Global Policy Forum

Annan Exhorts UN Council


By Barbara Crossette

New York Times
March 25, 2000

Secretary General Kofi Annan warned today that the United Nations was in danger of losing a propaganda war with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq if the ''oil for food'' program intended to help Iraqi civilians suffering under sanctions is not made more effective immediately. ''The humanitarian situation in Iraq poses a serious moral dilemma for this organization,'' Mr. Annan told the council. ''The United Nations has always been on the side of the vulnerable and the weak, and has always sought to relieve suffering, yet here we are accused of causing suffering to an entire population.''

He was speaking at a special daylong Security Council session to review the organization's work in Iraq, during which the United States was on the defensive against criticism that it is blunting the positive impact of the program by blocking more than 1,000 import contracts. Responding to such charges, James B. Cunningham, the deputy American representative at the United Nations, announced today that the United States was lifting its holds, in the committee on sanctions against Iraq, on 70 contracts worth at least $100 million. The United States also formally introduced its resolution doubling to $600 million the value of oil equipment Iraq may import every six months. The amount of oil Iraq can export has not been limited since December.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the American representative, was not in the Security Council today. He has played down the Iraq issue since his arrival in August, showing little interest in a long-running Clinton administration policy that has drawn rebukes against the United States. He has turned the Iraq file over to Mr. Cunningham, who is more familiar with the issue, having been posted here when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, an invasion that led to the imposition of international sanctions.

Today, Mr. Cunningham offered several proposals for better supervision in Iraq, so that American suspicions about the ultimate use or destinations of certain imported goods, including electrical, scientific, telecommunications and oil equipment, could be reduced. Even with current Iraqi problems, Mr. Cunningham said, Iraq's oil exports and food imports are reaching the levels that prevailed before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. In a long speech accompanied by statistical material circulated to council members, Mr. Cunningham continued to place much of the blame for shortcomings in the oil sales plan on Mr. Hussein's government, which, he said, refuses to expedite orders, share information or allow inspections at many sites.

Mr. Annan also took the Iraqis to task, saying people living under sanctions are ''often victims both of their own government and of the measures taken against it.'' The only way to end that, he added, is for Iraq to comply with council decisions. The council is waiting to see whether Mr. Hussein will allow the return of weapons inspectors, the key to ending sanctions.

But Mr. Annan expressed anguish over the position the United Nations now finds itself in, with an uncooperative Iraq on one side and an intransigent United States on the other. ''We are in danger of losing the argument, or the propaganda war - if we haven't already lost it - about who is responsible for this situation, President Saddam Hussein or the United Nations,'' he said.

During today's debate, several council members tried to shift from past blame to future efforts to make the ''oil for food'' program work. Sir Jeremy Greenstock of Britain, speaking to reporters before this afternoon's session, said there were numerous things the council could do without further debate. ''We can speed the procedures in the sanctions committee,'' he said. ''We can inject more cash into the UN program in Iraq. We can start to stop the smuggling that is going on, the illegal oil sales. We can increase the number of monitors looking at the program's delivery in Iraq, and if we do that, we can bring down the number of holds.''

The Russians, French and Chinese were most critical today of the American and British positions on Iraq. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian representative, accused the United States and Britain of killing more than 140 people and wounding hundreds in attacks in the no-flight zones in northern and southern Iraq. ''Any explanation that these strikes were not directed at civilians does not hold water,'' Mr. Lavrov said. He called for an early suspension of sanctions.

Peter van Walsum, the Dutch representative and chairman of the committee on sanctions against Iraq, said that despite differences, there was a council consensus that Iraq still has to convince the world that it does not have dreams of creating prohibited weapons. ''Iraq is the only country in modern history that has not only attempted to develop all categories of weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, biological and chemical - but has actually used such weapons, both against a foreign enemy and against its own citizens,'' Mr. van Walsum said. ''In doing so, Iraq has placed itself in a league of its own.''

Until today, two issues lying at the heart of the debate on Iraq had rarely been raised. One is the scarcity of verifiable information beyond what is physically visible to United Nations officials in Iraq - whose appointments Baghdad can control in the sense that it can reject nominees for relief positions, and whose movements are frequently circumscribed.

All health and poverty figures the United Nations has to work with are provided by the Iraqi government. Journalists cannot report freely in the country, and the international news agencies there must use Iraqi citizens for day-to-day reporting, which usually amounts to no more than repeating what officials say in the state-controlled press. Iraqi government decisions are often opaque, some United Nations officials say. In some ministries, there appears to be little planning for social development using what funds are available to the government from its own resources.

The second issued seldom raised before now is that in the virtual absence of independent information-gathering in Iraq, critics of Mr. Hussein say, the effects of sanctions can be manipulated to influence public opinion inside and outside the country, as a few speakers noted today.

Richard Butler, a diplomat in residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, who was chief arms inspector in Iraq from 1997 to 1999, argues that sanctions worked when they were first imposed. ''Sanctions might work initially, depending not on how severe they are or how the leadership reacts to them,'' he said in an interview on Wednesday. ''They did, in the Iraq case, concentrate their minds for a while.'' But the longer sanctions are applied, Mr. Butler said, ''the less and less effective they become, to the point where they invert in their effectiveness for two reasons. One, they get busted through a black market, and two, the leadership is able to parlay this into a reason for staying in power. ''I think that's exactly where Saddam is now,'' he said. ''He's saying, 'Only I can protect you from all those bad people out there, and that's why you've got to stick with me'.''

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