23 August 2001 Edition

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Iraq's children suffer as UN prevaricates

Eleven years after the Gulf War, Western powers are still using the figure of Saddam Hussein as the main reason to keep sanctions against Iraq in place. However, his continued presence as head of state of the Middle East country shows that the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the UN Security Council is failing, while adding to the terrible suffering of Iraq's civilian population.

50,000 children a year are dying as a result of the sanctions. And those are UNICEF figures, not Iraqi propaganda
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Hans Von Sponeck, two founding members of the international anti-sanctions movement, visited Ireland recently to raise awareness about the impact of the Oil for Food programme on the Iraqi population and to call on the Dublin government to pressure the Security Council to end the sanctions.

An outspoken critic of the sanctions, Bishop Gumbleton is well known for his progressive actions throughout the world. The founding president of Pax Christi USA has travelled to Iraq several times in defiance of the international sanctions.

Humanitarian agencies argue that only the total lifting of sanctions can put Iraq back on the road to economic recovery
Hans Von Sponeck became the Assistant Secretary General in charge of the oil for food programme in Iraq after Irishman Denis Halliday's resignation in protest over the impact of sanctions on Iraqi civilians. After 32 years' service with the United Nations, Von Sponeck has now also resigned in protest against the sanctions policy, which, he says, ``violates international law and severely punishes a people who have done nothing wrong''.

Since the Gulf War in 1990, the people of Iraq have been subjected to the most comprehensive sanctions in history. The main stated objective was to destroy Iraq's military capability, but the `collateral damage' (a term so beloved of Gulf War-era generals) has been the deaths of more than 1.5 million innocent men, women and children. Today, Iraq has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest increase in child mortality between 1990 and 1999 of all 188 countries surveyed in a UNICEF report released in December 2000 - a 160 percent surge due to lack of medicines, malnutrition and water-borne diseases, such as dysentery.

On 3 July, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council delayed making a decision on sanctions against Iraq for another five months after a US/British-sponsored proposal known as `smart sanctions' failed to obtain the support of the five permanent members of the Security Council, including Ireland.

Humanitarian agencies working in Iraq argue that only the total lifting of sanctions can put Iraq, devastated by ten years of blockade, back on the road to economic recovery.

UNICEF estimates that some 4,500 children die each month as a result of the blanket embargo on Iraq. ``Suffering is really an issue a concern, the deep suffering of a people who are being punished for something they have never done,'' said Von Sponeck. ``And the figures are known: 50,000 children a year are dying as a result of the sanctions. And those are UNICEF figures, not Iraqi propaganda. If you divide that figure by the number of days in a year, about 147 die every day. That's quite a figure.''

Von Sponeck, who like his predecessor, Denis Halliday, quit in protest over the economic sanctions against Iraq, spoke in Dublin to condemn a policy that he said has contributed to widespread death and social ruin while failing to topple Saddam Hussein.

Von Sponeck spent a year and a half in Baghdad overseeing the UN's Oil-for-Food programme, which he said provided an inadequate $110 per person in Iraq over four years. ``How can you say that the oil for food programme meets the needs of the Iraqi people? How can you say that when all that they have received, which is quite different from what they could have received, was a hundred dollars of supplies for a year?'' the former UN official said. ``Then one remembers that Iraq, in terms of education and health, had a state of the art system before sanctions began. So, that is in itself a very powerful accusation to the UN in relation to the impact of sanctions''.

Von Sponeck has travelled on numerous occasions to Iraq since his resignation, and he knows first hand how the programme that he once administered is impacting on the daily lives of Iraqi people - ``All this awareness, this concern about the plight of civilians, was the major reason behind my resignation. I felt I could not keep on with a programme that was going to end in failure. That is the reality.''

But this is a reality that the leaders of the West have refused to acknowledge, as they have maintained the sanctions policy.

In 1993, two years after the Gulf War, Martti Ahtisaari visited Iraq as head of a UN delegation to assess the situation of the country. He wrote: ``The recent conflict has brought near apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been until January 1991 a highly urbanised and mechanised society. Now those means of modern life support have been destroyed, or rendered tenuous. Iraq has for some time to come been relegated to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disability of post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology''.

Iraq's infrastructure was targeted; its electrical capability, sewerage treatment plants and water purification systems were destroyed. Bishop Gumbleton talked about the game of Iraqi Roulette, where the gun is substituted by a glass of water, because ``any time you drink a glass of water in Iraq, you are endangering your life and that is especially true with children, who are especially vulnerable'', and who also suffer the after effects of the use of depleted uranium on Western bombshells. That debris is still pervasive, especially in thesouthern part of Iraq. ``It contributes to the ever-increasing number of cancers, especially among youngsters,'' said Gumbleton. ``Every time I go to Iraq, I visit hospitals where I see tiny children dying from Leukaemia. This is radiation sickness really. They do not have the chemotherapy that can bring it into remission.'' Gumbleton brought to the audience a message from the Bishop of Bassara: ``For over eleven years now the people of Iraq have been enduring tremendous difficulties and daily tragedies caused by lack of food, medicine and the basic necessities of live. The blockade imposed on us has impoverished our people, depriving the poor even of plain bread and the simplest medicine. Bassara, Iraq's second largest city, has no potable water supply and little electricity. Epidemics rage, taking infants by the thousands. Those children who survive disease can succumb to malnutrition, which impedes their physical and mental development. Our situation is unbearable. We appeal to people of conscience to work to end the blockade of Iraq.''

This is a call supported by Bishop Gumbleton and by Hans von Sponeck, who feel it's time for dialogue. ``The Iraqis have done their homework,'' said von Sponeck. ``They have even published their position on issues from missing Kuwaitis to the state of disarmament, to stolen property to the humanitarian situation. I think there is enough evidence to suggest that Iraq today is disarmed to a large extent. So it is a good moment to start the dialogue, and I hope that the Irish voice will be a strong voice in that issue.''

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