Sat, 08 Apr 2000

UN sanctions: On a loser with Iraq

By Ewen MacAskill

LONDON: The United States and Britain are out of step with the rest of the world in their vindictive perseverance of United Nations sanctions against Iraq.

Even the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has no faith in the process, as he made clear on Monday in a speech billed as the most important of his career.

In a damning section, he described sanctions in general as "a blunt and even counter-productive instrument". He saw two basic problems. The first was that sanctions were often not properly enforced, which means borders become porous, making a mockery of the embargo. The second was that where they were rigorously enforced, "it is usually the people who suffer, not the political elites whose behavior triggered the sanctions in the first place".

Yet against Iraq, the United States, with Britain in enthusiastic support, persists in maintaining the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever imposed on any country.

The rest of the world, to varying degrees, has little enthusiasm for a sanctions regime it believes has gone on too long. The sense of unease is widely shared, from U.S. congressmen through to church groups and charities.

Why then do Britain and the United States persist? The British Foreign Office minister, Peter Hain, in an interview in the current issue of the New Statesman magazine, expresses exasperation with those campaigning against sanctions.

He claims the campaigners offer no alternative strategy for dealing with the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. "They don't have one. They just hold up their hands innocently, and say: it isn't down to us if Saddam ... invades another country, or the Kurds get obliterated by mustard gas. I think that's an indefensible position."

He maintains that Saddam is still developing chemical weapons, and adds, in an unnecessarily gratuitous dismissal of those who believe the sanctions policy is wrong: "To say he doesn't have those weapons sounds like an apology for one of the most brutal tyrants of modern time."

Hain is one of the rising stars of the government, a left- winger who has brought his radical instincts to some areas of foreign policy.

But on Iraq he has stuck to the policy he inherited. In the same interview, Hain concedes the pursuit of an "ethical dimension" in foreign policy, as promised by the foreign secretary, Robin Cook, has put Labour on a hook.

The declaration opened Labour up to justified accusations of hypocrisy. This diverted attention from Cook's successes, such as breaking ranks with the United States to reopen dialog with the so-called "rogue" states, Libya and Iran.

Hain, to the dismay of the mandarins, ignored Foreign Office niceties to name publicly those alleged to have broken the arms embargo on Angola. And he was also among the first to criticize vociferously Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.

Less admirable for a country supposedly pursuing an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy is the subdued criticism of human rights abuses by Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.

There have also been the embarrassments over continued arms sales to Indonesia, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, although the Foreign Office can legitimately argue that it opposed these but was overruled by Downing Street.

But the treatment of Iraq is very much the Foreign Office's policy, enthusiastically pursued by Cook and Hain. With the advantage of hindsight, it may yet be seen as the biggest breach of the ethical dimension, one that cost the lives of more than 1 million innocent civilians: the 1.2 million deaths attributed to sanctions is a UN, not an Iraqi government, statistic.

Comprehensive sanctions were imposed in 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. They were kept in place after Iraq's defeat to keep pressure on Saddam to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction.

For the past 15 months, there has been a stand-off. Iraq claims it has got rid of its weapons of mass destruction. The United States and Britain want to maintain the sanctions until the weapons claim is verified.

The Foreign Office insists that Saddam is ruthlessly exploiting the suffering of the Iraqi people to get the sanctions regime lifted with as few concessions on the weapons front as possible.

It also claims that Iraq's position is not that desperate, that the country has a relatively high GDP and that Saddam filters money towards his palace-building program and ensures that the budget of the armed forces remains generous.

There is an element of truth in this. Someone in Baghdad in a position to know confirmed that the army budget is protected. And health officials showing journalists round the children's cancer wards at Saddam Central Hospital in Baghdad give a bored recital of the facts, having taken too many journalists around.

But even if the cancer wards are a propaganda tool, it does not mean that children are not dying from lack of medicines and medical equipment, caught between two fires: western policy and their own dubious government.

However, even Saddam cannot choreograph a whole country. A glance in any direction in Baghdad shows the devastating impact of sanctions on the infrastructure and the misery of the people. If the aim of sanctions is to bottle up Saddam to prevent him building up chemical and biological weapons, it is not working.

According to western sources in Baghdad, at the Jordanian border only one in 20 trucks is being checked by UN inspectors: on the Turkish border, about one in 200; and the Iranian border is the most porous of all.

Hain says those opposed to sanctions have no alternatives. There are plenty. Opening up Iraq to the outside world would do more to undermine Saddam than sanctions. After 10 years, he is still in place. He is unpopular, but the sanctions have united the Iraqis in defiance of the west.

The sanctions could be refined so that the embargo is only on arms rather the wide ban at presently being applied. The assets held in the west by Saddam and those around him could be targeted.

A war crimes tribunal, established for Kosovo and Rwanda, could be established for Iraq, to bring to court -- or at least prevent travel -- by those responsible for the atrocities against the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, the Shiah Muslims and opponents of the regime.

Iraq's infrastructure is so badly damaged it will be a long time before it is in a position to challenge its neighbors. If, by then, Saddam or his successors pose a threat to their neighbors, they could be contained in the traditional way, by use of conventional force, just as Saddam was over Kuwait.

At the very least, in the short-term, the United States and Britain could agree that sanctions will be lifted on the day that Iraq allows UN weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

Of all the options, the United States and Britain have chosen the worst. There is nothing ethical about waging war on a civilian population.

-- Guardian News Service