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Iraq sanctions - NZ's role

16 November 1999

Kia ora,

with Te Kaha currently in the Gulf enforcing the economic sanctions, it is timely to circulate the following opinion piece written by Dr Marten Hutt (Iraq Sanctions Medical Alert Group) written in late August 1999. At that time, Te Kaha was going directly to the Gulf, this was written before it was diverted to Darwin and East Timor on the way. That diversion was the subject of the ISMAG press release on 9 September ('Te Kaha / East Timor / Iraq').

The article below contains many useful facts and figures on NZ's past and current involvement with the blockade.

Reminder - if you are in the Wellington area, there will be a protest vigil and leafletting against the deployment of Te Kaha to the Gulf from 4-30pm to 5-30pm on Weds, 17 Nov; Fri 19 Nov; and Weds, 24 Nov - at the Cenotaph (outside parliament).

Oped submission: Iraq Sanctions: NZ's role

Since 1990, New Zealand (NZ) support of the sanctions against Iraq has been grounded on the commitment to the principles of collective security, protection of small states such as Kuwait from aggression, and the enforcement of United Nations (UN) resolutions. NZ is bound by international law and the UN Charter to accept the Security Council resolutions.

NZ's role in enforcing sanctions against Iraq

There are a number of facts which backup NZ's significant role in sanctions enforcement.

* NZ has been the only Western government to challenge the credibility of UN humanitarian data, refusing to accept data provided by UNICEF, WHO and UNESCO. The US and UK accept the data, but blame Saddam.

* NZ has had up to twelve military personnel serving with UNSCOM (UN Commission for weapons destruction).

* At any one time there are at least ten New Zealanders working with humanitarian agencies as doctors, nurses or aid workers in Iraq.

* A NZ diplomat was chair of the UN sanctions committee.

* In 1997-98, Iraq provided 282 of our 729 quota of refugees.

* In 1990 we sold $21.9M worth of lamb to Iraq, since which date we have sold nothing, nor initiated trade talks.

* The frigate Te Kaha will be in the Gulf for six weeks from early October to mid-November. This our fourth major contribution to the Multinational Interception Force (MIF) operating in the Gulf. Earlier this year a six-person boarding party worked on US Navy ships. The frigate Wellington was there from 23 October 1995 to 17 January 1996 and the Canterbury from 24 September - 18 November 1996. NZ is one of nine countries to have contributed to the MIF.

NZ frigates to the Gulf: Oil, bras, dates and pencils

In recent speeches the Minister of Defence, Max Bradford, has indicated that HMNZS Te Kaha would be sent to the Gulf this year (October-November). This is to meet "New Zealand's obligations as a good international citizen", through "policing and enforcing UN sanctions on Iraq".

Such postings have undoubtedly brought us closer to the United States - the meeting between Bradford and US Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen was the first such meeting in almost twenty years.

It is important to quantify what sending frigates to the Gulf actually achieves. Sending Te Kaha to the Gulf will cost the NZ taxpayer at least $6 million, which was the cost of sending the frigate Canterbury for a similar period in 1996 (NZ Herald 15 March 1997, p. A19).

In February 1999 I was told in a letter that the information of how many vessels the NZ frigates boarded and what goods were discovered was "not held by the New Zealand Defence Force". The Navy said the data was with the UN. The UN said such data was "retained by the United States authorities". This raises interesting questions about NZ sovereignty and the frigates being under an UN umbrella.

NZ journalists have published some data for the public. In 1995-96, Wellington intercepted a cargo of 400 tonnes of dates, worth NZ$500,000 (Judith Martin Evening Post 27 December 1995). The Indian-crewed ship full of dates was boarded by an armed party of NZ sailors, one with a shotgun and 11 with pistols. Although Iraqi dates are reputed to be the finest in the world, one of the sailors said "It would sound better if it were nuclear weapons or ammunition we were after. But dates? Who gets excited about dates?" Other interceptions found more illegal date exports and imports of welding rods and car batteries.

