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Iraq: Sanctions Policy Under Debate After Second Resignation

  • Robert McMahon

The resignation of a second UN humanitarian official working in Iraq has raised new questions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN's long-term sanctions against Baghdad. Observers familiar with Iraq and sanctions policy say it is time to take another look at the sanctions policy to prevent further suffering of the Iraqi people while still trying to keep Saddam Hussein's militarist tendencies in check. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Jutta Burhardt's resignation as the World Food Program's representative in Baghdad makes her the second prominent official involved in UN humanitarian operations in Iraq to step down.

Her departure was more low key than that of Hans von Sponeck, the head of the UN humanitarian program in Iraq. Von Sponeck said repeatedly that the UN program was not meeting the basic needs of Iraqis. The World Food Program said Burghardt -- like von Sponeck a German -- was making a "personal decision" to leave the post and return to the service of her government.

But her departure was widely seen as another critical statement about the sanctions and the oil-for-food program that is supposed to help provide ordinary Iraqis with food, medicine and other necessary goods.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin yesterday acknowledged that there are differing views about sanctions as a policy but he said criticism was misdirected and should instead be focused on the Iraqi regime

"So when these well-intentioned individuals are concerned about the fate of the Iraqi people, it is our view that they should direct their concern and their blame-casting at the Iraqi regime, which refuses day after day, time after time, to spend its hard currency helping its own people, so the United Nations and the United States have to come up with a different way to create revenue for the food and medicine and other supplies that are being made available. And if it were not for the U.S. and the UN efforts in this regard, billions of dollars of food and medicine would not have gone to the people of Iraq."

But the U.S. administration's insistence on sticking with a sanctions policy against repressive government's such as Iraq's drew new criticism from some internationally respected observers yesterday.

Joe Stork is a director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. He told our correspondent in an interview that sanctions are sometimes able to be exploited by the very leaders they are directed against. "Sanctions have a very mixed record. There have certainly been cases like in South Africa where I think one can say they have contributed toward a political resolution of a crisis. I think where they have been most problematic are cases like Iraq where you have an extremely authoritarian government which is not going to be responsive to the suffering of the people and may in fact find some advantage in sort of using sanctions as a political tool for rallying popular support."

Stork says his organization supports the Security Council's goal of ridding Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. But he recommends that the council's sanctions committee needs to admit more goods of a non-military nature into the country to allow Iraqis to rebuild their infrastructure and carry out meaningful reconstruction.

Richard Murphy is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations -- an independent think-tank -- and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Like Stork, he says there have been needless delays in the oil-for-food program that have held up supplies of materials needed to improve living standards for Iraqis. He says bureaucracy is mainly at fault.

"It's a massive bureaucracy: committees on top of committees at work on this and inevitably, that has been a cumbersome, slow-moving affair and some contracts that have been submitted to committees in New York for approval have been delayed for several months and they shouldn't have been delayed."

Murphy finds fault in general with what he believes is an over-reliance on sanctions by the Clinton administration and the U.S. Congress in recent years. In the case of Iraq, he says sanctions have slowed down Saddam Hussein's ability to build up his weapons program but have not succeeded in bringing an end to his regime.

"Sanctions are almost by definition a large, clumsy instrument and they hurt those they are not supposed to hurt. And unfortunately it became an instrument of choice, of preference, both in the White House and Congress during recent years. And more sanctions have been applied around the world, not just on the Iraqi scene (in recent years), than in the previous 60 years."

There was no immediate word on a replacement for the World Food Program representative in Baghdad. Von Sponeck leaves his post as humanitarian coordinator after March 31. Meanwhile, the new executive chairman of the monitoring and inspection mission in Iraq, Hans Blix, is due to take up his duties on March 1. His mission has been designed to help expedite the lifting of sanctions, if Iraq complies.