The RW Interview

U.S. Genocide in Iraq:
A Conversation with Denis Halliday

By Larry Everest

Revolutionary Worker #1000, March 28, 1999

Denis Halliday is originally from Ireland. For 34 years, he worked for the United Nations as a specialist in Third World development issues. In August 1997 he was appointed the UN's Chief Relief Coordinator in Iraq, where he supervised the "oil-for-food" program. This program was imposed by the U.S.-led military coalition following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as part of the punitive economic sanctions on Iraq. Under the sanctions, Iraq's imports and exports are tightly restricted and controlled. Iraq is allowed to sell a limited amount of oil. But the money from the sales is under the control of the UN, which only gives a part of the money to Iraq for buying some food and other necessities. As Halliday and others point out, this setup does not allow Iraq to buy enough food, medicine and other goods--resulting in widespread malnutrition and suffering.

In September 1998, Halliday resigned all his UN posts, including his position as Assistant Secretary General, in protest of the brutal toll the sanctions are exacting on the people of Iraq. He also wanted to be able to speak out publicly against what he has called the punishment of the Iraqi people. With Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, he recently completed a 21-city U.S. tour to speak out against the sanctions. This February I met him in Berkeley, California, after he had spoken to an audience of some 300 people.

Larry Everest: First of all, I appreciate your taking the time to do this. You've been speaking across the country and have a very demanding schedule. Let's begin with the concrete impact of U.S.-backed sanctions on the people of Iraq. A lot of statistics are available documenting this. You have mentioned that according to UNICEF, some 5,000 to 6,000 Iraqi children are dying unnecessarily every month due to sanctions--and that the overall death toll from sanctions since they were imposed in 1990 is probably now over one million Iraqi men, women and children. How would you convey to our readers the horror that is being visited upon the Iraqi people by these sanctions?

Denis Halliday: I think the horror is actually often a very personal one. You do not find bodies all over the streets. You do not find gross malnutrition that you see in photographs we've all seen in Somalia, and so on. But you hear unending stories of families who have sat there and watched a child die. Or families--daughters and sons--who've seen their parents die for lack of relatively simple surgery which would have been very easy many years ago. It's a very individual thing. There's not a sense of mass death; it's not a massacre, it's not a thing we've seen in other parts of the world. It's just every day. And every day people are dying all over the country, in isolation--not in groups, in isolation. A baby here, a baby there, a child here, an it's hard to get a tangible feel for it, but it pervades the whole country and the attitude and the feeling of the Iraqi people.

LE: I was very struck tonight that you used the word "genocide," which I thought was a very strong and a very powerful description of the comprehensiveness, the scope and the depth of the destruction that's being wrought on Iraq.

DH: Well, I've started to use that, for lack of another word. I used it in France--it got headlines in Le Monde and some other French newspapers and was mentioned by Reuters. I think when you've got a program that produces the sort of death and malnutrition that we see now in Iraq, I've not got a better word for it. When the program that we have there, producing these results, is a deliberate, active program--it's not just negligence, it's active--it's a deliberate decision to sustain a program that they know is killing and targeting children and people. Then it's a program of some sort, and I think it's a program of genocide. I just don't have a better word.

LE: I was also interested in your remarks that sanctions are a form of warfare. We're not just talking about food and medicine, we're talking about the far-reaching degradation of an entire society and its culture.

DH: It's having a dreadful impact across the board, and the social consequences are very heavy. And even in something as tangible as malnutrition, food does not resolve malnutrition. It requires safe water, a sewage system that does not leak into the safe water system. It requires electric power to drive the water and sewage systems, electric power to rebuild the domestic production of agriculture, and electric power to rebuild the public health system. You can't solve the problem without investing in these various civilian infrastructures.

LE: In terms of the infrastructure, don't the sanctions prevent Iraq from importing things that are needed to rebuild the water and the sewage systems?

DH: Absolutely! Absolutely! The concept of rehabilitation was grudgingly accepted [in the UN] in the last 6 to 12 months. But it's not effective because the money's not there. The concept of rebuilding is rejected. The concept of investment and development and restructuring is not allowed to be included in documents of the Security Council. They do not want to use oil-for-food money to rebuild the infrastructure of this country.

LE: And there are specific things that they block that Iraq really does need to rebuild that infrastructure.

DH: Certainly. The technology, the computers, the equipment, the trucks, the ambulances--there's a long, long list.

LE: As we were talking about earlier, I was in Iraq for the RW eight years ago, shortly after the war ended. It was very clear then that the combination of war and sanctions had led to widespread death and suffering. I remember going into hospitals and finding them full of emaciated children suffering from starvation and illnesses like diarrhea. This was the result of the destruction of Iraq's water, sanitation and medical infrastructures through war and sanctions, as well as the starvation brought on by restrictions on Iraq's ability to import food. I realize that you arrived in Iraq in 1997, but from what you understand, is the situation worse than what I saw in 1991?

