The UN: New Dictators of Iraq
Hugh Livingstone and Kayode Olafimihan from the Edge Gallery recently visited Iraq to gather material for an exhibition investigating the effect of UN sanctions. This is what they found
'I have seen somebody operated on without anaesthetic, seen doctors using ordinary cloth thread to sew up wounds. Is this the human rights they are talking about?' Captain Rifai, a former Iraqi Airways pilot, grounded by United Nations sanctions against his country, was asking the question that most of the 18m Iraqi people demand of the UN: what aboutour rights?
Economic sanctions were imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and remained in force after the Allied forces had devastated Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. UN Resolution 687 says they will only be lifted when Iraq meets the terms of the ceasefire. In fact Iraq has now met most of these conditions, by recognising Kuwait and cooperating in the destruction and monitoring of its own 'weapons of mass destruction'. The USA and Britain have responded by moving the goalposts; in response to those, such as the French, who favour a rapprochement with the West's old ally Saddam Hussein, Washington and Whitehall emphasise that sanctions are now necessary to restore human rights in Iraq.
Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Antony Lake, says the USA will promote UN resolutions which 'refect the international consensus in support of an end to Saddam's repression of the Iraqi people. Working closely with UN agencies and international human rights organisations, we are calling attention to the plight of Iraqi citizens who have been brutalised by this regime and insist on having human rights monitors inside the country.' ('Confronting backlash states', Foreign Affairs, March/April 1994)
Yet the paradox of sanctions is that the very people that they are purported to help are the ones who suffer under them. The UN sanctions are a stranglehold from which all of the population, especially the most vulnerable, suffer. Iraq can no longer either export its own resources, or import what it needs.
Most medicines are supposed to be exempt from sanctions, but because Iraqis are not allowed to export oil they cannot even pay for basic foodstuffs--70 per cent of which used to be imported - let alone medicine. Even the country's own agricultural resources are being wasted because chemical fertilisers and pesticides and farm equipment cannot be imported.
Only government rations prevent mass starvation, but these contain no proteins and only provided 70 per cent of energy requirements even before the government's recent 40 per cent cut in provision due to a bad harvest - no 'natural disaster', but starvation by UN sanctions. To meet the shortfall, Iraqis have to buy scarce food on the open market at massively infated prices.
'This is sanctions...'Unicef estimates food prices have rocketed by over 650 per cent in the past year alone while government employees' salaries have only increased by 50-100 per cent in more than four years since sanctions were imposed ('Impact of reduction in food ration on the most vulnerable children and women', Unicef, October1994). During our visit the average monthly salary of a civil servant was around 3000 Iraqi Dinars; 30 eggs cost 1250 ID, and a kilo of meat around 1500 ID. Most families we met could only get enough food for a week to 10 days from their monthly income.
Many families have sold off their possessions to survive. The first to go is usually jewellery, wedding gifts and family heirlooms. Furniture, carpets, TV's and radios follow. We met families, living in houses bare of furniture, who have resorted to selling internal doors, window frames from the upper stories and bricks from planned house extensions, simply to feed themselves and buy medicine.
Drugs are now so scarce that many are dying of the kind of curable diseases that doctors thought had been eradicated. According to Donald Acheson, UK Chief Medical Officer, 'Iraq had comprehensive health services with modern and well- equipped hospitals in the main centres' (British Medical Journal, February 1992). No longer. Under the sanctions, pharmacies are desperate for even the most basic medicines - anti- biotics, electrolyte salts for diarrhoea, painkillers, antiseptics, and anaesthetics. Hospital wards, many inoperative through lack of equipment, spare parts and staff, are now pools of infection rather than places of healing. Even insecticides to kill the swarms of fies that collect around chronically ill children are unavailable.
As we visited Basra Childhood and Maternity Hospital, a two-year old boy had just died from gastro-enteritis. His family were unable to feed the child properly to fight off infection, or to obtain the simple drugs required. 'This is sanctions - this dead young man', Dr Bassam told us as he signed the death certificate.
In the Basra neighbourhood where the child lived the streets are awash with raw sewage, as barefoot children try to shovel the stinking sludge into the collapsed drainage system. The local pumping station stopped working due to lack of spare parts. There is no fresh water in the area. Basra's ground water is highly saline and the water treatment facilities were largely destroyed during the Gulf War. Those that survived barely work due to lack of spares and basic materials: water treatment chemicals such as chlorine and potassium cannot be imported by order of the UN.
