By H.C. von Sponeck (Former United Nation’s Assistant Secretary-General.) Truthout

    In discussing UN involvement before and after the 2003 invasion of US, UK and other coalition forces into Iraq, a clear distinction has to be made between the policy makers and the civil servants expected to carry out the policies, i.e., between member governments in the UN Security Council and the UN Secretariat.

    If this is done, it quickly becomes clear that primary responsibility for the human catastrophe in Iraq lies with the political UN, with those member governments in the UN Security Council who had the power to make a difference. The failure of the Council to make a humanitarian, ethical and legal difference is much more monumental than is commonly known. There is not only the betrayal of the Iraqi people but also the betrayal of the UN Charter and the betrayal of the international conscience.

    Why is this so?

    World leaders were hiding behind the curtain of the UN Security Council to premeditate their betrayal before and after the illegal war of 2003. There can be no more doubts, the facts are present, that the US and UK governments were actively pursuing regime change by force at a time when the world was made to believe that international law, peaceful solutions to the conflict and the protection of the Iraqi people, were part of the US and UK governments’ approach. They were not. Once the asymmetrical war was over, it also became clear to the international public that those who carried out this war had reached higher heights of irresponsibility by fighting this war without a strategy for peace.

    The objective was to maintain a strangle-hold on Iraq. Means of ‘disarray’ and ‘deception’ were deployed to justify the end of ‘domination’. Iraq’s armed forces were sent home. Civil servants were retired without evidence of wrong doing, simply because they had belonged to the Baath Party. New laws, the Transition Authority laws (TAL) were introduced by decree. These laws tried to re-colonize Iraq economically and institutionally and create dependence even in such areas as agriculture by banning local seed stocks in favour of genetically modified seeds to be imported from the Unites States. The ensuing Iraqi opposition and chaos left the occupying powers stymied and bewildered.

    How did the UN Security Council and the UN Secretariat react to these bilateral aberrations?

    Over a decade, the UN Security Council condoned what two permanent members, the US and the UK, were doing to pursue, first, their Iraq containment policy and later their regime replacement agenda. This amounted to nothing less but the de facto bilateralization of the Security Council. The rhetoric of the Iraq debates in the Council showed that there was an abundance of awareness of the evolving humanitarian crisis in Iraq. At the same time there was a severe shortage of political will to take timely steps to redress this situation.

    It was known to all members of the Security Council that the linkage between disarmament and comprehensive economic sanctions meant that the people of Iraq were made to pay a heavy price in terms of life and destitution for acts of their government. It was known to all members of the Security Council that the inadequacy of the Council’s allocations for the oil-for-food programme and the bureaucracy with which this humanitarian exemption was implemented worsened the chances of survival of many Iraqis. It was known to all members of the Security Council that the refusal by the Council to allow the transfer of cash to Iraq’s central bank needed to run the nation, to pay for training, installation of equipment and institution building, encouraged the Government of Iraq to increase illegal means to obtain cash.

    It was known to all members of the Security Council that the establishment of the two no-fly-zones within Iraq had little to do with the protection of ethnic and religious groups but a lot with destabilization. All members of the Security Council were aware that following ‘Operation Desert Fox’ in December 1998, the US and the UK governments, giving their pilots enlarged rules of engagement, used Iraqi airspace as training grounds, eventually in preparation for war. The Security Council had access to air strike reports when such reports were prepared by the UN in Baghdad and therefore all members of the Security Council knew of the destruction of civilian life and property. Yet, the Security Council did not ever debate the legality of the no-fly-zones to challenge two of its members that they maintained these zones without a UN mandate.

    All this was known.

    With rare exceptions, members of the Security Council allowed the Council to become a convenient tool for the pursuit of bilateral policies. There was ample experience in the Council concerning the danger of misuse of consensus resolutions as demonstrated by the handling of resolutions 687 (1991) and 1284 (1999) by the United States and the UK governments. This did not deter members of the Council from going along with yet another consensus resolution, 1441 (2002). The likelihood of misuse by individual members of the Council of provisions such as ‘material breaches’ and ‘serious consequences’ to justify military invasion should have prevented the adoption of such a resolution.

    The UN Secretariat acquiesced when the US and UK, two founding members of the UN, insisted in the Security Council on an economic sanctions regime that caused a human tragedy. The UN Secretariat remained mute when these same governments dropped out of the international community to unilaterally mount an illegal invasion into Iraq. The UN Secretariat did not react even at this critical time when the very foundation of the institution was threatened. Dr. Hans Blix, chief UN arms inspector, had reported progress in verifying Iraq’s lack of WMD and was pleading for more time to complete the inspection process. The UN Secretariat should have used this to confront the two governments about their war plans but chose not to do so. Without protest, the UN Secretariat withdrew in March 2003 the UN arms inspectors.