In 1996, Canterbury challenged 47 vessels and made 20 boardings, including the capture of a vessel trying to smuggle oil out of Iraq. The commander of the US Fifth Fleet, Admiral Tom Fargo, was quoted as saying the effort of the Canterbury was a record for any vessel in the MIF (NZ Herald 25 March 1997). A recent NZPA story by Ian Stuart (3 August 1999) interviewed Commander Paul Gilkison of the Canterbury:: "he said Canterbury stopped and searched a range of ships from a 60,000 tonne ship to the "most horrible" dhows". It intercepted a tug filled with 500 tonnes of oil in danger of sinking. It also intercepted a consignment of pencils. The frigate was issued with a list of banned imports, which included hubcaps and brassieres: Commander Gilkison said "these were things we would consider completely inane, why on earth would you bother stopping ships for that?"

Frigate deployment to enforce an arms embargo makes sense, but the wide-ranging economic and trade embargo is nonsensical. Saddam - and 5% of Iraq - is finding it absurdly easy to sidestep. The other 95%, the ones who do not buy, store or use weapons of mass destruction, are the ones left holding the (dead or malnourished) babies.

NZ anti-nuclear legislation

A number of peace groups, notably Peace Movement Aotearoa, have recently argued that sending frigates to the Gulf where they are under the operational command of the US Navy, breaches our anti-nuclear legislation. While there is a strong moral case for contending that it breaches the spirit of the legislation, it does not appear to break the letter of the law.

The two pieces of legislation are the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act 1987 and the Nuclear Test-Ban Act 1999. In a June letter to myself from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was argued that while NZ Defence Force personnel are bound by these Acts anywhere in the world, it did not preclude association with nuclear forces. Further, serving alongside forces that used depleted uranium (DU) for armour-piercing purposes would not fall within the definition of "nuclear explosive device" in Section 2 of the 1987 Act. A breach of the more specific 1999 legislation would require "evidence of participation in a nuclear explosion".

Given the huge rises in cancer rates among Iraqi children, which many medical experts feel could be attributed to the effects of depleted uranium, there may be grounds for amending the 1987 Act to cover DU.


It is easy to criticise the NZ government position on Iraq, especially as it is now fashionable in some policy and journalistic circles to say that you always thought sanctions would not work. But there is a responsibility to be positive and realistic in recommendations to the NZ Government.

For instance, NZ is bound by the UN Charter. We cannot unilaterally withdraw from the sanctions regime as India is threatening to. But after nine years NZ needs to make its mind up regarding its view of the impact of the sanctions, and start asking some hard questions of its diplomats:

* Are economic sanctions hurting Saddam? Or are they just hurting ordinary Iraqis? Why, according to the authoritative Forbes magazine (June 1999), is Saddam Hussein No. 6 in their "Kings Queens and Dictators" list with a personal fortune estimated at US$6bn? How and why has his position, both economically and politically, actually been enhanced by the sanctions?

* Are frigates the most efficient way of NZ contributing to the sanctions regime? Its good for the Navy, and for rebuilding relations with the Americans, but is not most sanctions-busting done by land (across Turkey, Syria and Jordan) or electronically (through Saddam's Swiss bank accounts or manipulation of his Brazilian and Belgian shares)?

* And just why are bras a banned import to Iraq?

But for that we need good data - that collected by our frigates, that collected by UNICEF etc. The most devastating weapon of mass destruction has been the sanctions regime itself. Last year the UN estimated that, since 1991, 750,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of the sanctions. According to UNICEF, this death toll grows by 4,500 children, over and above normal mortality rates, each month.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the bravery and committment of all New Zealanders - be they journalists, nurses or soldiers - who have been to the Gulf and/or Iraq in the last ten years. They know the impact of the sanctions on the ground.

They deserve the full support of our government. A striking comment was made by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Don McKinnon, in a letter to me of 23 June 1999 which stated that "New Zealand has no significant role to play concerning Iraq and the UNSC sanctions regime...and no useful purpose is served by urging the Government to take any initiatives in this matter".

This will be news to the 250 Navy personnel on their way to the Gulf via Australia and the South China Sea. They have a significant role to play. The cost of that mission is a big undertaking of initative by a small country like NZ.

But is it really worth it?

Dr. Marten Hutt

Marten Hutt is an HRC postdoctoral research fellow at the Health Services Research Centre, Wellington. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Iraq Sanctions Medical Alert Group.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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