Swans Commentary » swans.com May 21, 2007  



International Ignominy
Hans von Sponeck's A Different Kind of War:
The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq


by Gilles d'Aymery


Book Review



Cover photo of 'A Different Kind of War,' by Hans von Sponeck; © 2007 Hans von Sponeck - Size: 4k



Sponeck, Hans C. von; A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq, Berghahn Books, New York & Oxford, September 2006; ISBN 1-84545-222-4 (hardback), 322 pages. First published in Germany in 2005 (Hamburger Edition) as Ein anderer Krieg: Das Sanktionsregime der UNO im Irak.


(Swans - May 21, 2007)  When Denis J. Halliday tendered his resignation from his posts after 13 months on the job (September 1997 - October 1998) as UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq where he managed the Oil-for-Food Programme, and with a 34-year career at the United Nations, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan turned to another experienced international civil servant, Hans C. von Sponeck, to carry on the UN mission. Sponeck had joined the UN Development Program in 1968. He had worked in Ghana, Turkey, Botswana, Pakistan, and India, and had become the Director of the UNDP European Office in Geneva -- an assignment that he had confessed to the General-Secretary he found "boring." Following his new assignment in October 1998, Sponeck arrived in Baghdad on November 8, 1998. He did not last much longer than Denis Halliday. Sponeck resigned from his positions on February 10, 2000. Like Halliday, who had said that, "We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that," Sponeck decided that he could not remain associated with the punishing policies against the Iraqi people that he judged were genocidal in nature -- policies that had only one goal, regime change. In the years ahead, both of them worked tirelessly to stop the inevitable march to madness, the March 2003 invasion of this ravaged and mutilated country.

A Different Kind of War is not for the faint-hearted reader. The wrenching suffering of the Iraqi people it recounts cannot be read without feeling ill to the point of nausea and experiencing a deep sense of anger and outrage, as well as immense sadness, by the unfathomable tragedy that befell this peaceful people -- mere pawns sacrificed on the checkerboard of great gamesmanship between an authoritarian government fallen out of grace and the parochial interests of a few Western nations, principally the U.S. and the U.K., amidst the almost total indifference of the Community of Nations. Even Mr. von Sponeck, a polished and consummate diplomat, can hardly hide his sense of anguish and shame as he meticulously reviews what author and journalist John Pilger has referred to as "one of the greatest acts of aggression: the medieval siege of Iraq."

In contrast to Barry Lando's excellent Web of Deceit, there is no rhetorical flourish in Sponeck's exposé. His style is that of an international civil servant of the highest caliber who remains first and foremost a diplomat. With new information and documents that have never before been made public, he presents the details, arid at times, of the catastrophic, shattering, horrific consequences the decisions of the UN Security Council, under the aegis of the U.S. and the U.K, have had on the people of Iraq -- the ordinary people like you and me...the population...not their government and the high dignitaries in the Baathist regime.

Of late, one can read that the current war has lasted longer than World War One or the American involvement in World War Two, but, as so often presented in the media, this is an ethnocentric, Western view of history. For the Iraqi people, war has lasted for almost 30 years. It began (without going back to the 1920s) with what Sponeck calls Gulf War I, the Iraq-Iran war (September 22, 1980 - August 20, 1988); then, after a two-year hiatus, Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, with the resultant Gulf War II -- Operation Desert Storm (January 17, 1991 - February 28, 1991); and the ongoing Operation Iraqi Freedom, Gulf War III, which started on March 20, 2003. To follow Sponeck's nomenclature and title of his book, however, one could argue that the UN Sanctions Regime was indeed another kind of war -- really Gulf War III, ensued by Gulf War IV (the current tragedy). The kids who are fighting American forces have practically never known a peaceful day from the day they were born. Moreover, these kids grew up under the Sanctions Regime that was put in place on August 9, 1990, (UN Resolution 661) and finally ended on May 22, 2003, (UN Resolution 1483), three weeks after George W. Bush made his "Mission Accomplished" speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln. UNICEF has estimated that in that interval -- over a dozen years -- up to 1,500,000 Iraqis died as a direct consequence of those economic sanctions, the majority children.

Mr. von Sponeck expands in great detail on the resulting extreme suffering of the people. In 1991, most of Iraq's infrastructure had been either destroyed or largely incapacitated. Sewer, water, electric plants, as well as oil installations and the country's well being had been decimated. By 1995, the living conditions of the Iraqi people had so drastically deteriorated that experts around the world were ringing the alarm of an impending humanitarian catastrophe of historical proportion. In response to these warning calls, the UN Security Council devised a "humanitarian program" called The Oil-for-Food Programme. It was presented as a generous humanitarian response by the International Community to the plight of the Iraqi people, but nothing within it had any humanitarian or generous content. It was just another set of policies to carry on with the strangulation of the entire country to affect a specific outcome -- regime change.