DH: Well, people who've witnessed this over a period of 5, 6, 7, 8 years tell me that they see continuing deterioration. I only know what I saw over a year. Others have seen this getting worse and worse and worse.

LE: You've worked in the economic development area for years, and I imagine you hadn't seen a case like Iraq. Here's a country that had actually reached a certain level of development. You mentioned in your talk that before the 1990-91 Gulf War, Iraqis had free public health, social services, education, housing opportunities, jobs, and a growing economy. And now it has been reduced to shambles.

DH: I've worked in sophisticated countries like Malaysia and Singapore and Thailand. Since then they've had some real problems as we both know. Yes, I've never seen a situation where a country has been brought down so dramatically--not by natural forces, or its own errors or whatever, but by an external force. I think it's almost unique. And the sustaining of these sanctions, on top of the Iran/Iraq war and then of course the war by the Coalition forces, is almost unique, and explains, I think, the size of the calamity we have there.

LE: Was there any particular moment that it really dawned on you that you needed to stop, to resign, and embark on this very courageous campaign that you're on?

DH: Like most of us, seeing children die before your eyes is a shocking thing to witness, there's no question about that. I think it hit me most in the May-June period of 1998, when I realized that the increases we had accomplished in the oil-for-food program were not really going to make a significant difference, and that this simply was not going to resolve the crisis of mortality and malnutrition. The only way to resolve it is to remove the sanctions. Something else had to be done. And as a civil servant I was unable to speak out against the member states. I had to leave the organization to do that, and that's what I decided to do.

LE: In your speech you said, speaking of the sanctions, that, "The issue is arrogance, the illegal action, the incredible determination on the part of this country and those countries on the Security Council, to set about crushing this country, crushing its people, destroying its civilization, and killing its children by the thousands per month." What do you think that the United States is trying to accomplish with all this?

DH: It can only appear to be the continuation of a power in control of the Middle East--to control the oil supplies now and for the future. To do that in terms of itself, but perhaps also in terms of its allies, Japan and Germany and others. And also to suppress a country--two countries, Iran and Iraq together--which dared to show the capability, the man-power, the oil, the water supplies and the economy, to challenge the dominance by the U.S. of this part of the world and those economies and those peoples. They dared to show they were going to go it alone; they had the capacity. Iraq began to talk about petrol-chemical industries, for example, which I guess was scary to those who wanted to keep them at supplying the most basic raw material. I think it was just threatening this game plan of control. I think it's all about that.

Plus, it's clearly--and sadly--some part of a bigger plan to protect the essential contribution to this economy that the manufacture of arms brings to bear. Eisenhower warned about this, when he left office, I believe. We've seen the Korean War, the Vietnamese War, we've seen a few others. And then we had the Coalition [against Iraq]. It all, sadly, seems to be necessary--or attractive, let's say--to sustain the economy and wealth and success of the United States of America, which we see today with Clinton. The [arms] sales in the Middle East in the last five years must add up to 200 or 300 billion dollars. It's a hell of a contribution to this economy. That's a sinister thought, but there's something in there also. I don't begin to understand the whole thing. But it's a combination of all of these somewhat sinister factors.

LE: What countries have you spoken in, and what's been the response?

DH: I've done radio interviews in Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, all over the place. So far, I've visited Italy, France, UK, Switzerland, Ireland, and, of course, this country. Every country's slightly different. The Italians are extremely depressed by the fact they see the United Nations has been destroyed and manipulated. They're giving up on the future; they're really concerned, I think, about the future of the organization. In France, of course, they have a vision for Iraq, they see a possibility of a compromise. They want to lift, as you know, the sanctions, but introduce this international arms control monitoring device. They're ready to do that; they're trying to get the United States and Britain to compromise, so there's a real plan of action there.

In the UK I found that Tony Blair was completely isolated. He does not have the support of his own new Labor Party, never mind the other parties that are completely against him. The trade unions are completely against Britain's role. They're horrified.... I think they're embarrassed by the fact that Britain, or Blair, followed blindly Clinton's lead into the illegal bombing last December. So every country's certainly different, there's no question about it. But I think the Europeans as a group are really deeply concerned about the unilateral action of the United States, its apparent disregard for the member states of the United Nations and the Security Council in particular, very worried about that.

LE: What has been the response to your trip here in the United States? You're in the midst of a 21-city speaking tour, having been to about 10 or 15 so far. How have you been received here?

DH: Oh, extremely well. Everywhere we go there's a coalition of groups who are active already, who've invited us to come, who make all the arrangements, like tonight. I think we tend to talk of course to people who already are on the same wave length, which sometimes can be frustrating. But I think that through radio and television there are thousands, possibly millions of Americans who know this is the wrong policy. They are deeply frustrated because they don't know how to make a difference and how to stop it. And they're also mad, I think, with their own media for not keeping them informed. That's my impression.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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