Iraq

Press Briefing by outgoing Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq

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The Iraq "oil-for-food" programme was inadequate on three counts, Hans von Sponeck, outgoing Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, told journalists at a press briefing this afternoon at United Nations Headquarters.
First, despite the revenue improvement, it was financially inadequate, he explained. The $2.9 billion net value of the humanitarian programme in the current and last phase of the humanitarian programme allowed only $252 per person. Taken as income, this put Iraq in the least-developed country category.

Second, the content of the programme was also inadequate, and the prime victim of this was the education sector -- precisely the sector that meant to prepare young people for life. On average, less than 4 per cent of the $2.9 billion had been available for education.

Third, there was an inordinate delay in the arrival of items, he said. At the end of phase six of the "oil-for-food" programme, in November, less than 10 per cent of the items that were due in that phase had arrived.

Planned average daily calorific levels of food baskets -- 2200 calories per day -- had never been reached, he said. In fact, under 2000 calories per person per day were available, and that was not adequate. The availability of drugs had improved, but there were still not enough drugs available, particularly for outpatients. Public services -- water, sewerage, garbage collection -- were in very bad shape, due to inadequate finances and necessary items being "on hold".

Two years ago it had been determined that $7.1 billion was required for the electricity sector, on which so many other humanitarian activities depended, he continued. $1.1 billion had been allocated -- a fraction of what was needed -- but what had arrived was only $112 million. Items "on hold" at the time were valued at four times that amount.

He said that the oil industry was in a very precarious state, such that even if the oil export ceiling was lifted, it would not lead to a sharp increase in the availability of resources.

Education was his key concern, he said. The educational situation was not suitable to train the next generation of Iraqis in responsible leadership. It was factual to speak of an "intellectual embargo" -- this was not propaganda. Iraq could not import many of the items needed for education.

There was little chance of sustainability of such a programme based on a six- month cycle for ordering and distributing materials, where there were no resources for training, institution-building or creating a normal, functioning economy. That could be seen particularly dramatically in the northern Kurdish areas, where a lot of money was coming into the region that could not be absorbed because the administrative base was not there and the recurrent costs were not funded. The Kurdish administration shared that assessment.

It was important to remember that after three years of this programme a handout mentality had been created, he said. The dependency of the population was an increasing cause for concern. The "oil-for-food" programme could not really continue to be considered a temporary programme, he said, despite its characterization as such in the Memorandum of Understanding that governed it.

The media had, in the past, been interested in the distribution of the supplies entering Iraq, he said. He had hoped the issue of stocks had been depoliticized, courtesy of the monthly reports on stock levels the United Nations was now issuing. The picture those reports painted was totally satisfactory. By January, 91.7 per cent of all material that had entered Iraq under part of the programme had been distributed to the end user. The figure was lower -- 72 per cent -- for medical supplies, but this reflected World Health Organization (WHO) recommended standard medical stockpiling practices and the extra time required for medical quality control. The picture was not bad.

He said that widely publicized key statistics from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) told a story. There had been a steep increase in mortality levels for children under six. Diarrhea had again become a major killer in Iraq and that had not been the case in the 1980s. School enrolments were down in all areas. The number of street children had increased even in the short year and a half he had been in Iraq. He had seen powerful evidence of the abandonment of children. Iraqi youth were increasingly ill-prepared to accept the responsibility of nation- building, and the implications of that were self-evident.

The increase in mental and psychological disorders was also worrying to United Nations people on the ground, he added. According to UNICEF estimates in 1990, some 200,000 people needed help as a consequence of such problems, and in 1998 this had grown to some 510,000. The figures were estimates, but the trend was clear. The UNICEF had also reported that prevailing conditions in Iraq had resulted in serious impairment of children's healthy psychosocial development.

Mr. von Sponeck quoted a United Kingdom House of Commons document entitled "The Future of Sanctions". In its conclusions about comprehensive sanctions against Iraq, its authors stated that they found it "difficult to believe that there would be a case in the future where the United Nations would be justified in imposing comprehensive economic sanctions on a country. In an increasingly interdependent world, such sanctions caused significant suffering. However carefully exemptions are planned, the fact is that comprehensive economic sanctions only further concentrate power in the hands of the ruling elite. The United Nations would lose credibility if it advocates the rights of the poor while at the same time, if only indirectly, their further impoverishment."

Asked why he had taken on the job in the first place, Mr. von Sponeck explained that he had come to the post as an optimist. He had believed that things would develop, and that he could live with the sanctions regime, but now he knew that it was much more complex than he had assumed.

Asked, given the "politicization of the Iraqi file" in the Security Council, what advice he would give his successor, he said that he would recommend that person be honest.

Asked about pressure put on him to resign, he said that the pressure had come from himself, although he acknowledged that the message conveyed by certain Security Council members had been received. In his private briefing of the Security Council, he had provided the members with the same information, although in greater detail, as he was now giving journalists. He had tried to put what he had collected as facts on the table, and to leave the interpretation to members of the Council.

Asked whether he believed his resignation would change anything, he said that he could not see that he could continue to be useful to the United Nations and to himself, given his interpretation of the local situation.

He explained, in response to another question, that he had never argued the current situation in Iraq was only due to external factors. The deprivation was due to both internal and external factors.

Responding to a request to comment on statements assessing the programme in the north of Iraq as a success, Mr. von Sponeck drew attention to three facts. He said 19.4 cents of every oil-for-food dollar was allocated to the north, where 13 per cent of the population lived, he said. Thus, the three northern Kurdish governorates received a larger share of the money than the rest of Iraq. Second, the north had very porous borders with its neighbours, and, as a consequence, a lot of trade occurred in both directions. That generated economic activity which benefited the north. Finally, United Nations agencies were managing the programme in the north.

Asked to respond to allegations that luxury goods were still being imported into Iraq, he explained that as Humanitarian Coordinator he was concerned with the programme established, and the finances available, under Security Council resolution 986 (1995). He had seen no evidence that oil revenues had been diverted to areas other than those intended. Iraq had other sources of income, he added.

In response to a question about whether the "oil-for-food" programme was inherently flawed, he said that he believed that, first and foremost, resources were inadequate. In addition, the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding established that food and medicine had first claim on all resources, and in the first phase food had absorbed some 68 per cent of revenue. Resources had now been increased and more was now available to meet other needs. However, the "Iraqi body needed a cloth that was much bigger than the cloth that could be purchased with the money available".

Asked whether the scrutiny he had been under from Security Council members, particularly the United States, had had an impact on his work, he answered that it had not, but that it had made an impact on his mind. As for his resignation, he thought it better to have an optimistic Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq than someone who no longer believed in the programme's possibilities.

Mr. von Sponeck declined to comment on the effects of bombings on humanitarian efforts in Iraq.

The resignation of the head of the World Food Programme's (WFP) Iraq office had come as no surprise, he said, responding to another question, as United Nations staff in Iraq spoke every day. He believed she held similar concerns as his. Regarding his successor, he said he knew the Secretary-General was most concerned that the United Nations do the right thing in Iraq, and would choose a replacement accordingly.

He declined to speculate on whether the Iraqi Government could make a substantial difference to the lives of its people if it chose to.

Regarding the possibility that the situation could be improved if a system of "smart sanctions" were employed, he said that after nine years under the existing sanctions regime, he was not sure that changing the regime would make a difference. A distribution mentality had developed in Iraq, and there had been no proper institutional planning throughout the sanctions period. It would take some time for normal government infrastructure to function again.