It was certainly not generous, as repeatedly portrayed in the Western media and by politicians on both side of the aisle, because it never cost a dime to the "humanitarian" nations. The entire program was funded by the Iraqi state -- everything, absolutely everything...including the UN management team (and that included Mr. von Sponeck's salary, too). After the 1991 war, all Iraqi-owned assets were frozen. Then, all receipts from oil exports were controlled by the Western nations, the revenues deposited in the French Banque Nationale de Paris. Iraq no longer had any sovereignty over what the country could sell and what it could purchase. While the country was 70 percent dependent on imported foodstuff for the welfare of the population, the stroke of a Security Council pen made sure the Iraqi government could no longer provide for the nutritional needs of its citizenry. Everything was controlled and directed by the U.N. Furthermore, every 30 cents (reduced to 25 cents in December 1999) of each dollar of Iraqi money controlled by the U.N. was diverted toward an obscure organization set up in Geneva, Switzerland, in Villa "La Pelouse" -- the UN Compensation Commission -- that was adjudicating financial compensation to aggrieved parties (of the 1990-1991 war), individuals and states -- "2.6 million claims with a total value of $248 billion." (p. 177). As of mid-2004, this commission had awarded $48.2 billion to the claimants (also p. 177) -- Kuwait getting the lion's share of the spoils -- as the Iraqi population was starving. Furthermore, 2.5 to 3 cents of each dollar were used to pay the UN workers in Iraq who were managing the program. On top of their normal salary, each international UN staff was granted an additional $100 special allowance per day. Iraqi UN staffers were paid an average of $400-500 a month (p. 21) -- again all paid by Iraqi money. As to the general population, monthly wages were averaging between $5 and $25 a month with the happy few making $100 at most. All in all, the Iraqis were financing their own physical annihilation.


Enough "furthermores"... This is where anger truly sets in. Hans von Sponeck catalogues the state of the Iraqi people (pps. 164-172): Child malnutrition, child mortality, calories per capita, adult literacy, per capita income, primary and secondary school enrollment, daily per capita production of water, sanitation... each and every benchmark being so dramatically horrible that one cannot read those pages without a sense of disgust, outrage, and shame. Neither Sade nor Lautréamont nor Genghis Khan could have devised such barbarian policies that turned out to be real weapons of mass destruction...of a people. We did this to our fellow human beings very deliberately, methodically, and callously. How could we have done so without an upheaval in our human construct? Howard Zinn keeps repeating that if only the American people knew what was done in their name, they would revolt. Question to Mr. Zinn: When will they ever learn? Anyone with access to the Internet and a still-functioning brain could see -- or at least sense -- the genocide in the making...and genocidal policies they were, as Sponeck acknowledges. A total outrage no less in which the U.N. played a subservient role to the rapacious ambitions of the Anglo-Saxon world. Sponeck writes with much affection and respect about the then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who appears to have understood the tragedy but had his hands tied by the Security Council dominated by US and UK interests and the cowardice of the other member states. Regretfully, Sponeck seems not to understand, or refuses to acknowledge, that the law of the jungle has long taken over the lofty spirits of the values he has fought for during his long, distinguished career. There are no longer international laws in the book of humanity -- only the will of the powerful. One can only hope that the powerful shall eventually dwindle in the recesses of our humane consciousness, but that's an odd bet to take.

The greater part of the book covers the Sanctions Regime and the suffering of the Iraqi people under policies that were devised in Washington and London and implemented by the U.N. in New York. Policies that were deemed "worth it" by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has since acknowledged that it was the stupidest statement she's ever made, without ever formally retracting it. What was stupid was to have uttered the words publicly -- not the policies. Some things are better left unsaid, like for instance, the abominable devastation born upon 20-some million genteel people that Sponeck illustrates in great and painful details. In the big picture of the powerful dominating the weak, these masses of millions of human beings were simply expendable -- and expended they have been under both Democratic and Republican administrations to this very day.

Sponeck does cover other issues like the cryptic UN Compensation Commission, covered supra. He gets into the No-Fly-Zones imposed originally by the U.S., the U.K., and France, a policy that never was authorized by the U.N. That policy was used to keep weakening the central government. It was even geographically expanded to the point where on the march to the 2003 invasion, bombing had become an almost daily practice. Sponeck also shows an open secret, that the UN Special Commission had become a spy agency controlled by the CIA, which did not even report to the UN Secretary-General. Here was an agency, UNSCOM, which reported directly to its Western patrons, essentially circumventing and ignoring the U.N. This was the organization that had to certify that Iraq was free of WMDs -- the only way for the sanctions to be brought to an end -- and did everything in its power, especially under the leadership of Richard Butler, a genocidal kamikaze, to frustrate a resolution that would have finally alleviated the agony of the Iraqi people. Again, Iraqis were -- and remain -- expendable.

