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Hans von Sponeck challenges British government on Iraq sanctions


December 2000

An open letter from Hans von Sponeck (Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq) to the British government, in response to a speech by Peter Hain, Foreign Office Minister. Published in The Guardian, 4 January 2001.

... it is an outrage that against your better knowledge you repeat again and again truly fabricated and self-serving disinformation.


Dear Minister Hain,

17 December 2000 was the first anniversary of UN Resolution 1284. This resolution was offered by the UN security council last year as a step forward in resolving outstanding disarmament, and arms monitoring issues as a precondition for the suspension of comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq.

As many feared, including myself, this resolution was a still-born creation. For this neither the British nor the Iraqi governments but rather the people of Iraq continue to pay dearly and daily. The European public is increasingly unwilling to accept such a policy. There is deep concern because of the suffering of innocent civilians and the irrefutable evidence of violations of international law by the UN security council.

Without a transparent political agenda and a determined end to contaminating information, I do not see an end to this costly human tragedy in Iraq. Your speech of 7 November at Chatham House has not helped in this regard. Let me single out nine specific points of what you have said:

"Our air crews risk their lives patrolling the skies above southern Iraq."

The public does not know that you do this without a mandate by the UN security council. It is in your hands to stop endangering your pilots by withdrawing them from Iraqi skies. It angered your office that I introduced air-strike reporting for 1999 while serving in Iraq. I did so as the UN secretary general's designated official for security because of the dangers for the security of a highly mobile team of UN observers travelling daily on the roads of Iraq. The report showed that out of 132 incidents, UN staff was witness to such air strikes on 28 occasions. The public does not know that in the very areas you established as 'no-fly zones' to protect (7) the population living there, 144 civilians died and 446 were wounded by UK/US airforces. The FCO classified these reports as Iraqi propaganda with a UN imprimatur" even though much of it was collected and verified by UN staff travelling in the areas at the time of the strikes.

"Our sailors are involved in activities to curb the illegal export of Iraqi oil."

This is known. You are silent, as you have been in all your statements, about the UK condoned export of illegal oil from Iraq into Turkey. Your silence is understandable albeit not acceptable if you want the full story to be known. US/UK concurrence to this illegal export of oil is in exchange for Turkish government agreement to the use of Incirlik airbase in south-eastern Anatolia for allied sorties into the northern no-fly zone of Iraq.

"I firmly believe that he (President of Iraq) remains determined to develop his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capacity."

You offer no evidence. What I in turn 'firmly believe' is that you want to keep a picture of Iraq alive even though it no longer reflects the realities on the ground. This is not surprising. Without it the case for sanctions would be over. I remind here of what former Unscom chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter recently said: "There is absolutely no reason to believe that Iraq could have meaningfully reconstituted any element of its WMB capabilities in the past 18 months." Around the same time, Dr Blix, executive chairman of Unmovic, answered the question whether there was any indication that Iraq was trying to rearm. "No, I do not think you can say this. We have nothing to substantiate this."

Iraq resolution 1284 "represents the collective will of the Security Council and has the full force of International Law."

You know how deceptive this assertion is. Three out of five permanent members and Malaysia did not support this resolution. Yes, security council decisions constitute international law. This puts a formidable responsibility on the shoulders of the UN security council. You are aware, no doubt, of the increasing numbers of serious objections by international legal experts to the continued application of these laws. The evidence is overwhelming that after ten years of sanctions these 'acts' have become illegal.

(UN) "resolution 1284 removed the ceiling on the amount of oil Iraq is allowed to export."

This is a political ploy. Your government knows well from annual UN reports on the state of the Iraqi oil industry that Iraq cannot pump more oil unless the UN security council allows a complete overhaul of the oil industry. You mention "recent increases' in (oil) production." Why do you do this when you know that the Iraqi oil output has not increased at all but exports have fluctuated around 2.2m barrels per day?

"With this large amount of revenue available, one cannot help but ask why we still see pictures of malnourished and sick children?"

My first reaction to this tendentious statement is to ask whether your officials ever show you UN documents? Unicef has repeatedly pointed out that this reality is only going to change when the sanctions regime is once again replaced by a normally functioning economy. Let me add that more often than not, it is the blocking of contracts by the US/UK which has created immense problems in implementing the oil-for-food programme. The present volume of blocked items amounts to $2.3bn the highest ever.

"It is an outrage that the Iraqi government wilfully denies food and medicine...".

Please forgive me if I say that it is an outrage that against your better knowledge you repeat again and again truly fabricated and self-serving disinformation. Why do you ignore UN stock reports which give you the monthly distribution situation and which, verified by UN observers, show for food, medicines and other humanitarian supplies an average of over 90% distributed per month?

"Contrast the situation with northern Iraq where the same sanctions apply but Saddam's writ does not run."

This statement is correct. The Kurdish areas are indeed doing better. I am distressed, however, about the false impression you create with the simplistic causality you offer. A fair comparison would mention that i) the Kurdish population received 19.4% of the oil revenue, i.e. a disproportionately higher amount than the population in central/southern Iraq; ii) sanctions are regularly broken in northern Iraq; iii) there is extensive cross-border trade with Turkey and therefore good income earning opportunities; iv) the UN security council does not block many contracts benefiting the Kurdish areas; v) the climatic conditions in the hilly areas of the north are more favourable. Why are you, Minister, not mentioning these factors?

"... there are those who are undermining sanctions and challenging the authority of the UN."

Yes, this is true, and it includes me. Do accept, Minister Hain, that I do so with the utmost discomfort. I am fully aware that this weakens the very machinery which has been set up to deal with conflicts like this one. However, I see no other alternative when the fundamentals of human rights and international law are applied in a biased and lopsided manner. The human rights coin has two sides, Minister. Lawlessness of one kind does not justify lawlessness of another kind! This has grave consequences not only for the suffering of the Iraqi people but also for the importance we should ascribe in Europe to the laws earlier governments have helped to create. The FCO should carefully study the deposition of Professor Bossuyt to the Human Rights Commission in June 2000. It provides comprehensive legal arguments by a large group of jurists of the serious violation of international law by the UN security council in which the UK has always played such an important role.

Let me end by saying, the Iraq file cannot be handled objectively and in the interest of the people of Iraq unless the hidden agenda disappears. When this happens then but only then does this sentence in the closing paragraph of your Chatham House speech get the value it deserves. " We support human rights, transparency and accountability for other people because the values we demand for ourselves!" Yes, this is how it should be, Minister!

Yours Sincerely

H.C. Graf Sponeck

Former Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq

Geneva, December 2000


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