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UN: More Divisiveness On Iraq As Humanitarian Chief Resigns

  • Robert McMahon

The resignation of the UN's humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, appeases British and U.S. officials who said he had overstepped his authority in commenting on sanctions against Iraq. But von Sponeck's stepdown highlights new controversy about the UN sanctions regime in Iraq at a time when the Security Council is hoping to move ahead with plans for a new arms inspection group to visit Iraq. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 15 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Hans von Sponeck has frequently criticized the sanctions set by the Security Council against Iraq. In his most recent interviews, he said the oil-for-food program that was set up to provide humanitarian assistance to normal Iraqis was not meeting their basic needs.

The United States and Britain, incensed by his comments, had three times pressed for his dismissal. They got their wish yesterday when his resignation, offered during the weekend, was accepted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Iraqi official media responded by saying von Sponeck's resignation demonstrated that UN sanctions imposed on Iraq were unjust. But U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters yesterday than von Sponeck had repeatedly exceeded the bounds of his humanitarian post by commenting on the legitimacy of sanctions.

"It's long been our view that Mr. von Sponeck has exceeded his mandate in purporting to comment on areas that are beyond the range of his competence or his authority with respect to the wisdom of sanctions. Mr. Von Sponeck was a humanitarian affairs coordinator; he was not the arbiter of national, international security for the world. The arbiter, to the extent there is an arbiter for the world on what the proper decisions are on national and international security grounds, is the Security Council. The Security Council has imposed and reaffirmed dozens of times the imposition of sanctions on Iraq. So Mr. von Sponeck's comments on sanctions are irrelevant, beyond his competence, and were one of the sources of our concern about his behavior there. "

Rubin also said von Sponeck was often too quick to accept Iraqi claims on some matters and did not wait for independent verification.

UN officials in New York would not comment on the substance of von Sponeck's remarks, but cited a statement from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is traveling in Asia. Spokeswoman Marie Okabe quoted Annan as saying the United Nations would continue to carry out the humanitarian program and try to make it as effective as possible in easing the suffering of Iraqis.

"The Council itself realizes that sanctions can be a blunt instrument and that is the reason why they established their oil-for-food scheme to be able to get assistance to the Iraqi people. We hope in time Iraq will cooperate with the council, implement the council's resolutions so that the sanctions will be lifted."

Von Sponeck is to serve until March 31. Okabe said no replacement has been named yet.

Von Sponeck was appointed in October 1998, the fifth official to run the program under which Iraq sells oil to buy food, medicine and other goods under UN supervision. But observers say the combination of sanctions, Iraq's repressive government and the impact of the disastrous Gulf War have taken a severe toll on the civilian population and pose a challenge to any humanitarian effort.

Von Sponeck's predecessor, Denis Halliday of Ireland, also departed after voicing similar criticism of sanctions. And another UN source, the United Nations' Children's Fund, has also drawn attention to the suffering of Iraqis under UN sanctions. A survey by UNICEF said from 1991 to 1999, the mortality rate of Iraqi children under five has more than doubled to 131 of 1,000 children.

UNICEF'S director of emergency operations, Nils Kastberg, told our correspondent in a telephone interview that the UN sanctions are among a range of issues that need to be considered when analyzing the poor health condition of Iraqi children. He said basic issues like assembling a competent cadre of people to implement the humanitarian program, are crucial to its success.

"For example, the continuity of staff, the question of salary levels, the question of capacity building of staff, the question of certain infrastructure improvements, particularly in the delivery of water. All of those are various elements that contribute to the levels of nutrition of children."

Kastberg said there has been a decrease in the negative health trends in the Kurdish-populated north of Iraq, where the UN plays a central role in distributing the goods purchased by oil revenues. Iraq is permitted to distribute the goods itself -- with minimal UN monitoring -- in central and southern Iraq. The Kurdish north was set up as a virtual protectorate after the Gulf War.