An Interview with Denis Halliday, Former Assistant Secretary-General of The
United Nations
By: David Edwards

Published by 17 June 2002
According to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, 4,000 more children
under five are dying every month in Iraq than would have died before Western
sanctions were imposed. Over the eight years that these sanctions have been
in place, 500,000 extra children under five are estimated to have died.
These are extraordinary figures that lead directly to the question of
responsibility. For citizens of Western democracies it seems almost
inconceivable that we could be to blame. We have grown up in the sure
knowledge that the West is a cradle of democracy and human rights, a centre
of civilisation and sanity. During the Kosovo crisis last year, President
Clinton insisted, 'We are upholding our values and advancing the cause of
peace. We cannot respond to such tragedies everywhere, but when ethnic
conflict turns into ethnic cleansing where we can make a difference, we must
try, and that is clearly the case in Kosovo.' Likewise, Prime Minister Blair
declared that Kosovo was a new kind of war in which we were fighting 'for
values' - a logical step, given that Blair had previously announced, 'We
will make the protection and promotion of human rights a central part of our
foreign policy.'
In the case of Iraq, the salient facts are very clear: Iraq is ruled by a
ruthless and violent dictator, Saddam Hussein; he presides over a country
subject to the most wide-ranging sanctions regime in modern history; and
thousands of Iraqi children are dying every month.
The claims and counter-claims surrounding these facts are well-known: human
rights groups, and even leading figures within the United Nations, insist
that the sanctions regime imposed by the West, with food and vital medicines
blocked by the UN Sanctions Committee, is a primary cause of this appalling
rate of child mortality. In response, Western governments argue that it is
Saddam who has been deliberately withholding food and medicines made
available by the UN's 'oil for food' programme, and therefore it is he that
is responsible for the mass death of children, not Western leaders.
With these claims in mind, I interviewed Denis Halliday, former Assistant
Secretary-General of the United Nations, who resigned after 34 years with
the UN in September 1998. Halliday spoke to me over the phone from New York.
Since his resignation as humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, his successor,
Hans von Sponeck, also resigned on February 13 of this year, asking, How
long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment
for something they have never done?'' Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head
of the World Food Programme in Iraq, also resigned, saying privately that
what was being done to the people of Iraq was intolerable.
I suggested to Halliday that it must have been a huge wrench to resign from
the United Nations after 34 years of work. I asked him what specifically it
was that made him take such drastic nation?'
'I worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I was
involved in development activity, working closely with governments trying to
address their issues of poverty and education and economic well being ' all
very positive; I'd do it all again tomorrow. Then I allowed myself to get
sucked into the management in New York: I was Director of Personnel in UNDP
for four years and Boutros-Ghali promoted me to Assistant Secretary-General
and made me head of Human Resources for the UN itself.

I volunteered to go to Baghdad and I set about trying to make it work, and of course found out very quickly that it does not work - it wasn't designed to work; it's not funded to work; it's strangled by the Sanctions Committee of the Security
Council - and in a matter of six weeks I was already trying to get the
Security Council to assist me, but I got no support whatsoever from the
United Nations in New York. So then I spoke to the French, Russian and
Chinese ambassadors who are in Baghdad, with the help of the Unicef man, and
we set about doubling the programme which we accomplished in fact in three
or four months through the Security Council.'
Did these changes happen solely on your initiative?'
Absolutely, it would never have happened, believe me, if we hadn't started
that process in Baghdad. But to come back to your question of exactly why I
resigned? After that development work, to preside over a programme which in
a sense was designed to stop deterioration but in fact did no more than
sustain an already unacceptable situation of high levels of child mortality,
adult mortality and malnutrition, I found this was incompatible with my
past, incompatible with my feelings about the United Nations, and
incompatible with the very United Nations Charter itself and human rights
themselves. There was no way I was going to be associated with this
programme and manage this ghastly thing in Iraq, it was not a possibility
for me. So I put in a year, I did my best, we doubled the programme, but the
problems continued.'
The British and US Governments claim that there are plenty of foodstuffs and
medicines being delivered to Iraq, the problem is that they are being
cynically withheld by the Iraqi regime. In a letter to the New Statesman
recently, Peter Hain, Minister of State, wrote: 'The 'oil for food'
programme has been in place for three years and could have been operating
since 1991 if Saddam had not blocked it. The Iraqi people have never seen
the benefits they should have.' Is there any truth in that?'
'There's no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has
reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by
the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say
a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the
grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that
the Iraqi government employs for this programme, then they follow the flour
to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients ' there is no
evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever in the last two years. The
Secretary-General would have reported that.
What about medical supplies? In January 1999, George Robertson, then defence
secretary, said, 'Saddam Hussein has in warehouses $275 million worth of
medicines and medical supplies which he refuses to distribute.'
