Hans Von Sponeck, the former coordinator of the United Nations humanitarian mission in Iraq, joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about the troop surge in Baghdad, House and Senate bills on war funding, the 13-year sanction regime in Iraq and more. Von Sponeck is author of “A Different Kind of War: The U.N. Sanctions Regime in Iraq.” [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: On Capitol Hill, a Senate committee approved a $122 billion war spending bill that calls for President Bush to pull combat troops out of Iraq by next spring. The House plans to vote on a similar bill later today. Bush has threatened to veto both bills if they contain a deadline for withdrawal. The legislation comes as the United States enters its fifth year of the occupation of Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a surprise visit to Baghdad. During the joint news conference with Iraq’s prime minister, the U.N. chief said he might boost the United Nations’ presence in Iraq because of improved security. Moments later, the news conference was interrupted. A rocket exploded just 50 yards away from the meeting. The blast shook the building and sent Ban Ki-moon ducking for cover behind a podium. The U.N. chief had earlier arrived on his first visit to Baghdad since he took office in January this year.
Today we’re joined by a former U.N. official who lived in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. Hans von Sponeck has been a fierce critic of the war. In the late 1990s, he was the coordinator of the United Nations humanitarian mission in Iraq. He resigned in protest over the U.N. sanctions regime. He’s also a former assistant secretary-general of the U.N. and has written a new book; it is called A Different Kind of War: The U.N. Sanctions Regime in Iraq.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
HANS VON SPONECK: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, the situation? I mean, you just saw, heard the explosion, as the new U.N. secretary-general was announcing there seems to be increased stability, and maybe a larger U.N. mission would come into Iraq.
HANS VON SPONECK: It gave him a firsthand opportunity to understand how volatile the situation is in Iraq, and I hope it leads him to the conviction that less violence and more peace initiatives on the part of the United Nations might be the answer, rather than a surge in troop levels. I very strongly feel there should be a surge in the willingness in the U.S. Congress to insist that the United Nations, the role of the international community, should be strengthened, and the troops should come home, with respect and honor, if that is still possible, as soon as possible.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the role of the U.N. right now in Iraq, given, obviously, it has to be very limited, anything that it can do? But what are U.N. personnel doing, if anything, there?
HANS VON SPONECK: The United Nations staff, 55 of them—that’s all—are confined to the Green Zone and to Amman. From a distance, they look at an Iraq that is crumbling. They can do very little. They do human rights reporting. They have a small number of projects. But essentially they are confined to that limited space for reasons of security. In fact, most of the staff that Ban Ki-moon has allowed to be in Iraq is security-related staff. So, it’s a holding operation. The U.N. flag can fly, but it flies very timidly.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, the U.N. Mission there was blown up. What was the effect of that?
HANS VON SPONECK: It was a massive demoralization for the United Nations. And Mr. Kofi Annan was right in taking the staff out, as painful as this is.
AMY GOODMAN: Sergio de Mello, the head of the mission, killed.
HANS VON SPONECK: He was killed in my office. This is the office I occupied from the time I served in Baghdad. So I know the environment very well. It didn’t come as a surprise. It was the weak, the soft underbelly of the United Nations building area in Baghdad. And it’s a tragedy it happened, but out of that should be a United Nations that is more and more determined to encourage dialogue, rather than support an ill-fated attempt to solve problems in Iraq with military muscle.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in your book, A Different Kind of War, you actually get into the entire period of the sanctions in Iraq, and you document quite a bit of information that I don’t think—certainly most Americans are not aware of. But I was especially interested—we were talking before the show about the United Nations Compensation Committee—Commission, that was set up to—after the Persian Gulf War. And you had quite a few examples there of what appear, at least on the surface, to be questionable awards that were given out, and plus it was a huge amount of money that was involved. Could you talk about that whole Compensation Commission?
HANS VON SPONECK: Well, you know, I don’t want to come across here as a vindictive person. The intention of this book was to shed light on a very dark chapter of the United Nations by honestly identifying facts. And among these dramatic facts is one which is hardly known, certainly very little known in the U.S. And that is, at a time when an increasing number of people were dying, particularly children, the United Nations agreed to pay out $18 billion U.S. That’s a lot of money. The total value of what came into Iraq during the entire Oil-for-Food Program, in terms of supplies, was $28 billion. So, if you withhold $18 billion, that is a lot. That could have saved a lot of lives. That is bad enough.