The biggest killerInfant mortality rates have risen nearly sevenfold since the Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions. A hundred and eighty thousand children under five have perished due to the embargo; a hundred and fifty thousand under- fives are treated for nutritional diseases every month (figures supplied by Iraqi Red Crescent). 'Dehydration due to diarrhoea is the biggest killer of children in Iraq; pneumonia is the second biggest killer of children', according to Thomas Ekvall of Unicef. In fact the biggest killer of Iraqi children is the sanctions imposed by the United Nations.
The suffering of ordinary Iraqis living in the shadow of the sanctions does not seem to square with the declared aim of the UN to protect human rights. In fact, 'human rights' has simply become a banner under which the UN Security Council can ride roughshod over the political and economic rights of Iraqis, and subordinate them to a new form of dictatorship.
Ironically, the devastation of Iraqi society at the behest of the UN Security Council is now seen as the reason why Iraqis need the help of the United Nations. There used to be hardly any UN aid personnel in Iraq. Now, thanks to the devastation and blockade of Iraq, UN aid organisations are everywhere. Many see their work as a counter to the repressive consequences of sanctions. But in reality, they are part of the same process of subordinating Iraq to the will of the West. UN aid agencies now have a major say in deciding how the Iraqi people's affairs are run.
To live or die
Unicef staff, increased from 11 to150 after Desert Storm, control the import of water treatment chemicals and spares for pumping and sewage stations. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) is in charge of crop spraying from the air. The World Health Organisation (WHO) controls those medicines that fall under sanctions, like Angiseed, a drug for angina which contains a minute amount of explosive ingredient, or radioactive isotopes for medical laboratory use.
The UN aid organisations, whatever those involved may think, are simply an extension of the Security Council's control of Iraq. The relief organisations now decide what projects to prioritise, who to help - in other words, who will live and who will die in Iraq.
Western governments use aid to shore up their military control of Iraq. Consequently aid for northern Iraq, where the UN is fostering an alternative government, is easy to come by, but the hunger of southern and central Iraq apparently does not count. Francisco Roque- Castro, director ofthe World Food Programme in Baghdad, told us that 'the requirements for the northern operation are fully met. However for the central and southern governorates we need about 23000 tonnes and I don't know where it's coming from because the international community has not yet supplied it...the reasons for this are in each capital's strategy'.
British foreign office minister Douglas Hogg recently wrote that 'our quarrel is with the Iraqi regime, not the long-suffering population' (letter to Brian Sedgemore MP, 21 October 1994). Hogg claims that the catastrophic effect of the embargo is not due to the sanctions themselves, but is the fault of the Iraqi regime. 'The Security Council exceptionally offered to allow Iraq to sell $1.6 billion of oil, with the proceeds used to compensate victims of the Gulf War and supply aid to Iraq....The Iraqi regime refused the offer...and is now cynically exploiting the suffering of those it refused to help.'
Hogg's supposed $1.6 billion concession to Iraq is a convenient fig leaf for the UN blockade. Resolution 706, allowing Iraq to sell that amount of oil, was adopted by the Security Council in response to reports of 'pre- famine' conditions in Iraq. But instead of alleviating the suffering, the UN has only tried to shift the blame for it on to the Iraqi regime.
Under 706, Iraq is required to give $1.6 billion of its oil to the UN. The UN would then sell the oil, depositing the money into its own ESCROW account. A third of the money raised would go to oil-rich Kuwait as 'compensation'. From what remains, the UN would fund its own bloated administration as marketing fees, and the cost of maintaining its own arms monitoring programme in Iraq. Only what is left after all of this would be used by the UN to buy food, medicines and other humanitarian aid for Iraq. The UN will then distribute this aid within Iraq itself, bypassing existing government structures, and taking out the costs associated with this operation.
We asked both government officials and UN aid organisations about this windfall. 'I believe that approximately half of this money could be used for humanitarian purposes, the rest would go to compensation to Kuwait and cover the UN's costs in Iraq', said Unicef's Thomas Ekvall. Pressed as to whether that amount would be enough, he told us that 'the food rationing system, until the recent reductions, was costing $100m a month, so half of $1.6 billion won't go that far'.
