David Edwards interview with Denis Halliday


An Interview with Denis Halliday – Former Assistant Secretary-General of The United Nations

By David Edwards

According to Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, 4,000 more children under five are dying every month in Iraq than would have died before Western sanctions were imposed. Over the eight years that these sanctions have been in place, 500,000 extra children under five are estimated to have died.

These are extraordinary figures that lead directly to the question of responsibility. For citizens of Western democracies it seems almost inconceivable that we could be to blame. We have grown up in the sure knowledge that the West is a cradle of democracy and human rights, a centre of civilisation and sanity. During the Kosovo crisis last year, President Clinton insisted, “We are upholding our values and advancing the cause of peace. We cannot respond to such tragedies everywhere, but when ethnic conflict turns into ethnic cleansing where we can make a difference, we must try, and that is clearly the case in Kosovo.” Likewise, Prime Minister Blair declared that Kosovo was a new kind of war in which we were fighting “for values” – a logical step, given that Blair had previously announced, “We will make the protection and promotion of human rights a central part of our foreign policy.”

In the case of Iraq, the salient facts are very clear: Iraq is ruled by a ruthless and violent dictator, Saddam Hussein; he presides over a country subject to the most wide-ranging sanctions regime in modern history; and thousands of Iraqi children are dying every month.

The claims and counter-claims surrounding these facts are well-known: human rights groups, and even leading figures within the United Nations, insist that the sanctions regime imposed by the West, with food and vital medicines blocked by the UN Sanctions Committee, is a primary cause of this appalling rate of child mortality. In response, Western governments argue that it is Saddam who has been deliberately withholding food and medicines made available by the UN’s ‘oil for food’ programme, and therefore it is he that is responsible for the mass death of children, not Western leaders.

With these claims in mind, I interviewed Denis Halliday, former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, who resigned after 34 years with the UN in September 1998. Halliday spoke to me over the phone from New York. Since his resignation as humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, his successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned on February 13 of this year, asking, “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, also resigned, saying privately that what was being done to the people of Iraq was intolerable.

I suggested to Halliday that it must have been a huge wrench to resign from the United Nations after 34 years of work. I asked him what specifically it was that made him take such drastic nation?

“I worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I was involved in development activity, working closely with governments trying to address their issues of poverty and education and economic well being – all very positive; I’d do it all again tomorrow. Then I allowed myself to get sucked into the management in New York: I was Director of Personnel in UNDP for four years and Boutros-Ghali promoted me to Assistant Secretary-General and made me head of Human Resources for the UN itself. I volunteered to go to Baghdad and I set about trying to make it work, and of course found out very quickly that it does not work – it wasn’t designed to work; it’s not funded to work; it’s strangled by the Sanctions Committee of the Security Council – and in a matter of six weeks I was already trying to get the Security Council to assist me, but I got no support whatsoever from the United Nations in New York. So then I spoke to the French, Russian and Chinese ambassadors who are in Baghdad, with the help of the Unicef man, and we set about doubling the programme which we accomplished in fact in three or four months through the Security Council.”

Did these changes happen solely on your initiative?

“Absolutely, it would never have happened, believe me, if we hadn’t started that process in Baghdad. But to come back to your question of exactly why I resigned: after that development work, to preside over a programme which in a sense was designed to stop deterioration but in fact did no more than sustain an already unacceptable situation of high levels of child mortality, adult mortality and malnutrition, I found this was incompatible with my past, incompatible with my feelings about the United Nations, and incompatible with the very United Nations Charter itself and human rights themselves. There was no way I was going to be associated with this programme and manage this ghastly thing in Iraq, it was not a possibility for me. So I put in a year, I did my best, we doubled the programme, but the problems continued.”

The British and US Governments claim that there are plenty of foodstuffs and medicines being delivered to Iraq, the problem is that they are being cynically withheld by the Iraqi regime. In a letter to the New Statesman recently, Peter Hain, Minister of State, wrote: “The ‘oil for food’ programme has been in place for three years and could have been operating since 1991 if Saddam had not blocked it. The Iraqi people have never seen the benefits they should have.” Is there any truth in that?

“There’s no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that the Iraqi government employs for this programme, then they follow the flour to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients – there is no evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever ever in the last two years. The Secretary-General would have reported that.

What about medical supplies? In January 1999, George Robertson, then defence secretary, said, “Saddam Hussein has in warehouses $275 million worth of medicines and medical supplies which he refuses to distribute.”