What is worse is that many of these compensation claims were fraudulent. The U.N. discovered some. Others were overlooked and paid out. There was a claim from the government of Jordan for having helped transiting guest workers to go home for $8.2 billion U.S., 8.2. The U.N., in the end, awarded $79 million, less than a percent of what was asked for. The Iraqi money was like a cow that one could milk eternally in order to please governments that didn’t need the money, while Iraqis back home were dying in large numbers. There are others examples, but maybe this would go too far on this occasion.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s very relevant to look at the sanctions regime against Iraq, given what is being proposed for Iran right now. Major powers have readied a draft resolution to slap new punitive sanctions on Iran, with a U.N. Security Council vote expected on Saturday, as Tehran remains defiant over its nuclear program. According to Agence France-Presse, a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the draft was expected to receive overwhelming support. Talk about the regime of sanctions and what it meant. I mean, people see what’s happening in Iraq right now as horrific. You describe a very bad situation before the bombing of George Bush of 2003.
HANS VON SPONECK: You know, the sanction cheese in Iraq had many holes. The sanction cheese for Iran has bigger holes. It may look interesting on paper, but in terms of the reality for implementation, we are living today in a totally different situation. The world is more polarized than it ever was in the days of the sanctions against Iraq. But let me just pause here and say the comprehensive economic sanctions that Iraq endured isn’t what is proposed for Iran. It’s more a political—a political threat to the Iranians, rather than a direct punishment of the people, as it was the case in Iraq.
Moreover, we must remember, the world of 2007 is not the world of the Iraq sanction time. There are new constellations. New organizations are springing up in protest over what I would call—as a friend of the U.S., I would call it the “Western One-Way Street,” while in fact it is mainly an American highway on which we have traveled, that the world is no longer to accept. So the sanction package against Iran, it may be a small—I don’t think it is—political victory for the U.S. to get a sanction resolution through the Security Council, but in terms of the implications for Iran as a whole, it will have limited, limited value.
AMY GOODMAN: You, in talking about Iraq today, are clearly saying the U.N. is involved in supporting violent solutions. What exactly are you saying?
HANS VON SPONECK: The United Nations—painful for me as a person who believes in the U.N., who has served 32 years in that organization—was indeed an ally of bilateral policies that initially meant containing the country, and later, in the last years of the Clinton administration and very much since then, was a policy of punishment, punishing a people for enduring a dictator—a very strange logic here. But we could have, in Baghdad, done whatever we wanted to do. The government could have cooperated with the Security Council. It would have made no difference, because the key word in this equation was “regime change.” So, as long as Saddam Hussein and his government were in power, no chance to do something else. Mr. Negroponte, in a hearing in the U.S. Congress some time ago, said, “Our first concern were weapons of mass destruction. We were interested with the peoples’ welfare, but that was clearly of second priority.” That was the approach, and the U.N. went along with this.
And why am I mentioning it? Because I think it is very relevant in the debate about the kind of United Nations that we want to have, that we need, that the U.S. needs, as much as my country, Germany, or anyone else around the world in these 192 member countries. We need to take into account what happened in Iraq in debating the U.N. reform needs of today and tomorrow. And if we do this, then we do justice to the demand of political accountability. This is not looking to the future. Yes, we must look to the future. That demand from European politicians and American politicians is important, but not without looking back to understand what happened and to hold those on both sides of the fence.
You have—I don’t want to talk too long here, but I want to say you have in Iraq a very strange reality. You have two perpetrators. You have Saddam Hussein, who has committed crimes against his people, but you also have—tragically enough, you have a United Nations that has equally become the perpetrator in harming and punishing, because of a faulty, I’m afraid to say, U.S.-led, British-led, Spanish-, Italian-led policy in the Security Council.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m curious, in the period before you stepped down from your post, what kind of conversations you may have had with other leaders of the United Nations, or Kofi Annan directly, about the concerns about the U.N.’s role and what their response was, because they obviously were aware that—of the negative role that the United States and Great Britain and some of the other great powers were playing. And what kind of conversations did you have with them?