There, placed between the famed rock and the hard place -- a dictatorial regime that once upon a time had been championed by the very Western countries that had turned against it -- was a people, which was being devastated. Sponeck does blame both sides, but he fails to explain how the Iraqi government could even have met the requirements set forth by the Security Council under the aegis of the U.S. and the U.K. They could not prove a negative, namely that the country no longer had WMDs, since the very organization that was charged to certify the fact was actually set up to affect regime change.

Indeed regime change had been the official US policy, starting with the first Bush administration's assertion that the sanctions would remain until Saddam Hussein was overthrown or ousted. It was further put into the Law of the U.S. when former president Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act on October 31, 1998. By the time Mr. von Sponeck arrived in Baghdad, the cards had already been stacked. The consensus in Washington was that since the sanctions regime could not achieve its goal, and the world was increasingly opposing the genocidal policy, the goal would have to be achieved by other means -- i.e., militarily.

Courageously, Sponeck acknowledges, in spite of the US main media blather to the contrary, that the Iraqi government was trying its damnedest to alleviate the suffering of the population and was quite efficient at doing so; but its efforts were constantly blocked by the U.S. (90 percent of the time) and its allies (read the U.K.) that repeatedly, month after month, year after year, would forbid (or "block") the importation of necessary items to gear up the infrastructure, the food chain, and even the school system (even the import of pencils for school children was "blocked" because they allegedly could be used in the production of WMDs -- I kid you not). What could that government have done but surrender?

Meanwhile, Iraqis kept dying -- malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition, lack of medicines...you name it. Over one million...to our eternal shame.

Three observations came to mind from reading this carefully researched and thoughtful book.

First, it becomes clear what former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the presently disgraced and resigned Chairman of the World Bank, had in mind when he testified before Congress that the war would be costless because the tag would be borne by the Iraqis. It made sense. We had been controlling -- and stealing -- Iraqi proceeds from their only cash-generating export, oil revenues, for a dozen years. It was therefore obvious to him that this actuality would continue into the distant future, as Viceroy L. Paul Bremer endeavored to make it ad vitam eternam.

Second, the administration and its followers (both the Democrats and the main media) were entirely correct that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk. They all knew that Iraq had become a poor shadow of its past. The country was barely surviving on life support; the army, which had not much fought in 1991 when it was much stronger and equipped, had no means, moral and material, to resist the invaders. That was well known. But how the Cheney clique, accompanied and seconded by the despicable guard dogs in the media, could have believed their own rhetoric -- that the invading forces would be welcomed as liberators with rose petals like the Roman legions in times past -- is truly befuddling. Sponeck shows at length that the Iraqi people in its overwhelming majority faulted the U.S. and the U.K. principally, and to a lesser extent the West in general, for their dire conditions. They had been bled to death by the wars and the sanctions regime. How could people believe that they would welcome us with flowers (aside from the PR shown on TV) is a mystery of the imagination -- or the stupidity of hubris.

Third and finally, one can read between the lines of Mr. von Sponeck's careful recollections of that heartrending period when the decision to invade Iraq and get rid of its regime took place. While Sponeck does not directly address the issue, it's right there for all to see. People tend to believe that the Bush administration was the culprit, but this is nothing more than partisan belief. By 1998, at the time Mr. von Sponeck took on his position, the Sanctions Regime and the Oil-for-Food Programme were already crumbling. International uproars could no longer be contained or ignored. Sponeck mentions Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness as an important factor in the change of mind in America's consciousness. The world was increasingly saying to the U.S., "enough is enough -- you can't go on destroying an entire people." Albright's "worth it" policy was increasingly being challenged. By 1999, or early 2000, the Clinton administration knew that these sanctions could not be maintained, but the regime change policy that had been put in place by the first Bush administration was written in concrete, and put into law in October 1998. The sanctions could not achieve the goal; war would. Bush II implemented the policy, and the only failure he is besieged with is the incompetence of the implementation, not the policy. From Pelosi and Feinstein and Holbrooke and Biden and, and (multiply by how many Democrats there are in Congress), to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, et al., -- the entire American apparatus decided to invade Iraq in or circa 1999. This is darn clear from reading this book and knowing what has transpired since these sorry events unfolded.

With deep humility and integrity Hans von Sponeck has written a remarkable book about the devastation brought upon the Iraqi people, the destruction of an entire society, which continues through the ongoing war. Read this book, which is dedicated "to the youth or Iraq for a better future." You will first feel deep anger and outrage; then shame will surface, and sadness set in. Perhaps, hopefully, the outcome of this truly immense tragedy will help us to learn, after all, at last, at long last.


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About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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Published May 21, 2007