“We have had problems with medical drugs and supplies, there have been delays there. There are several good reasons for that. One is that often the Iraqi government did some poor contracting; so they contracted huge orders – $5 million of aspirins or something – to some small company that simply couldn’t do the job and had to re-tool and wasted three, four, five months maybe. So that was the first round of mistakes. But secondly, the Sanctions Committee weighed in and they would look at a package of contracts, maybe ten items, and they would deliberately approve nine but block the tenth, knowing full well that without the tenth item the other nine were of no use. Those nine then go ahead – they’re ordered, they arrive – and are stored in warehouses; so naturally the warehouses have stores that cannot in fact be used because they’re waiting for other components that are blocked by the Sanctions Committee.”

What was the motive behind blocking the one item out of ten?

“Because Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years – it’s a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass destruction, this is just nonsense. That’s why I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.”

The British government claims that Saddam is using the money from the ‘oil for food’ programme for anything other than food. Peter Hain, for example, recently stated, “Over $8 billion a year should be available to Iraq for the humanitarian programme – not only for foods and medicines, but also clean water, electricity and educational material. No one should starve.”

“Of the $20 billion that has been provided through the ‘oil for food’ programme, about a third, or $7 billion, has been spent on UN ’expenses’, reparations to Kuwait and assorted compensation claims. That leaves $13 billion available to the Iraqi government. If you divide that figure by the population of Iraq, which is 22 million, it leave some $190 per head of population per year over 3 years – that is pitifully inadequate.”

Does the West want to hold on to Saddam? If so, why?

“Bush or somebody in the United States made a decision not to overthrow Saddam Hussein. What is the motive? Traditionally the motive was that they needed him to provide stability in Iraq, to keep Iraq together, to avoid the Kurds going their way and the Shia perhaps going their way in the South, and so on; and the Shia of course would threaten Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, being Shia as opposed to Suni – so he’s a good enemy this man, he’s great! Said Aburish in his new book has said that the CIA has worked with him for 30 years. So there is a ploy to keep him in power, but of course to destroy him at the same time, to enable him to survive without having any capacity to threaten his neighbours. If you look at the sales of US military hardware, Saddam is the best salesman in town. I think over $100 billion has been sold to the Saudis, Kuwaitis, the Gulf states, Turkey, Israel, and so on. It’s thanks to Saddam. Just last week they sold $6.2 billion of military aircraft to the United Arab Emirates. What on earth does a little country need hardware like that for? Saddam provides that – he should be getting a cut.”

How many people share your views in the UN? Is it a widespread feeling?

“Well I’ll tell you, when I walk into the UN today, it’s so amusing; people come up to me from nowhere, delegates and staff, and sort of look both ways and whisper in my ear, ‘You’re doing a great job, keep it up!’ and then they run away. There’s a sort of a fear, I think, that to be associated with Halliday now is dangerous if you want a career in the UN; that’s a sort of perception. In fact I find a lot of people, particularly from the Arab Islamic world, and ‘the South’, are so pleased that somebody from the North has had the – whatever it is – to stand up and take on this issue. Coming from them it has no credibility; coming from me it has a certain amount of credibility. Of course Peter Hain is trying to destroy that as quickly as he can. But I think I’ve hung onto some credibility in most quarters and I think the resignation of Hans von Sponeck has underlined it. So I think between the two of us, representing almost 65 years of experience, two and a half years of managing the damn thing in Iraq, we both have exactly the same view, and I think that says something. A BBC producer recently said to me, ‘That’s an indictment’.”

The Guardian today reported Iraq’s rejection of UN Resolution 1284 on the grounds that it indicated no end to sanctions and arms inspections. What’s your view of 1284?

“Von Sponeck and I have exactly the same view: it’s designed to fail, this programme. First of all it took a year to assemble that resolution, if you can believe that. Secondly, it gives the Iraqis no specifics: it doesn’t tell them exactly what is required, and when, in terms of disarming. Thirdly, if you listen to Scott Ritter, they have no nuclear, chemical or biological capacity left, but of course they have the mental capacity, and they have the scientists – some of them – and they’re always going to be there and there’s nothing you can do about that. And Dr. Hans Blix, former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, very honestly, has said, ‘Look, I can go in there 24 hours a day for ten years and I will never be able to say that there isn’t a half a pound of chemical left behind, or whatever; it’s just impossible’. And that’s why this whole programme is futile. We’ve got to reopen a dialogue with Iraq, like we’ve done with North Korea. We need to find out what the concerns of the Iraq government are now, what can be done for the future.”

Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, says there won’t be any significant developments until after the US presidential elections. What do you make of that?

“I saw Tariq Aziz in October and that’s what he said to me also. The outgoing lame duck US President normally never changes basic policy during the election year, and I think that if Clinton tried he’d be shot down by the Congress – which is controlled by the Republicans after all. He just couldn’t get away with it. He hasn’t got the stature of a Nixon going to China, for example. And Gore and Bush, both, are repeating the same old nonsense: ‘Blame Saddam Hussein, retain economic sanctions,’ without, I think, understanding the humanitarian consequences.”

Is there a prospect of real change over, say, the next one or two years?