Before the Gulf War Iraq annually imported $500m of drugs and medical equipment and $3 billion of food, paid for with revenues from the second largest oil reserves in the world. Iraq's oil income also funded infrastructure developments, healthcare and a social welfare system to rival any developing nation. The current impoverishment of Iraq is not some natural disaster, but a politically imposed state of affairs, deliberately engineered by the West and rubber-stamped by the UN.
If the UN was seriously concerned to meet the needs of the Iraqi people, it could simply allow Iraq to produce and export its own oil like any other independent nation. By contrast, resolution 706 with its meagre $1.6 billion allowance is not a serious attempt to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people. It is a political device, designed to establish the principle that only the UN Security Council has the moral authority to run the economy and feed the population. This one-off sale is regarded as a test case, that will allow future 'oil sales' by Iraq and UN aid programmes to be conducted in a manner that denies Iraq any say over its own resources.
Perhaps the UN's subjugation of Iraq is clearest in the weapons monitoring programme, ostensibly set up to stop Iraq developing 'weapons of mass destruction'. The success of UNSCOM - the UN agency charged with the monitoring - has been hailed as a model of how the West can police nuclear proliferation.
The obsession with Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction' is fantastic. During the Gulf War, the Allies killed 180 000 Iraqis for about 100 Allied dead. They used radioactive 'nuclear bullets' made with waste uranium, napalm, fuel-air explosives, cluster bombs, and even bulldozers to bury Iraqi troops alive in their trenches. Since Desert Storm, the Western Allies have devastated Iraq with their deadliest 'weapon of mass destruction' - the sanctions which have killed more than the war itself. Yet all of this is forgotten as attention focuses on the alleged threat posed by Iraq's largely fictional arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The powers which declared war on Iraq, and continue it through sanctions, have set themselves up as peace monitors.
Spy camerasThe UN monitoring programme not only restricts Iraq's ability to make weapons. It means that Iraq is no longer allowed to develop its own industry. The UN has created what one of the engineers installing the system described as 'the most intrusive monitoring system ever devised'. All of Iraq's hi-tech industry is now carefully monitored - even breweries are watched. A battery of new technologies are being employed by the monitoring team, from satellite photos to infra-red radars and seismic sensors. Around 170 video cameras beam their pictures back to a 300-foot tower at UN headquarters in Baghdad's former Canal Hotel. Air sensors sniff the air at factories, soil samples are taken, all equipment capable of precision machining is tagged by UNSCOM - its specifications and location noted and checked.
Spot checks without notice are common as UN inspectors, backed up by US Awacs planes, helicopter into any factory they choose, sealing it off while they conduct their search. It is an operation which, so far, the UN regards as very successful. 'We have identified Iraq's missiles, we have shipped out the nuclear material, and we've identified and destroyed the chemical weapons programmes', we were told by an UNSCOM spokesman at the Canal Hotel. Even if sanctions are eventually lifted, UNSCOM will still be monitoring all of Iraq's imports.
UNSCOM admits that no 'weapons of mass destruction' exist in Iraq today. Yet the UN refuses to acknowledge officially that Iraq has complied with UN resolutions 687, 707, and 715 which give UNSCOM its intrusive powers. Despite admitting that the monitoring regime is now up and running, UNSCOM are still not satisfied. 'You are right to say that it's a potentially endless process. But we need a complete picture of what Iraq did in the past.' UNSCOM has set itself the impossible task of knowing everything about Iraq's past industrial programme, whether military or civilian, before sanctions can be lifted.
Iraqis are being used as guinea pigs for a sophisticated system of surveillance and control, under the pretext of a UN weapons monitoring programme. 'This thing is unique in terms of arms control', we were told by UNSCOM, 'so we are a testing- ground and a lot of people are looking at the results for future reference. A lot of these techniques are new, a lot are involving very new, up- to-date equipment - there is a lot of help from different governments around the world. It is essentially a whole combination of new technologies being put to the test'.
Like caged animals
Through enforcing sanctions, monitoring Iraqi industry, and dictating its borders, the UN Security Council is imposing a new mandate system on Iraq. Today's mandate may be very different from those of the 1920s, when the imperial powers justified their control of the Middle East as a holding operation until the natives were civilised enough to rule themselves. But it is just as coercive and corrupt as the old colonial system.
