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Fmr. Asst. UN Secretary General Hans Von Sponeck on Iraq and Palestine

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Hans Von Sponeck, the former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, joins us in our firehouse studio to discuss the situation in Iraq and Palestine. In the late 1990s, Von Sponeck was the coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Mission in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

  • Hans Von Sponeck, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. In the late 1990s, he was the coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Mission in Iraq.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Hans Von Sponeck. He is former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. In the late nineties he was the coordinator of the United Nations’ humanitarian mission in Iraq, was there during a part of the regime of the sanctions imposed on Iraq. He joins us in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: You’re just finishing writing a book on Iraq. Can you move from Palestine to Fallujah, right now?

HANS VON SPONECK:I would say there is Fallujah and there’s Palestine and there’s a link between the two. When leaders leave us, vacuums can arise, and the Middle East doesn’t need another vacuum. That will not be good for Palestine, and it will not be good for Fallujah and Iraq as a whole. But Fallujah is becoming yet another powerful symbol for the Middle East, for Iraq in particular, that the policies that are coming into the Middle East from the outside don’t work. Fallujah is preceded by Najaf, is preceded by Samarra, where we all were told that the success in these two towns in Iraq to bring down the insurgency will be the beginning of a peaceful solution for Iraq. And we haven’t seen it in Samarra. We haven’t seen it in Najaf, and we will not see it in Fallujah. I think it is a tragedy that even though there has been now a good almost two-year period during which the U.S. and the British could have learned how to deal with Iraq, they still haven’t managed to understand, even to some small extent, the psychology of the Iraqi people. I find it personally extremely disconcerting that one still argues that the reaction from Iraq to the presence of the coalition forces can be explained by a few remnants of the Ba’ath Party, by some extremist fundamentalists, and a few other disgruntled people. Don’t we realize? How much longer does it need to take before the world understands that this is a whole nation that is rising against an external invader, (if one can call it that)? And if we blind ourselves to this, I think there will be another Fallujah somewhere else, and the carnage in Iraq will continue, Amy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, in today’s New York Times there’s an astounding article by one reporter who was following a — a unit of soldiers in Fallujah and they — and this 150 soldiers pinned down for a whole day apparently by one sniper, who despite the unit repeatedly calling in airstrikes, bombarding the building in which the sniper was shooting at them, could not bring the sniper down; and it occurred to me, the enormous courage and the will of resistance of some of the Iraqi resistance fighters. Really, our soldiers in our country really does not understand the depth of commitment of the Iraqis after so many years now of being under attack by the United States and before that, obviously, the war with Iran. The enormous spirit of resistance that has developed among many Iraqis in terms of maintaining their national unity. I’d like to — Maybe you can share with us some of what you saw during that whole sanctions period, in terms of how Iraqis managed to persevere against such adversity.

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, the — the Iraqis are not that different from the Palestinians. Both have a very deep determination to ensure that the future is their future, and not dictated by someone else. It is wrong to believe, I must repeat it, that insurgents explain the picture. It is not so. The people explain the picture. There is a universal agreement. I’m regularly in contact with Iraq, including people in Fallujah, until the telephone lines were cut off a few days ago. I spoke twice a week to Fallujah. And I know that they’re common, normal people who have only one thing that they want, and that is the peace. They got rid of a dictator, but they have not earned the peace yet. They want peace. They want to go to the corner kebob place that was bombed and is no more. They want to drink their coffee and visit families in different parts of the town. They don’t want very much more; but they are angered now, and they are determined to join hands with the more extreme factions in Iraq to bring about a change, which means for them, the departure of the occupation forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Hans Von Sponeck, did you ever think when you were the U.N. Assistant Secretary General, when you were in Iraq presiding over the sanctions regime (which you protested by quitting), given what was happening to the Iraqis at that time, that it would come to this point, and what do you think has to be done now?

HANS VON SPONECK: I would say the trend in the policies both within the Security Council and in Washington and London pointed to the possibility of what we saw in March of 2003, a war against this country. But I think it would be dishonest on my part to say that I predicted the turmoil, the carnage, the chaos that prevailed; and in every conflict in every confrontation, there is somewhere a silver lining. The silver lining that I see now is that this wrong policy of London and Washington has led, as strange as it may sound, to cohesion within this multiethnic community called Iraq. Because if there’s one thing they all agree on, it is that they are not treated fairly. That dignity isn’t there. That they’re humiliated. And that includes Shias, Kurds; it includes Sunis, Turkmen, Chaldean Christians — all of the groups. And within all these groups you will have nuclei that say: We cannot accept that, and we will fight it. And I think this is something one must recognize if one wants to get out of this —-this turmoil; and I’ve -— I’m very sad that the initiative by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to warn the government of Prime Minister Allawi and Washington and London that they should think twice before attacking Fallujah and create another symbol of resistance, that the reaction from Baghdad and from London, and — and Washington, was a rejecting, was snubbing the Secretary General who tried to caution against a continuation of the wrong policy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You spent more than thirty years as a senior official at the United Nations, and I’m sure you — you’ve been in communication with many of your former colleagues in recent days. Your sense of the reaction in the international community and the U.N. to the american elections last week, and the results, and what it portends for the future of international diplomacy and peace in the world?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, I — one must be careful that one doesn’t generalize too much; but I would say Europe had something in common with New York City. The majority in Europe was sad that we lost a chance to begin the process of repairing transatlantic relations. I think we are in for a very difficult period; because Europe — a very big generalization — but I would say the majority of Europeans want a good transatlantic relationship. But I don’t see personally that this is possible as long as there’s such a deep disregard for the feelings, for the thoughts, for the plans outside of Washington. And therefore, I don’t see how we will turn, now, the page, and reach a constructive relationship which we so badly need if we want to fight successfully against upris — against terrorism, against violence in the world. It’s not going to happen the way the previous government and the incoming new cabinet of President Bush have it in their minds.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of the United Nations, President Bush at the end was trying to say that there was a coalition, even as it increasingly falls apart, and more and more countries are pulling their troops out of Iraq. And then talking about the U.N. right before the election, the U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, talked about the war in Iraq as being illegal. Where does it go now?

HANS VON SPONECK: I think — I foresee an increasing confrontation between the United Nations. We have a secretary general who is in his second term. We have a president who is — of the United States who is in a second term. That means both parties can do some plain speaking. And I think this will probably lead to more, not less, confrontation between the United Nations and Washington, unless Washington realizes that there are 191 member countries, each of which have a voice and each of which want to be heard, and not retain this idea that only one country, only one government sees the bigger picture, and the rest doesn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Hans Von Sponeck, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations in the nineties, the coordinator of the U.N. humanitarian mission in Iraq, the oil-for-food program. Ultimately he quit along with his predecessor, Dennis Halliday, saying that the sanctions regime was hurting the people of Iraq. This is Democracy Now!

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