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Iraq: Sanctions Tied Up In 12-Year Web Of UN Resolutions

  • Robert McMahon

The U.S. call for the lifting of Iraqi sanctions has helped focus the debate on Iraq's future back on the UN Security Council. This week the council will discuss weapons inspections and the oil-for-food program, both set up by council mandate and both deeply linked to the sanctions issue. There are early indications of a new battle looming among Security Council members, but it will be tempered by a shared concern that Iraqi humanitarian aid not be sacrificed to the feuding. RFE/RL reports from the United Nations.

United Nations, 21 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On the surface, Washington's appeal for the UN Security Council to lift the sanctions against Iraq would appear to be a simple matter to resolve.

The regime that the sanctions were directed against no longer exists and all council members -- despite their deep differences over the war in Iraq -- wish to avoid prolonging the hardships of the Iraqis.

But the sanctions were rooted in place by 12 years of conditions from council resolutions that were prompted by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Council measures later focused on ensuring that Saddam Hussein's regime had eliminated nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.

The council alone can determine whether those conditions are met and members like Russia and France have already signaled they would oppose lifting the sanctions without a broader role for the UN in Iraq than has so far been suggested by the United States.

For example, council resolutions call for UN weapons inspectors to determine whether Iraq has disarmed its weapons of mass destruction. Russia and France, which had long pressed for the easing of sanctions, now are among the council members stressing that UN inspectors must have a say on Iraq's disarmament before the sanctions can be lifted.

The United States, unhappy with the work of chief UN inspector Hans Blix, has begun forming its own team of experts that it wants to investigate suspected weapons sites.

Another contentious issue linked to the debate is the oil-for-food program, set up seven years ago to feed Iraqis while sanctions remained in place. The program fed the majority of Iraqi citizens before the war and is seen by many humanitarian experts as the best method, in any interim period, of handling food distribution in the country. Some U.S. officials favor turning over some parts of the program to Iraqis.

Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Zinser, the council's president, said late last week that members are involved in "intense" talks about how some of the Iraqi resolutions should be modified.

"We know and we recognize that there are many differences and that there are still sharp contrasts in points of view in the council and that is why we have to do an extraordinary effort to bring the council together. All members are now working with this objective in mind."

To accomplish that, the two main sides that had clashed over the war in Iraq must be willing to soften their positions, said David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy and an expert on Security Council affairs.

The United States and Britain went to war to oust the Iraqi regime without the approval of the Security Council, citing what they said were clear Iraqi violations of disarmament obligations spelled out in previous council resolutions. U.S. officials have said the failure of the council to endorse the action raises questions about its relevancy and they have specified only a humanitarian role for the UN in the future.

Russia, France, and Germany were among the states that criticized the military action as illegitimate. Now, Malone told RFE/RL, in an environment of bruised egos, these states need to work together to repair Iraq.

"Washington needs to tone down the rhetoric about the UN a bit and countries like Russia, France, and some others need to become a great deal more pragmatic," Malone said. "Nobody in the world today wants to be in a position where they can be accused of contributing to further humanitarian or other hardships for the Iraqis."

The need for council unity on humanitarian issues was also underlined by Edward Luck, the director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University. Luck told RFE/RL there is wide recognition that the council's reputation was damaged by its very public dispute earlier this year and if it wants to move forward it will have to settle issues like the lifting of sanctions.

"To repeat that episode, particularly when it has to do with food and humanitarian assistance and all these kinds of things, is not going to look very good. It's just going to look like sour grapes and not much more," Luck said.

At the weekend, "The New York Times" quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying Washington does not plan to introduce one single resolution to lift sanctions but three or four resolutions over several months. The officials said their intention is to lift penalties against Iraq in phases, permitting UN supervision of Iraq's oil sales for a temporary period but transferring other parts of the economy to an Iraqi authority in the near future.

U.S. officials have repeatedly said they would prefer to hand over authority to Iraqi officials as soon as possible rather than plan a UN administration shaped by council members that had so strenuously opposed the war. But there is an acknowledgment by Washington that, in terms of Iraqi oil production and related issues, the council still has an important role to play, said the International Peace Academy's Malone.

Since it was the council, after U.S. urging, that gave the UN such a central role in Iraq's oil sales to the outside world, it is the council that will now need to sort out the legal and political issues involving the sale of that oil, Malone said.

For example, Malone said, the United States cannot take on borrowing responsibilities for a government that doesn't exist yet.

Malone added that the relationship foreign actors are to have with the authorities in Iraq is "critical" -- in particular, the relationships "between oil companies, for example, and whatever Iraqi authorities are in place [and] the relationships between the major international lending institutions."

The council is due to hold a series of meetings on postwar Iraq this week. Tomorrow it is scheduled to meet with Blix on what steps to take regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Later in the day, it will meet with the UN administrator of the oil-for-food program, Benon Sevan. The council gave temporary control of the program to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the war began but that is due to run out in less than one month.

Also, on 24 April the council is due to meet with a UN official responsible for working with the Iraqi regime to resolve the fate of more than 600 missing Kuwaiti and third-party nationals from the first Gulf War, as well as the missing Kuwaiti national archives.