HANS VON SPONECK: Mr. Kofi Annan, at all times, had the heart in the right place, but he didn’t have enough muscle to succeed in convincing the Security Council that the rhetoric in the council, that was always pro-people, that always recognized the plight of the Iraqi people, should translate and be provided, equipped with the political will to bring about changes that would be more focused on the perpetrators—in this case, the government of Iraq—rather than on innocent civilians. He knew that. Mr. Kofi Annan at no time forgot that. But a multilateral diplomat is impotent vis-à-vis the powers of the day, if they have a different design. And the tragedy is that it is a 15-country Security Council that was overwhelmingly dominated by the United Kingdom and the United States, and the international community allowed this to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re here in United States. You return to Germany tomorrow. You’ve been here at a genocide conference at Columbia University in New York. As you watch the coverage of what happened—of what’s happening today—there’s going to be a vote in Congress for supplemental money, more than $100 billion, for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—your thoughts?
HANS VON SPONECK: I want to tell you that we are very carefully watching in Europe what is being debated in Washington. And we cannot fully comprehend why this courageous woman, Nancy Pelosi, isn’t making more progress among her colleagues on both sides of the fence, why there are still Republicans who can argue that it is a betrayal of the U.S. troops. I sympathize with these poor male and female GIs that have to serve in Iraq, but it is incomprehensible to me that there are still voices that insist that the way to go forward is to increase the troop levels, to maintain a policy that will lead in Afghanistan and in Iraq to total disaster. This is not winnable. You cannot do what is intended to be done. Democracy and human rights and progress and development cannot be parachuted over Kabul or Iraq. And why is it? I don’t have an answer. Why is it that so many members of the U.S. Congress still maintain that the old policies can remain intact and should be implemented?
AMY GOODMAN: If the U.S. troops pulled out today?
HANS VON SPONECK: Can there be more chaos in Iraq than there is already? I am—I have links to people who have links to the resistance. The resistance says the Americans should talk to us. But if Ambassador Khalilzad in Baghdad talks to resistance people, the real resistance leaders start laughing, because they say you are not talking to the right people. So, Condoleezza Rice should have her way. Mr. Cheney should not have his way. She should succeed in convincing her Cabinet colleagues that the moment is to talk to each other. The moment is to talk to the resistance.
The moment is—you mentioned the PKK sometime a moment ago, Hezbollah, Fatah, Hamas. They all belong around the table. You can no longer discuss an element of the Middle East crisis in isolation. It has to be—I call it a strategy of the whole. Everybody belongs around the table and needs to be taken into account. We don’t recognize this. We will continue to waste money—your money, our money—our goodwill, your people’s lives, and I think that is a tragedy. And I hope that Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues will make headway in convincing Republicans also to finally give up an unwinnable approach in dealing with the Middle East.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned how in Europe people are watching very carefully what is happening here in the U.S. Congress. Obviously, European governments, several of them, have gone through major changes since the start of the Iraq war. To what degree are the European nations doing what they should be doing in terms of standing up sufficiently? Clearly, in Italy and Spain, the climate has changed dramatically. But what can Europe do in terms of having an impact on American policy?
HANS VON SPONECK: The first order of priority in the European Union, of 27 countries, is to get our own act together, because we are very fragmented. There are many shades of opinion with regard to the Middle Eastern situation, and there is no integrated foreign policy. And that plays into the very hands in the U.S. that should their keep the hands off the political debate. The neoconservatives are trying hard to maintain this level of division in Europe, and the sooner our leaders in Europe recognize that, that they will play no role, that they will have a marginal impact at best, is—until they get their act together.
And my own country, in Germany, Mrs. Merkel, our chancellor, is trying to repair the trans-Atlantic damage. She tries very hard. But the fear some of us have is that she tries at the expense of doing what needs to be done now, and tell the friend across the Atlantic, tell Washington, as a friend, that the track, the road on which the U.S. administration is traveling, is leading to further disaster.
AMY GOODMAN: Hans von Sponeck, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, was the chief of the U.N. humanitarian mission in Iraq, quit over the sanctions regime and has written a book, now translated into English, A Different Kind of War: The U.S. Sanctions Regime in Iraq.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll look at the U.S. government fining Chiquita $25 million for funding an organization in Colombia designated a terrorist organization by the United States. Stay with us.