An Interview with Dennis Halliday
by Nyier Abdou and Dennis Halliday
Al Ahram - ZNet December 30, 2002
In the vast machinery of the behemoth that is the United Nations, even a
high-level figure is just a worker bee. Or so it seems after talking to
Denis Halliday, who four years after resigning his post as chief UN
relief co-ordinator for Iraq still seems to relish the liberty to speak
freely about the notorious failings of the sanctions regime. Upholding a
sense of justice, keeping one's faith in the various conventions that
make up the body of international law -- these are not the purview of
humanitarian leaders working under the umbrella of the blue flag. As for
the colony, even the secretary-general is not the queen bee.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Halliday described the limitations
on his autonomy during his tenure as the UN assistant secretary-general
as those of an "international civil servant". "I mean, I was contracted;
I was subordinate to the secretary-general and I was not in a position to
criticise the work of the Security Council, the member states -- they
were my bosses. The secretary-general is a servant of the council. I was
the servant's servant."
Halliday's formal demeanour and fluent expression of indignation mask a
dry wit and fiery zeal with respect to the failure of sanctions in Iraq
and the disproportionate influence of the US in the functions of the UN.
Candid, thoughtful and instinctively precise, Halliday has been a
standard-bearer of international efforts to end sanctions in Iraq. More
recently, he has been a prominent figure opposing another war in Iraq.
Noting that his efforts to expose the devastating impact of sanctions on
the people of Iraq shook the ground under the UN establishment -- and, by
extension, his job -- Halliday has no regrets. "Of course, that's when
the pressure came for my removal, and when I decided that I had made some
changes; I'd made some difference in Iraq, and maybe I could do better by
leaving the organisation." With liberation from the fetters of UN
diplomacy came the freedom to "go public, go worldwide with the crimes
being committed in Iraq". Those crimes, he says, have their bedrock in
the sanctions regime, but they are also derivatives of what Halliday
clearly identifies as "war crimes" committed by the US during the Gulf
War. Among these, he singles out the purposeful destruction of water
systems, which, despite being a contravention of the laws of war, "very
deliberately kill the children of Iraq". The escalating calamities that
have proliferated under sanctions, Halliday suggests, can be traced to a
combination of direct war damage, the use of depleted uranium and
"chronic and acute malnutrition".
It is striking that with such high-profile defections as that of Halliday
and his successor, Hans von Sponeck, not to mention the persistent
struggle of former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter to debunk US and British
half-truths about the threat from Iraq, the sanctions regime remains in
place. In Cairo last week for a conference launching the International
Campaign against US Aggression on Iraq (ICAA), both Halliday and von
Sponeck condemned the crippling of the Iraqi economy, the prevention of
health care and soaring infant and child mortality rates in Iraq as
nothing short of genocide perpetrated by the very organisation founded to
protect the humanity and sovereignty of its member nations.
"Genocide" is a strong word; and one that, it could be argued, is used
too freely. But Halliday does not shy away from every implication the
term carries: from the institutional methodology, to the systematic
execution, to the racial hatred. In his address to the conference last
Wednesday, Halliday defined sanctions as "warfare" and "consistent with
war crimes". Speaking of US President George W Bush's determination to
invade Iraq, Halliday denounced the administration's war plans as
"obscene". "It's criminal," he said, "and I believe it's indictable."
While Halliday maintains that sanctions -- provided for in the UN charter
-- are a legitimate device to force the hand of leaderships, he is
pointed about the punitive nature of sanctions in Iraq, noting that he
thinks given its experience in Iraq, the United Nations "is rethinking,
and hopefully will never use open-ended, comprehensive sanctions again".
But he adds that the mistakes made in applying sanctions in Iraq have
been well acknowledged, justified, compounded and sustained. "The fact
is, the UN Security Council has allowed these sanctions on Iraq to drag
on for 12 years, and this is not happenstance; this is deliberate
decision-making. That's why I've determined it to be a genocide."
Asked if there are sanctions "smart" enough to be defensible in Iraq
today, Halliday says we are too late in the game. "I think at this late
date, after 12 years, that is collective punishment; that is, as I said,
genocidal. That's unacceptable. That's got to come to an end," he says.
"We've got to get the economy back on its feet, get people back into
their jobs, restore health care, education -- I mean, give Iraqi people
back their lives. That's the least we can do. Give them their economic
and social rights back."