'We have had problems with medical drugs and supplies, there have been
delays there. There are several good reasons for that. One is that often the
Iraqi government did some poor contracting; so they contracted huge orders -
$5 million of aspirins or something ' to some small company that simply
couldn't do the job and had to re-tool and wasted three, four, five months
maybe. So that was the first round of mistakes. But secondly, the Sanctions
Committee weighed in and they would look at a package of contracts, maybe
ten items, and they would deliberately approve nine but block the tenth,
knowing full well that without the tenth item the other nine were of no use.
Those nine then go ahead ' they're ordered, they arrive - and are stored in
warehouses; so naturally the warehouses have stores that cannot in fact be
used because they're waiting for other components that are blocked by the
Sanctions Committee.'
What was the motive behind blocking the one item out of ten?
'Because Washington, and to a lesser extent London, have deliberately played
games through the Sanctions Committee with this programme for years ' it's a deliberate ploy. For the British Government to say that the quantities
involved for vaccinating kids are going to produce weapons of mass
destruction, this is just nonsense. That's why I've been using the word
'genocide', because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of
Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view at this late stage.'
The British government claims that Saddam is using the money from the 'oil
for food' programme for anything other than food. Peter Hain, for example,
recently stated, 'Over $8 billion a year should be available to Iraq for the
humanitarian programme - not only for foods and medicines, but also clean
water, electricity and educational material. No one should starve.'
'Of the $20 billion that has been provided through the 'oil for food'
programme, about a third, or $7 billion, has been spent on UN 'expenses',
reparations to Kuwait and assorted compensation claims. That leaves $13
billion available to the Iraqi government. If you divide that figure by the
population of Iraq, which is 22 million, it leave some $190 per head of
population per year over 3 years ' that is pitifully inadequate.' 
Does the West want to hold on to Saddam? If so, why?
'Bush or somebody in the United States made a decision not to overthrow
Saddam Hussein. What is the motive' Traditionally the motive was that they
needed him to provide stability in Iraq, to keep Iraq together, to avoid the
Kurds going their way and the Shia perhaps going their way in the South, and
so on; and the Shia of course would threaten Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, being
Shia as opposed to Suni ' so he's a good enemy this man, he's great! Said
Aburish in his new book has said that the CIA has worked with him for 30
years. So there is a ploy to keep him in power, but of course to destroy him
at the same time, to enable him to survive without having any capacity to
threaten his neighbours. If you look at the sales of US military hardware,
Saddam is the best salesman in town. I think over $100 billion has been sold
to the Saudis, Kuwaitis, the Gulf states, Turkey, Israel, and so on. It's
thanks to Saddam. Just last week they sold $6.2 billion of military aircraft
to the United Arab Emirates. What on earth does a little country need
hardware like that for' Saddam provides that ' he should be getting a cut.'
How many people share your views in the UN' Is it a widespread feeling?
'Well I'll tell you, when I walk into the UN today, it's so amusing; people
come up to me from nowhere, delegates and staff, and sort of look both ways
and whisper in my ear, 'You're doing a great job, keep it up!' and then they
run away. There's a sort of a fear, I think, that to be associated with
Halliday now is dangerous if you want a career in the UN; that's a sort of
perception. In fact I find a lot of people, particularly from the Arab
Islamic world, and 'the South', are so pleased that somebody from the North
has had the - whatever it is ' to stand up and take on this issue. Coming
from them it has no credibility; coming from me it has a certain amount of
credibility. Of course Peter Hain is trying to destroy that as quickly as he
can. But I think I've hung onto some credibility in most quarters and I
think the resignation of Hans von Sponeck has underlined it. So I think
between the two of us, representing almost 65 years of experience, two and a
half years of managing the damn thing in Iraq, we both have exactly the same
view, and I think that says something. A BBC producer recently said to me,
'That's an indictment'.'
The Guardian today reported Iraq's rejection of UN Resolution 1284 on the
grounds that it indicated no end to sanctions and arms inspections. What's
your view of 1284?
'Von Sponeck and I have exactly the same view: it's designed to fail, this
programme. First of all it took a year to assemble that resolution, if you
can believe that. Secondly, it gives the Iraqis no specifics: it doesn't
tell them exactly what is required, and when, in terms of disarming.
Thirdly, if you listen to Scott Ritter, they have no nuclear, chemical or
biological capacity left, but of course they have the mental capacity, and
they have the scientists - some of them - and they're always going to be
there and there's nothing you can do about that. And Dr. Hans Blix, former
Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, very honestly,
has said, 'Look, I can go in there 24 hours a day for ten years and I will
never be able to say that there isn't a half a pound of chemical left
behind, or whatever; it's just impossible'. And that's why this whole
programme is futile. We've got to reopen a dialogue with Iraq, like we've
done with North Korea. We need to find out what the concerns of the Iraq
government are now, what can be done for the future.'
Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, says there won't be any significant
developments until after the US presidential elections. What do you make of
'I saw Tariq Aziz in October and that's what he said to me also. The
outgoing lame duck US President normally never changes basic policy during
the election year, and I think that if Clinton tried he'd be shot down by
the Congress - which is controlled by the Republicans after all. He just
couldn't get away with it. He hasn't got the stature of a Nixon going to
China, for example. And Gore and Bush, both, are repeating the same old
nonsense: 'Blame Saddam Hussein, retain economic sanctions,' without, I
think, understanding the humanitarian consequences.'
