National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 26, 2003

An Iraqi child plays amid the rubble of a former rocket factory that was hit by bombs in Baghdad during the U.S.-let war. In December, at least 10 homeless families were occupying the damaged building.
-- CNS/Reuters
Sanctions gone from discussion of 'dark era'


Hours after announcing to the world the discovery of the entombed tyrant, the two men most responsible for the chain of events leading to the capture of Saddam Hussein had words for the Iraqi people and the world.

“A dark and painful era is over,” President Bush declared. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was more specific, accusing the Iraqi leader and his now-dead sons of reducing the Iraqi people to “poverty and to penury.”

But beneath all the talk of the indisputable horrors of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, significant questions remain. From the past: What role did more than a decade of economic sanctions play in bringing about the “poverty and penury” Iraqis face today? And into the future: What effect will Saddam’s capture have on such matters as immediate security, a transition to Iraqi control and the country’s long-term prospects?

At the nexus of the debate over the effect of sanctions were two men, Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponek, both former U.N. officials who gave up their careers because of their opposition to what was occurring in Iraq during the era of sanctions.

Though sanctions have quickly receded to the distant background in the wake of war, the Iraqi resistance and the capture of Hussein, both Halliday and von Sponek would contend that what went on for more than a decade to debilitate the dictator’s regime made a deep impression on ordinary Iraqis and their attitude toward Americans.

In early 2000, the man charged with administering the Oil-for-Food humanitarian aid program -- the top United Nations official in the country -- quit his job as an act of resistance.

It was a remarkable moment in United Nations history.

“As a U.N. official,” Hans von Sponeck, a German, told reporters at the time, “I should not be expected to be silent to that which I recognize as a true human tragedy that needs to be ended.” He was talking about the economic sanctions. He was there to make them more humane. He found that a nearly impossible task.

More remarkable still was the fact that his predecessor, Irish-born Denis Halliday, had done the same thing, and for the same reason.

Shortly before his resignation, Halliday remarked in an interview with London’s Independent newspaper that humanitarian aid to Iraq was “only Band-Aid stuff.”

And after leaving his post, Halliday declared, “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.”

The two men had more than 60 years experience working for the United Nations between them, and more than a year each inside Saddam’s Iraq.

They spoke out tirelessly in the months after they resigned against economic sanctions and then against war.

But on the chaos and tragedies of post-Hussein Iraq, the two men are relatively silent, at least here in the United States.

“It’s difficult for me to speak with American audiences about their failures and breach of international law and all the rest of it,” said Halliday, who has divided his time between homes in Dublin, Ireland, and New York City for more than 30 years.

“To tell American audiences that Bush should be indicted doesn’t go over well -- they should hear that from Americans, not from the Irish. There is just a total lack of understanding in America of how serious the problem is for the United Nations and for international law with a man like Bush and the current regime in Washington.

“In Europe,” he noted, “there is much more awareness of how bad it has become.”

Still, Von Sponeck sometimes struggles with his message. “I just can’t comprehend what I see coming out of Washington,” he said. “It is overwhelming. Often the response that I want to give is extreme. I am not a fanatic; I do not want to be a fanatic.”

These men are not fanatics. For most of their lives, they were company men. From U Thant to Kofi Annan, Halliday and Von Sponeck served under five of the organization’s seven secretaries general, filling posts from New York to New Delhi.

“I lived the organization,” Von Sponeck said. And more than four years after leaving the United Nations, Halliday still considers himself a member of the extended family, using “we” and not “they” when referring to the organization.

Not surprisingly, they still keep a company man’s eye on issues and events surrounding the nearly 70-year-old United Nations. And they don’t like what they see.

“It was a sad moment in the history of the U.N.,” said Von Sponeck, “when in March the U.S. and British governments decided to ignore the advice and counsel of their 13 fellow Security Council members and go it alone in violation of international law.

“There were alternatives,” he continued. “It is painful to speculate on what could have been avoided.”

Certainly one of those things was the Aug. 19 bombing of the Canal Hotel -- long the U.N. headquarters in Iraq. The suicide attack hit both men on a deeply personal level. The car-bomb blast killed the top United Nations envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira DeMello and his secretary, along with 20 others.

DeMello was a colleague of Von Sponeck’s when they were both working at U.N. headquarters in New York City. He knew him well. The two had spoken by telephone just one week prior to the attack. What’s more, Von Sponeck added, “Mr. DeMello and his secretary died in the office in which I did my job for 17 months. It was not just the building, but my office where he was assassinated.”

It had been Halliday’s office as well. He remembers noting just how vulnerable the office was to an attack.

But why was the United Nations a target? On this, Halliday is brutally clear. “When you think it through, why not? We, the U.N., have been tainted and corrupted by our presence in Iraq and the work that we have done in Iraq and the beck and call of the Americans and the British.

“For 12 years,” he continued, “the U.N. tortured Iraq. There is hardly an Iraqi family for example that has not lost parents or children or extended family unnecessarily due to the consequences of U.N. sanctions. So the U.N. is a hated identity.

“The Security Council has been corrupted. It has become an instrument of American foreign policy. It is very simple, really. So why are we surprised?”

In the end, said Von Sponeck, the attack on the United Nations “shows us the extent to which angry people are willing to go in order to express their hostility towards occupation.”

The eventual withdrawal of the United Nations from Iraq, Von Sponeck added, “is an indication of the seriousness of the security situation in Baghdad and in other parts of Iraq. The message right now -- from the International Red Cross, from Médecins Sans Frontières, from the United Nations -- is that the security circumstances have deteriorated to the point where we have to make this painful decision of temporarily withdrawing our staff.”

So what should U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan do?

“I think he has to say that the United Nations system is on standby,” Halliday said, “There is nobody else with the political and the humanitarian and the development skills that the U.N. can assemble.

“The agencies, UNICEF, and even the political side of the United Nations should be put on standby to go into Iraq in full capacity -- fully funded, of course, by the member states -- the moment the United States’ military occupation is terminated.

“Of course there would have to be a handover period,” he continued, “but until then he should say that the United Nations cannot operate under occupation circumstances. And in doing that he has got to announce that the United Nations cannot collaborate with any occupying force anywhere at anytime. Not just the United States.”

The United States, Halliday believes, would likely reject such a bold stand.

“But,” Halliday said, “that rejection would raise the question: Why? Is it because Mr. Bush doesn’t want to look like a failure? After having rejected and denigrated the U.N., how could he now possibly let them take over?”

“This is a terrible thing to say,” Von Sponeck added, “but the situation is absolutely worse for many Iraqis than it was when the dictator was still in power.”

“It’s a desperate situation,” said Halliday, who also maintains contact with former Iraqi colleagues. “My God, they’ve gone through hell and now we are putting them through worse. What did they do to deserve us?

“And it is us,” he concluded, “not just Washington. We are all in this some way.”

Jeff Guntzel writes from Indianapolis. Earlier this year he reported on the aftermath of the Iraq war for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003

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