The question that emerges out of this call is whether we can, or should,
reinstate systems that meet those needs under the leadership of Saddam
Hussein. Within this question nests the dilemma all anti-war and
anti-sanctions activists must labour under: can we defend the people of
Iraq without defending Saddam Hussein? Does fighting for the end of
sanctions and the sovereignty of Iraq carry with it the necessary
consequence of propping up Hussein's regime?
"That's a decision for the people of Iraq," says Halliday. "I don't
believe in regime change, or assassination. I believe if the Iraqis had
their economy, had their lives back and had their way of life restored,
they would take care of the form of governance that they want, that they
believe is suitable for their country." Pointing to the model of
Indonesia, where a "largely bloodless" revolt started by students managed
to oust a "genuine dictator" like Suharto, Halliday argues that Iraqis
"are certainly capable of doing the same thing. We've got to give them
Far from crippling Hussein's regime, sanctions have in fact strengthened
Hussein's hold on power. Meanwhile, notes Halliday, sanctions have
"weakened the very people who think about democracy or think about
multi-party systems, or think about change of government or governance".
The end result is that "we have sustained a regime that apparently we
don't like, and we've denied the opportunities for change.
The US and Britain, says Halliday, are well aware of damning reports by
the secretary-general that spell genocide. "This is a tragedy for the
United Nations. Of course, there's a much bigger tragedy for the people
of Iraq. And we're all responsible. The United Nations is us, and we are
bound by the resolutions of the Security Council."
How bound? It's a tricky question. Can one argue that a resolution of the
Security Council goes against international law, when it is the Security
Council itself that codifies international law? Halliday has raised this
predicament before, asking whether we are expected to swallow a
resolution that is incompatible with the UN charter and the declaration
of human rights. The answer, he feels, is obviously no. "The Security
Council is out of control," he says. "There's no device in the UN
structure to oversee the work of the council, to monitor its decisions,
to monitor the impact of those decisions, and their compatibility, or
otherwise, with other aspects of international law. There's no Supreme
Court. There's no review, it's part of the reform discussion that many of
us carry out."
Numerous reports have condemned the sanctions regime as
institutionalising the Iraqi people's dependence on aid. Though the
Oil-for Food (OfF) programme, authorised by UN Resolution 986 in 1995,
has brought some moderate improvement, it did not do the job of
eliminating Iraq's humanitarian crisis -- mainly because it was never
designed to be a substitute for a normally functioning economy. OfF can
only salve the most egregious suffering caused by sanctions, but it
cannot possibly address the long-term impact on health standards,
infrastructure and social life. It does not help Iraqis help themselves.
Asked if he thought sanctions were ever meant as a method of bringing
Iraq back into the international fold, Halliday is evidently unconvinced.
"No, I think the Gulf War, the invasion of Kuwait -- which was supported
by the United States, and encouraged by the United States -- was all part
of a plan to crush Saddam Hussein, and crush Iraq -- perhaps the only
country showing leadership potential in the Arab world," he says.
Sanctions, he argues, were part of this. They built on the destruction of
the war -- the use of depleted uranium, the bombing of civilian targets,
the destruction of water systems and electric power. It was "horrific"
back in 1991, says Halliday, "and, I think, we have very deliberately
been genocidal in our endeavours since then until today."
The loudest condemnation of US war plans is of course that US policy on
Iraq is solely determined by oil. "Well it's certainly not about weapons,
because there's no threat from Iraq," responds Halliday. "We know that in
this neighbourhood, and the Americans know it perfectly well. It's a game
being played by Mr Bush, a very dangerous, nasty game." Halliday notes
that the CIA and the Pentagon have indicated to Bush that there is in
fact no military threat from Iraq. "So it's about oil. But it's also
about oil and Israel, Israel's position, Israel's representation of
American interests in the Middle East. I think that's certainly got to be
part of the problem."