Is there a prospect of real change over, say, the next one or two years?
'Oh Christ I hope it doesn't take that long, but you may well be right. No,
I think John's film ['Paying the Price ' Killing the Children of Iraq' by
John Pilger] has made a huge difference, certainly in Britain and Ireland,
but maybe in parts of Europe, hopefully later in Australia and Canada, maybe
someday in this country. I think von Sponeck's resignation has helped and
we've had some new statements in Congress and in Westminster about the
humanitarian infanticide: something is changing here, but it's just changing
very very slowly. Hans von Sponeck and I will be in Washington on the 3rd of
May to testify in Congress or to speak to a Congressional meeting. On the
6th of May, von Sponeck and I will be in London to do a briefing. We're
hoping to go to Brussels, to Paris, to Rome, Berlin. I think it's getting
upstream into the area of parliamentarians. In France, members of parliament
have been very active against economic sanctions. I just saw the Irish
foreign minister last week and he's also come out and is deeply concerned
about economic sanctions. There is a movement, a recognition, that economic
sanctions, in the case of Iraq in particular, are a disastrous failure and
are totally unacceptable as a UN tool. In the meantime, the Secretary
General, I'm afraid, is not saying this; he's talking about 'hurting' the
children of Iraq, which is just outrageous: we're killing the children of
Iraq. I'm extremely disappointed with the Secretary-General; he just doesn't
have the courage to say what really has got to be said. I wonder what Dag
Hammarskjold [former UN Secretary-General] would have made of this policy by
now? I think Hammarskjold would have spoken up a long time ago against a
programme like this - so it's very sad to see this happening.'
Who, in your view, is primarily responsible for the deaths of those 500,000
children under five?
'All the members of the Permanent Security Council, when they passed 1284,
reconfirmed that economic sanctions had to be sustained, knowing the
consequences. That constitutes 'intent to kill', because we know that
sanctions are killing several thousand per month. Now, of the five permanent
members, three abstained; but an abstention is no better than a vote for, in
a sense. Britain and America of course voted for this continuation. The rest
of them don't count because they're lackeys, or they're paid off. The only
country that stood up was Malaysia, and they also abstained. But you know,
by abstaining instead of using your veto, when you are a permanent member
you're guilty because you're continuing something that has this deadly
impact. However, I would normally point the finger at London and Washington,
because they are the most active in sustaining sanctions: they are the ones
who will not compromise. All the other members would back down if London and
Washington would change their position. I think that's quite clear. But
unfortunately Blair and Clinton have an almost personal investment in
demonising Saddam Hussein. That's very hard to get out of, they have my
sympathy, but they created their own problem. Once you've demonised
somebody, it's awfully difficult to turn around and say, 'Well actually he's
not such a bad guy, he likes kids'. Under the Baath Party regime, they ran a
social welfare system in Iraq that was so intense it was almost
claustrophobic, and they made damn sure that the average Iraqi was well
taken care of, and they did it deliberately to divert them from any
political activity and to maintain stability and allow them (Baath Party) to
run the country. [US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright has also fallen
into the demonisation hole: her whole career is linked to maintaining this
policy, although she didn't start it.'
How do you feel about the performance of the media in covering this issue'
Has it been adequate?
'I'm very disappointed with the BBC. The BBC has been very aggressively in
favour of sanctions, I found, in the last couple of years. But recently - as
recently as three weeks ago - that changed. After the von Sponeck
resignation they did an introductory piece to a programme I was on which was
brilliant. It described the catastrophe brilliantly. So even the BBC seems
to be coming around. Here in the United States the media has been
disastrous, because the media in this country is controlled by large
corporations like Westinghouse, like General Electric, which are arms
manufacturers, and they don't want to highlight the 'no fly zone' bombing
which takes place almost every day, or all the other things: Raytheon making
Tomahawk missiles ' by the way, they're going into Derry in Ireland '
they've just got the media under control. Having said that, I've been on all
the networks here at one time or another, but they're not pushing it; it
just dies here. The New York Times gives usually three or four lines on 'no
fly zone' bombing every couple of days.'
Have you been heavily in demand since Pilger's film was shown' How many
interviews are you doing?
'I cannot handle the number of speaking engagements I get, I'm turning them
down. I'm doing on average, I would say, two talks a week and probably three
or four interviews, even in the slow times. When von Sponeck resigned, I
think I had 25 interviews in four days. People are tired of Iraq; they want
it to go away. I sympathise with that. I want it to go away myself, but I
want it of course resolved first. The Americans just don't want to know
about it; it's too uncomfortable. They don't want to be reminded that
they've just spent $1.3 billion last year on bombing this country.'
It's awful even to think about it, but there is a real racist undercurrent
going on here isn't there'
'I fear so. Iraqi kids don't count apparently. It is a racist problem, there
really is no question about that. It's ugly.'

David Edwards, May 2000
Interview with Denis Halliday, Former Assistant Secretary-General of The
United Nations

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