The resignations by two senior United Nations officials over sanctions policy in Iraq should have come as no surprise.
Both the resignees — Hans von Sponeck, UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq and his German compatriot Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq — have been worried by the crippling effect of the trade embargo and the ‘hopelessness’ of the food-for-oil deal.
Von Sponeck, who has worked for the UN since 1968, took up his post in Iraq in October 1998. By last June, his frustration became clear when he told a delegation from Physicians for Social Responsibility that the oil-for-food programme provided just $180 a year per person ‘out of which everything has to be financed, from electrical services to water, sewerage, to food, health... the lot. We are setting the stage for depriving another generation of the opportunity to become responsible national and international citizens of tomorrow.’ Von Sponeck said that the oil-for-food programme had failed to meet even the ‘minimum requirements’ of Iraq’s 22 million people. Burghardt later commented: ‘I fully support what Mr von Sponeck was saying... and I believe any human being who looks at the facts and the impact of sanctions on the population will not deny that he is right.’
At a meeting at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in early February, a widely held perception was that sanctions had failed but that potential loss of face in Britain and the US would ensure that the issue remained a low priority. Denis Halliday, a former UN Assistant Under Secretary-General, who also resigned in protest over sanctions, is more outspoken: ‘This policy constitutes genocide and London and Washington are responsible. It has to change.’
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For more than a decade now, the United Nations has been trying without success to outlaw mercenaries. The International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries needs 22 ratifications by national governments to enter into force but as yet only 19 have been counted. Of those states that have acceded to the UN Convention, all but one (Italy) is a non-Western developing country. Ratification, says the human-rights organization International Alert, ‘comes from those that are affected by mercenaries rather than those that are responsible for supplying them’.
There are a few striking absentees in the list of ratifiers. Britain, which officially states the Convention would be ‘very difficult to apply in the UK courts’, is a major supplier of mercenaries. The Russian Federation, which has mercenaries fighting in Georgia, officially is ‘not able at this point’ to answer why it has not ratified. Then there is the US — which is tougher on mercenaries but believes the Convention uses a definition of them that is too broad (and possibly limits the business of their own security companies).
A large group of African states has never acceded. Many African governments are involved in conflicts through the use of mercenaries that officially do not concern them. But their refusal to join the Convention is still noteworthy, considering they lobbied for the Convention in the first place. UN Special Rapporteur Bernales Ballesteros says that more nations must come on board and ratify the Convention. ‘National security and public safety are not merchandise that can be freely sold,’ he insists. But what he really means is that they should not be.
Natural disasters can capture the world’s attention and aid, as with the floods in Mozambique. But the attention span of the media and the public is usually short, and once the immediate crisis is over the story gets dropped. The cyclone which devastated the Indian state of Orissa in October last year is a case in point: long forgotten by news teams, local people are still wrestling with the consequences.
The villagers of Jagatsinghpur, Orissa, once thought they lived in a wealthy area. By ‘wealthy’ they meant they had three meals a day and a mud-and-thatch house. They did not have electricity and the women fetched water in pots, which they carried on their heads. But they never starved. ‘We had everything we needed,’ a resident explains. ‘Cows, chickens, our own vegetables. And the money from fishing, farming and coconut trees and betel vines was more than enough. Now we have nothing.’
When I visited Orissa, I wanted to find out what people’s most urgent needs were. The answers came very quickly from every village I visited — houses.
In meetings I attended, people pleaded with the Government. One elder asked: ‘Building a house costs 30,000 to 40,000 rupiah ($689-919). You’re offering us 2,000 rupiah ($46) compensation. What can we do with that?’
Aid workers and volunteers are amazed by the courage of locals, despite the suffering. Doctor Steve Sircar recounted a particularly arduous journey wading through knee-deep water to reach one village. He was really fed up and exhausted. Then he met a widow who had been eight months pregnant. Her husband and kids were washed away but she survived by clinging to the top of a tree, where her baby was born the next day. The combination of hunger, thirst and exhaustion left her almost unconscious. The baby slipped out of her arms and fell into the water. ‘Her story left me stunned,’ Sircar says. ‘And there I was cribbing about a little bit of water. These things keep you going.’
Everywhere I went, the women wanted to talk, to make contact. Some of them grabbed my hands and wept. ‘What will happen to us? Make them give us a house.’
Of course I could not make anyone give them anything. But I promised to write about their needs. They were so valiant that it was the least I could do.
Housing is the first priority. ActionAid has promised that anyone who sends money for a house can be sure their money will be used solely for that purpose. Anyone wishing to help rebuild these people’s lives may send their cheque to: The Orissa House Fund, ActionAid, Hamlyn House, Archway, London N19 5PG, Britain.
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The Guardian Weekly Vol 162 No 8