"But I think it's also about this desire for influence and power and
presence throughout the world, including the Middle East," he adds. "And
it gets back again and again to the need to control oil resources, which
are of such importance to the survival of the economy of the United
States. And I think that Washington is very insecure in its relationship
with Saudi Arabia; they're not at all sure what's going to happen in the
years ahead, and they want a reserve tank. And the reserve tank,
unfortunately, is called Iraq. It's sitting on a 120 billion barrels,
it's cheap and easy to obtain, and all it needs is a friendly regime in
Baghdad that will cow tow to American interests and American demands, and
I think that's the name of the game of the attack, the war, the bombing,
the invasion, [and] the occupation of Iraq that Mr Bush clearly has in
mind. It's part of a strategy to dominate world affairs, world economy,
to dominate world globalisation that is designed to support and enhance
the lifestyle of Americans."
In the West, however, knowledge of the human face of sanctions is poor,
and it grows poorer the further West you travel, suggests Halliday. "I
think in Europe and Britain there's much more knowledge and understanding
and empathy for the Arab world, Arab peoples; there's more travel to and
from this part of the world, there's more visitors from the Middle East.
There's awareness. But there isn't, I think, a real understanding of the
impact of sanctions on people, on their families, of social consequences.
On women, on professional women, on all the daily concerns of life, of
education, of health care, of elderly parents, the complete collapse of
the high standards of human values that Iraq enjoyed -- the introduction
of corruption, all of this. The isolation, intellectual and otherwise,
all of this is not well understood in Europe, or in Britain."
In the United States, where Halliday lives part of the year, "it's much
worse". "There's almost total ignorance there," he says. "The media is
not very helpful. The Americans themselves don't read, or don't look
outwards; they're focused more on domestic issues -- inward-looking
people, unfortunately. Of course there are many exceptions to that, but
the great majority of Americans really don't know what's happening in
Iraq, they're not aware of their foreign policy, [and] they're certainly
not aware of their responsibility for the foreign policy in Washington."
It has been argued by the US and Britain that the money brought in by OfF
has been misused by Hussein and that this accounts for the continuing
humanitarian difficulties in the country. But Halliday maintains that no
money coming from OfF ever made it into the hands of the Iraqi
government. Proceeds went from UN accounts to contractors assembled by
the ministries of trade and health to provide the basic supplies allowed
under the sanctions regime. "There may have been some kickbacks on
contracts, who knows?" concedes Halliday. "But it's very small money in a
country of 23 million people being fed every day by this programme. This
is a hugely dependent society."
As to illegal trade, Halliday says that everyone knows that there's been
trade across the Turkish and Jordanian borders, and perhaps with Iran and
Syria as well. "This has brought in additional money," he admits. "This
money has been used perhaps unwisely or wisely, I don't quite know, but
it's legitimate as far as I'm concerned. The only weapon that Iraq has is
oil and its revenues. They're entitled to use that weapon any way they
can see fit, whether it's through Syria or into Turkey, or whatever. We
can't deny them that; they have a right to defend themselves." Calling on
Iraq's sovereignty, Halliday adds that Iraq also has a right to keep
weapons of defence as well. "There's no right for the United States of
America to bomb this country as it does under this no-fly zone rubbish --
for which there is no resolution of the United Nations. Iraq has a right
to defend its people and its territory, and they should do so."
Predicting a heavy loss of life in the event of another war in Iraq,
Halliday warns that there could be a total breakdown of civil society
already considerably weakened by years of sanctions. "I think, and
perhaps I even hope, that there will be a huge outrage in the Arab
world," he adds. "That the people will convince their governments that
this is grossly unacceptable." Ideally, he says, that decision would be
taken now. "We really need to see Arab governments refusing to
collaborate with the United States of America in its war to crush the
people of Iraq. This is criminal, you know, this is hypocrisy."
Halliday was keen to make the same point in talks last Tuesday between
himself, von Sponeck and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. While
Halliday praised the moves made by Moussa within the network of the Arab
League, he implored him to do more. Halliday stressed the importance of
co-ordinating a unified Arab stance on a governmental level, noting that
there is a big gap between Arab opposition at the popular level and at
the level of government. Along with von Sponeck, Halliday impressed upon
the secretary-general that there cannot be any kind of resolution to the
conflict in the Middle East should the US decide to attack Iraq.
Comparing the US stance to that of British colonialism in the last
century, the two identified the role of the Arab League as crucial to the
"That, to me, is part of the tragedy for all of us," Halliday told the
Weekly. "That we look at the Arab world, we see the potential, we see the
history -- the great, great history of this part of the world ... And
we're standing back and allowing the United States to totally demolish
this potential. It doesn't serve anybody, and the Arab governments, above
all, should see it and should do something about it, and have the courage
to do so. And we Europeans who are gutless, should support you, should
support the Arab leadership." Pausing to insert a sly jab, he added, "We
think Mr Bush is a moron -- like the Canadians. We know he's dangerous."