Wherever you look in Iraq, the UN treats Iraqis like caged animals. In the south of the country, the border with Kuwait has been redrawn by a UN committee in old-fashioned colonial style. Kuwait now has an extra 400 square miles of territory, including Iraqi oil fields from which it now reportedly extracts about 14 000 barrels of oil per day. The port of Umm Qasr, formerly Iraq's main seaport and naval base has been split in two. Kuwait has demolished everything that is now on its side of the border - homes, a school, a nursery. Nearly 200 Iraqi families whose homes ended up 'in Kuwait' were told by the UN border guards that they had to move out, with no notice. They lost their homes, farms, furniture, livelihoods. They now live in a housing estate that overlooks the fortifications which Kuwait built over their former homes - a 160-mile long embankment and trench that can only be crossed by UNIKOM, the UN 'peacekeepers' who patrol the border.
This Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), where all military personnel and vehicles are banned five kilometres inside Kuwait and 10km inside Iraq, has been hailed as an instrument for peace and stability. Yet the new border is neither demilitarised nor stable. The DMZ is patrolled by UNIKOM, supported by a mechanised infantry battalion from Bangladesh known as BANGBAT. The ban on military personnel and weapons does not of course apply to them.
UNIKOM is well aware of the contempt most Iraqis hold it in. Although its base and offices are at Umm Qasr in Iraq, all the UN personnel live in Kuwait City, the other side of the border and a lot further away than the Iraqi city of Basra.
In fact, most Iraqis we spoke to resented the entire UN operation. Whether military or relief, UN agencies are seen as either the direct or indirect cause of Iraqi suffering. Indeed, their very presence is a reminder that Iraqis are suffering while Westerners lord it over them. For all the charitable impulses of some UN humanitarian relief personnel, our abiding memory of the UN offices was one of affuence. Most cars splutter their way around Baghdad with bald tyres, broken headlights, ill-fitting doors and speedometers that don't work. Outside Unicef was parked a row of gleaming silver Mercedes.
The carpeted reception proudly displays the aims of Unicef (Survival, Hope, Development, Respect, Dignity, Equality, Justice, for women and children) along with copies of current affairs magazines and professional journals for visitors to browse through. Yet directly opposite its offices the houses were overcrowded and half- collapsed, while Iraqi doctors were complaining about the lack of medical journals such asTheLancet (which Unicef had), and even up- to- date medical textbooks.
Iraq's hospitals are falling apart, and people are demolishing their own homes to buy food; UN offices are an oasis of air-conditioning, fitted carpets and smart new furniture. Only in UN offices will you see fax machines and personal computers, rather than the elderly telexes and electric typewriters which are shared in government offices.
Only UN personnel are privileged to fy in and out of Iraq today. Everybody else - children, the old, the ill, the poor or government representatives - have to go the hard way. A gruelling drive across the desert to Amman in Jordan that takes at least 16 hours. UN personnel can be fow to Amman within the hour, or to Bahrain in two and a half hours at most. The Iraqi Red Crescent complained bitterly to us that even those needing life-saving medical care outside of Iraq have to drive to Amman.
For many UN personnel, a posting to Iraq is a way to earn a fortune. A secondment to Iraq means that your salary goes straight into your bank account at home, with tax concessions. Living expenses in Iraq are paid out of a Daily Subsistence Allowance. This DSA has recently been cut from $300 a day, much to the chagrin of many UN staff. Yet the new allowance is still a fortune in Iraq. The collapse of the dinar means that nobody could spend more than $8 on a day's food.
And while the UN personnel pamper themselves, the UN commission on sanctions decides what is not essential for ordinary Iraqis: tyres for ambulances, toilet cisterns (are they supposed to piss in the rivers?), family photo albums, PVC for rubbish bags, gum for making shoes, window glass for houses. Even burial shrouds have been refused an export licence by the British government.
Under the banners of human rights, the United Nations' operation has built a dictatorship far more onerous than Saddam's regime at its worst; and this new dictatorship is destroying Iraq's future. With whom does the future of Iraq rest: the people of Iraq themselves or the self-proclaimed protectors of human rights?
Dr Zeinab Amer, a junior doctor we met in Baghdad, summed up what many Iraqis said to us, 'I think the people of Iraq want from the West that they have the right to live, they have the right to work, and to build their country without interference from others, that is the only need for our people'.
Children sweep effluent into the collapsing sewers of Basra
The authors' exhibition will be on show at the Edge Gallery, 2 The Circle, Queen Elizabeth Street, London SE1 from 13 February 1995. It features photographs by award-winning photojournalist Tom Stoddard, and a video diary of their visit.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 76, February 1995