    The UN Secretariat could not have prevented the long planned decision to go to war. The sheer seriousness of the violation of international law by two member countries and the sidelining of a world body created to prevent wars represented a challenge for the UN civil service to show that, ultimately, conscience was superior to obedience.

    Since the illegal invasion of Iraq, there has not been a debate in the Security Council about the fundamental disregard by the coalition forces of existing conventions created to ensure that the occupation armies act in accordance with the Hague and Geneva Conventions to which they are parties. Looting and burning of the national museum and the national library, the damaging of archeological sites and the humiliating treatment of civilians by the US armed forces, provoked no protest in the Security Council. The Security Council watched impotently when the soul and ethos of Iraq was attacked. The detention of political figures for indefinite periods and the unimaginable brutality and sadism with which detainees were treated not just in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca but also in other prisons were not subject of Security Council concern. Carpet destruction of towns such as Al Fallujah, Tel Afar and Al Qaim did not ruffle the Security Council and lead to emergency meetings. There were no protests in the Council that CPA administrator Paul Bremer and other CPA officials represented an allegedly liberated and sovereign Iraq at major international meetings such as the World Economic Forum in Amman and the WTO in Geneva. The Security Council took no note that the assignment of a human rights reporter for Iraq was abruptly terminated by the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva following the illegal war. The Security Council agreed in 2003 to the continuation of payments by the UN Compensation Commission even though it had earlier agreed to discontinue the entertainment of claims.

    The Security Council did play an important role in the preparations for an interim Iraqi administration and elections but ultimately succumbed to US heavy handedness in deciding the details of the process.

    In the history books of the United Nations the handling of the Iraq conflict by the Security Council will be recorded as a massive failure of oversight responsibility.

    The history books should also record that the voice of the people replaced the UN Security Council as the international conscience. This voice must not relent in its demands that the US and UK Governments, bilaterally, as national administrations, and multilaterally, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, are accountable to their people and to the world community for their wrongdoing against Iraq, before, during and after the illegal war.

    It is a crime in many countries to leave the scene of an accident without helping the victims. This also applies to the responsibility of the international community to help the Iraqi victims. Conscience, compassion and a sense of responsibility are powerful reasons to stay involved. There must be involvement at two levels: Iraq and UN reforms.

    Political leaders urge that we should look forward. This we must. However, a look forward receives legitimacy only when it is linked to accountability for the past. This applies to nations, communities, individuals – to everyone, particularly to those in power. The forthcoming trial of Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein acknowledges his accountability for past crimes against his people. The same applies to crimes against humanity committed by those who maintained economic sanctions with total disregard for the human costs, who fought a silent war in the no-fly-zones, who invaded Iraq, who abused, maimed, tortured and killed its people. The dock of the court room for Iraq has to have more than one chair! Law and justice, need it be stressed, are not only for the losers.

    There are thousands of unnamed Iraqi fathers, mothers and children who are victims of the failure to prevent war and destruction in Iraq. Let them be the stark reminders of our responsibility to keep the debate alive at least until the terms of accountability are met.

    In summary, Iraq remains ‘unfinished business’ for the international peace movement and responsible citizens everywhere. The challenge is to address three major issues:

1. The United Nations has failed in preventing unjust economic sanctions, an illegal war and carnage under occupation.

This means that in the short term, the peace movement must persevere in their demands that those responsible be brought to justice. It must not be forgotten that what was done in the name of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ represents a travesty of the meaning of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’.

2. The international peace movement, too, has failed in preventing unjust economic sanctions and an illegal war.

In the short term, the peace movement should take this as an important opportunity to carry out a self-critical review why this failure occurred and what factors contributed to this failure.

The dangers looming on the political and socio-economic horizon are horrific. The reaction of the peace movement, in the medium term, must be to leave turf battles and institutional or personal ambitions behind to facilitate significantly better organized responses to international crises. Only combined commitment and a joint strategy offer a chance to make a difference.

3. As individuals who understand and cherish the ethos of the UN Charter, who believe in peace and justice for all, who are abhorred by what has happened in Iraq before, during and after the illegal war, we must first and foremost work on ourselves to become equipped for the tasks ahead. Beyond this obligation, we have to remain, in the words of Dag Hammarskjoeld, the UN’s second secretary general, “conscious of the reality of evil and the tragedy of individual life, and conscious, too, of the demand that life be conducted with decency.”

Hans von Sponeck (Germany)
Former United Nation’s Assistant Secretary-General Hans von Sponeck joined the UN Development Program in 1968, and worked in Ghana, Turkey, Botswana, Pakistan and India, before becoming Director of European Affairs. Serving thirty-six years with the organization, his last post succeeded Denis Halliday as UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq and administrator of the Oil-for-Food program in October 1998. Sponeck resigned in February 2000, in protest of the international policy toward Iraq, including sanctions.

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