While there is no panacea for Iraq, Halliday certainly has a clear
picture of what could be done to set the country on the road to recovery.
"The first thing to do is to end the economic embargo, to allow the
economy to be rebuilt, to get people back to employment, housing,
education, health care, agriculture, water systems -- I mean, all the
things that have been damaged, broken down, through the 12 years." Next,
and perhaps most important in terms of regional stability, Halliday calls
for the implementation of paragraph 14 of UN resolution 687, calling for
the removal of all WMD from the entire region. "That of course means
stripping Israel of its nuclear weapons -- that would ease a lot of
tension, I believe, and it might be a move in the right direction for
ultimate, I would say, world disarmament." He adds: "We've got to
sanction the arms producers. The five permanent members of the Security
Council alone produce 80-plus per cent of the weapons sold in the world
today. We need to stop the availability of cheap weapons."
Finally, Halliday says that we will have to ask Baghdad to address some
of its own issues, "particularly, I think, the ethnic rights of the
Kurds, and their role in the greater Iraq". Human rights, as well as
civil and political rights, will also have to be on the agenda. "They
need to work with their neighbours and restore full relations with the
Kuwaitis and the Saudis, work within the Arab League and begin to use
their great resources," says Halliday.
But his vision doesn't end there. Once Iraq has fixed its oil production
capacity and rebuilt its infrastructure, its social and economic
participation, then Iraq should start to look outwards -- "to use its
great wealth to improve and enhance the other peoples of the Arab world
who don't share this sort of income. Income distribution needs to be
looked at in the Arab world, and I hope an Iraqi example of generosity
and investment in the Arab peoples where oil wealth is not present might
encourage the other wealthy countries, like the Saudis and Kuwaitis and
others, to take their money out of Wall Street and put it in the Arab
UN RESOLUTION 661 issued on 6 August 1990, placed Iraq under
comprehensive economic sanctions. These sanctions remain today. Although
the United Nations has instituted a number of reforms regarding
sanctions, the Office of the Iraq Programme (OIP) has been deliberately
separated from the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs
(OCHA) such that sanctions reforms over the last five years do not apply
in the case of Iraq. In 1996, the introduction of the Oil-for-Food
programme was intended to help alleviate the unintentional suffering of
the Iraqi populace. But even with the modifications made in May of this
year, the effects of the sanctions regime remain devastating.
-- An average of 250 people die every day in Iraq due to the direct
effects of sanctions (UNICEF, 1998).
-- According to the UNDP, 49 per cent of families do not earn enough
money to meet their basic needs.
-- Iraq's ranking in UNDP's Human Development Index fell from 96 in 1990,
to 126 in 2000.
-- In October, the UN's Office of the Iraq Programme found that 1,528
approved humanitarian supply contracts, worth about $2.84 billion, are
without available funds.
-- For every seven children in Iraq, one dies before the age of five --
an estimated 5,000 excess child deaths every month above the mortality
rate in 1989, before sanctions were imposed (UNICEF, 1999).
-- Of children under five, 32 per cent (some 960,000 children) are
chronically malnourished -- a rise of 72 per cent since 1991. Almost one
quarter (23 per cent) are underweight -- twice as high as the levels
found in neighbouring Jordan or Turkey (UNICEF, 1997).
-- The total value allocated to each person in Iraq under the UN
Oil-for-Food programme amounts to less than 49 cents per day.
-- An estimated 110,000 Iraqi civilians died in 1991 from the direct
health effects of the Gulf War (Greenpeace, 1991)
-- In September 1989, 123 children died from diarrhoea. In September
2001, the number was 2,932 -- an increase of 2,284 per cent.
-- It will take an estimated $7 billion to bring Iraq's power sector back
to its 1990 capacity country-wide (UNDP).
-- In July of 1995, average shop prices of essential commodities were 850
times July 1990 levels (March 1999 UN report).
-- And estimated 14-16 million Iraqis -- some two-thirds of the
population -- are solely dependent on food rations for their survival (UN
Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq -- UNOHCI).