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The Boston Phoenix Punishing the People

Denis Halliday speaks out against sanctions

By Ben Geman

FEBRUARY 23, 1999:  When Ireland's Denis Halliday resigned as the United Nations Humanitarian Aid Coordinator for Iraq last year, he said that economic sanctions designed to punish Iraqi president Saddam Hussein were hitting another target: the country's people.

Halliday, who left the United Nations in protest after three decades, contends that sanctions have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis while doing nothing to diminish Hussein, once an ally and now an official enemy.

On a visit to Boston last week, Halliday -- who spent 13 months in Iraq -- spoke with the Phoenix about what's wrong with sanctions policy and what people here can do about it.

Q: For many in the United States, our image of Iraq is one of lights from exploding bombs seen from overhead. You have been on the ground, though. What's it like?

A: It was a country that had massive oil reserves and income and decided to go first class in terms of standard of living, education, health care, social services, parks, facilities. It was a great place to live for a long time, until they got involved in this war with Iran, for which they paid a huge price in terms of life and significant damage to the infrastructure in the south particularly. Even Baghdad was bombed by the Iranians. It greatly undermined the economy and the well-being of the economy. Then they got involved in the Kuwait debacle and paid a very high price for the coalition bombing. That bombing is visible today. Contrary to the provisions of the Geneva convention, the coalition forces set about dismantling and destroying; "back into the Stone Age," that was [George] Bush's request. The civilian infrastructure, water-treatment plants, education, agriculture . . . the whole thing was just destroyed, incredibly effectively.

The impact of that is still being felt. The Iraqis, thanks to sanctions, have never had the resources to rebuild. . . . Baghdad itself is a very depressed, dirty, decaying city with garbage all over the place, parks dried up for lack of water. There was a huge social price that you do not hear about a great deal. Probably two million Iraq professionals have left the country. There were already one million widows from the Iran-Iraq war. You have lots of families falling apart, lack of parental care, children are taken out of school to go on the streets begging, crying.

And I am setting aside the death and the mayhem of what sanctions have done to food supplies, nutrition levels . . . which is leading to the death of three, four, five thousand Iraqi children under five per month. . . . Malnutrition is being sustained at 30 percent. Some of that is chronic, which is destroying the next generation in terms of their physical and mental development.

Q: You mention the human toll of the sanctions. Walking through Iraq, where do you see that?

A: There are about 10,000 schools in Iraq, and 8000 need to be rehabilitated. Kids are sitting on the floor without desks . . . 10,000 teachers have quit. There is a shortage of pencils, books, boards, chalk, many of which were proscribed by the sanctions commission here in New York. The education system, which was once one of the prizes of Iraq, without a doubt one of the strongest systems in the whole Mideast region, has been largely destroyed.

The public-health system, which was of fantastic quality, equal to parts of Europe in the 1980s, has collapsed. There is no preventive medicine available. The hospitals are a nightmare. There is literally sewage in basements.

Q: How much support for sanctions is there outside the United States?

A: Right now I would say apart from the Unites States and the UK, the other member states would lift sanctions, but not just like that. There would have to be a quid pro quo. They are going to want to have some reassurance of international monitoring of arms capacity in the country and . . . of arms sales to the country; not just to Iraq but to the entire Middle East. Iraq today is the weaker brother in a very dangerous neighborhood. The Iranians are armed to the teeth. The Israelis are armed beyond the teeth. The Turks, the Syrians, these are dangerous people. And they [have been] damn more aggressive than the Iraqis the last couple of years. Who has been flying low over Beirut? Not the Iraqis. Who has been invading Kurdistan? Not the Iraqis. It has been greatly exaggerated, their capacity. . . . [Saddam Hussein] is a dangerous weapon in his own right, as are sanctions, of course. So there is a huge problem here of what to do next. Lifting the sanctions does not solve the problems, but it is a beginning in the right direction. But it has to be married to international arms monitoring and some discipline on the part of the member states. Particularly the five permanent members who sell 85 percent of the [region's arms] capacity. They have got to police themselves, to diminish sales.

Q: The situation in Iraq must seem remote for many Americans. What can someone here do about Iraq?

A: They are personally responsible if they do not stand up and . . . put pressure on Congress and senators and go to Washington. Do all the things that citizens in a democracy can do. Someone said the other day, "We are not subjects. We are citizens." Stand up and do your thing, folks. This is a democracy. You have no excuse. Until we do that we are all guilty, as far as I am concerned. We are guilty of genocide. There is no other word for killing thousands of people. If you take the most conservative figures, we are talking a quarter of a million people in the last seven or eight years. Some people think it is more like a million. I think it is more like a million myself. So individuals have got to stand up and take an activist role, like was accomplished during the Vietnam War, those difficult years. It worked. It does work.

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