“Oh Christ I hope it doesn’t take that long, but you may well be right. No, I think John’s film [‘Paying the Price – Killing the Children of Iraq’ by John Pilger] has made a huge difference, certainly in Britain and Ireland, but maybe in parts of Europe, hopefully later in Australia and Canada, maybe someday in this country. I think von Sponeck’s resignation has helped and we’ve had some new statements in Congress and in Westminster about the humanitarian infanticide: something is changing here, but it’s just changing very very slowly. Hans von Sponeck and I will be in Washington on the 3rd of May to testify in Congress or to speak to a Congressional meeting. On the 6th of May, von Sponeck and I will be in London to do a briefing. We’re hoping to go to Brussels, to Paris, to Rome, Berlin. I think it’s getting upstream into the area of parliamentarians. In France, members of parliament have been very active against economic sanctions. I just saw the Irish foreign minister last week and he’s also come out and is deeply concerned about economic sanctions. There is a movement, a recognition, that economic sanctions, in the case of Iraq in particular, are a disastrous failure and are totally unacceptable as a UN tool. In the meantime, the Secretary General, I’m afraid, is not saying this; he’s talking about “hurting” the children of Iraq, which is just outrageous: we’re killing the children of Iraq. I’m extremely disappointed with the Secretary-General; he just doesn’t have the courage to say what really has got to be said. I wonder what Dag Hammarskjold [former UN Secretary-General] would have made of this policy by now. I think Hammarskjold would have spoken up a long time ago against a programme like this – so it’s very sad to see this happening.”

Who, in your view, is primarily responsible for the deaths of those 500,000 children under five?

“All the members of the Permanent Security Council, when they passed 1284, reconfirmed that economic sanctions had to be sustained, knowing the consequences. That constitutes ‘intent to kill’, because we know that sanctions are killing several thousand per month. Now, of the five permanent members, three abstained; but an abstention is no better than a vote for, in a sense. Britain and America of course voted for this continuation. The rest of them don’t count because they’re lackeys, or they’re paid off. The only country that stood up was Malaysia, and they also abstained. But you know, by abstaining instead of using your veto, when you are a permanent member you’re guilty because you’re continuing something that has this deadly impact. However, I would normally point the finger at London and Washington, because they are the most active in sustaining sanctions: they are the ones who will not compromise. All the other members would back down if London and Washington would change their position. I think that’s quite clear. But unfortunately Blair and Clinton have an almost personal investment in demonising Saddam Hussein. That’s very hard to get out of, they have my sympathy, but they created their own problem. Once you’ve demonised somebody, it’s awfully difficult to turn around and say, ‘Well actually he’s not such a bad guy, he likes kids’. Under the Baath Party regime, they ran a social welfare system in Iraq that was so intense it was almost claustrophobic, and they made damn sure that the average Iraqi was well taken care of, and they did it deliberately to divert them from any political activity and to maintain stability and allow them (Baath Party) to run the country. [US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright has also fallen into the demonisation hole: her whole career is linked to maintaining this policy, although she didn’t start it.”

How do you feel about the performance of the media in covering this issue? Has it been adequate?

“I’m very disappointed with the BBC. The BBC has been very aggressively in favour of sanctions, I found, in the last couple of years. But recently – as recently as three weeks ago – that changed. After the von Sponeck resignation they did an introductory piece to a programme I was on which was brilliant. It described the catastrophe brilliantly. So even the BBC seems to be coming around. Here in the United States the media has been disastrous, because the media in this country is controlled by large corporations like Westinghouse, like General Electric, which are arms manufacturers, and they don’t want to highlight the ‘no fly zone’ bombing which takes place almost every day, or all the other things: Raytheon making Tomahawk missiles – by the way, they’re going into Derry in Ireland – they’ve just got the media under control. Having said that, I’ve been on all the networks here at one time or another, but they’re not pushing it; it just dies here. The New York Times gives usually three or four lines on ‘no fly zone’ bombing every couple of days.”

Have you been heavily in demand since Pilger’s film was shown? How many interviews are you doing?

“I cannot handle the number of speaking engagements I get, I’m turning them down. I’m doing on average, I would say, two talks a week and probably three or four interviews, even in the slow times. When von Sponeck resigned, I think I had 25 interviews in four days. People are tired of Iraq; they want it to go away. I sympathise with that. I want it to go away myself, but I want it of course resolved first. The Americans just don’t want to know about it; it’s too uncomfortable. They don’t want to be reminded that they’ve just spent $1.3 billion last year on bombing this country.”

It’s awful even to think about it, but there is a real racist undercurrent going on here isn’t there?

“I fear so. Iraqi kids don’t count apparently. It is a racist problem, there really is no question about that. It’s ugly.”

David Edwards, May 2000, 3,100 Words