraq was left last year with only enough revenue to allocate $252 per year per person to its 22 million citizens, von Sponeck said.

It was von Sponeck’s job to manage the distribution of goods under the “Oil-for-Food” program and to verify Iraqi compliance with that undertaking. U.N. stock reports indicate that more than 90 percent of the food, medicines and other humanitarian supplies allocated are distributed each month, he said. But von Sponeck, who spent much time in the field during his 17-month tenure in Iraq, found that the civilian population was being punished for something it never had done. He also learned that U.N. officials were little interested in his reports of the human costs of sanctions. At times they likened them to “Iraqi propaganda.”

Among his findings, which, he said, have been verified by other U.N. workers in Iraq, by CARE, CARITAS, the Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations, are:

  • On average 147 parents lose a child to death in Iraq each day.
  • Incidents of child and adult cancers are widespread in areas close to Basra where U.S. forces used depleted uranium during the Gulf War.
  • One in five children suffers from malnutrition.
  • Mental disorders in children under age 14 are increasing.
  • Contamination of water systems and lack of repair equipment has helped to spread diarrhea, typhoid and cholera for which there are insufficient medicines to cure.
  • Literacy rates, which were at 80 percent in 1985 had fallen to 58 percent in 1995.
  • In a nation that once prized “gender-balanced” education, only a trickle of girls attend schools as their parents lack the money to educate both boys and girls.
  • According to a UNESCO study, 37 percent of school buildings are too dangerous for use as a result of damage inflicted by the Gulf War.
  • Iraq’s medical schools, which once trained many foreign doctors, have not been allowed to obtain new textbooks, research articles or medical journals in 11 years.
  • The national unemployment rate is estimated at between 60 and 75 percent.

“I have never seen more people crying, sitting staring or unable to cope,” said von Sponeck. “It is a scandal that the international community allowed this punitive action to happen,” he said.

Von Sponeck vehemently opposes the so-called “smart sanctions” proposed by Britain and backed by the United States, which would end embargoes on all civilian imports while retaining sanctions on weapons-related goods. A threatened Russian veto defeated the measure in the U.N. Security Council in June, but the United States and the United Kingdom are expected to try again in November.

While their sponsors regard the smart sanctions as motivated by humanitarian concerns for the suffering of Iraqis, von Sponeck told NCR that they would not produce improvements but rather “tighten the rope around the neck of the average Iraqi.” Only the restoration of a national economy with the possibility of foreign investment can end Iraq’s decline, he said.

When the current sanctions come up for review in December, they could be extended, he said. Now that Iraq’s neighbor, Syria, is on the Security Council, the atmosphere in the council could change, but it won’t avoid a decision on Iraq, he said.

Von Sponeck rejects the claims by Richard Butler, former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, that Baghdad still poses a nuclear and biological warfare threat. “Where is the evidence?” he asked.

He cited former Defense Secretary William Cohen’s talks with incoming President Bush on Jan. 10, at which time Cohen stated, “Iraq no longer poses a military threat to its neighbors.”

When it comes to Iraq and other areas of the Middle East, the U.S. media is full of “disinformation, distortion and misinterpretation,” much of it emanating from the State Department, von Sponeck said. He noted, “It’s easier to demonize an enemy than to get the facts.”

A case in point: Saddam Hussein, a secularist, and Osama bin Laden, a Muslim fundamentalist, have only one thing in common: their antagonism toward America, he said. “That is not sufficient to make them allies,” even if the media would like to portray them as such, he said.

Confrontation must not be the way out in the struggle against Iraq, von Sponeck said. He hopes that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s call for dialogue in February 2000 will at last be heeded. That dialogue should be on three levels, von Sponeck said: between the international community and Iraq, between the Arab lands and Baghdad “without U.S. intervention” and between the Iraqis and the Kurds “without international interference.”

Based on his experience, von Sponeck said: “If you are fair with an Iraqi, he’s twice as fair with you.”

Related Web sites

United Nations Office of the Iraq Program

Voices in the Wilderness

Patricia Lefevere is NCR’s special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001