A major shift is occurring in US policy on Iraq. It is obvious that Washington wants to end 11 years of a self-serving policy of containment of the Iraqi regime and change to a policy of replacing, by force, Saddam Hussein and his government.
The current policy of economic sanctions has destroyed society in Iraq and caused the death of thousands, young and old. There is evidence of that daily in reports from reputable international organizations such as Caritas, UNICEF and Save the Children. A change to a policy of replacement by force will increase that suffering.
The creators of the policy must no longer assume that they can satisfy voters by expressing contempt for those who oppose them. The problem is not the inability of the public to understand the bigger picture, as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright likes to suggest. It is the opposite. The bigger picture, the hidden agenda, is well understood by ordinary people. We should not forget Henry Kissinger's brutally frank admission that "oil is much too important a commodity to be left in the hands of the Arabs".
How much longer can democratically elected governments hope to get away with justifying policies that punish the Iraqi people for something they did not do, through economic sanctions that target them in the hope that those who survive will overthrow the regime? Is international law only applicable to the losers? Does the UN security council only serve the powerful?
The UK and the US, as permanent members of the council, are fully aware that the UN embargo operates in breach of the UN covenants on human rights, the Geneva and Hague conventions and other international laws. It is neither anti-UK nor anti-US to point out that Washington and London, more than anywhere else, have in the past decade helped to write the Iraq chapter in the history of avoidable tragedies.
The UK and the US have deliberately pursued a policy of punishment since the Gulf war victory in 1991. The two governments have consistently opposed allowing the UN security council to carry out its mandated responsibilities to assess the impact of sanctions policies on civilians. We know about this first hand, because the governments repeatedly tried to prevent us from briefing the security council about it. The pitiful annual limits, of less than $170 per person, for humanitarian supplies, set by them during the first three years of the oil-for-food program are unarguable evidence of such a policy.
We have seen the effects on the ground and cannot comprehend how the US ambassador, James Cunningham, could look into the eyes of his colleagues a year ago and say: "We (the US government) are satisfied that the oil-for-food program is meeting the needs of the Iraqi people." Besides the provision of food and medicine, the real issue today is that Iraqi oil revenues must be invested in the reconstruction of civilian infrastructure destroyed in the Gulf war.
Despite the severe inadequacy of the permitted oil revenue to meet the minimum needs of the Iraqi people, 30 cents (now 25) of each dollar that Iraqi oil earned from 1996 to 2000 were diverted by the UN security council, at the behest of the UK and US governments, to compensate outsiders for losses allegedly incurred because of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. If this money had been made available to Iraqis, it could have saved many lives.
The uncomfortable truth is that the west is holding the Iraqi people hostage, in order to secure Saddam Hussein's compliance to ever-shifting demands. The UN secretary-general, who would like to be a mediator, has repeatedly been prevented from taking this role by the US and the UK governments.
The imprecision of UN resolutions on Iraq - "constructive ambiguity" as the US and UK define it - is seen by those governments as a useful tool when dealing with this kind of conflict. The US and UK dismiss criticism by pointing out that the Iraqi people are being punished by Baghdad. If this is true, why do we punish them further?
The most recent report of the UN secretary-general, in October 2001, says that the US and UK governments' blocking of $4bn of humanitarian supplies is by far the greatest constraint on the implementation of the oil-for-food program The report says that, in contrast, the Iraqi government's distribution of humanitarian supplies is fully satisfactory (as it was when we headed this program). The death of some 5-6,000 children a month is mostly due to contaminated water, lack of medicines and malnutrition. The US and UK governments' delayed clearance of equipment and materials is responsible for this tragedy, not Baghdad.
The expectation of a US attack on Iraq does not create conditions in the UN security council suited to discussions on the future of economic sanctions. This year's UK-sponsored proposal for "smart sanctions" will not be retabled. Too many people realize that what looked superficially like an improvement for civilians is really an attempt to maintain the bridgeheads of the existing sanctions policy: no foreign investments and no rights for the Iraqis to manage their own oil revenues.
The proposal suggested sealing Iraq's borders, strangling the Iraqi people. In the present political climate, a technical extension of the current terms is considered the most expedient step by Washington. That this condemns more Iraqis to death and destitution is shrugged off as unavoidable.
What we describe is not conjecture. These are undeniable facts known to us as two former insiders. We are outraged that the Iraqi people continue to be made to pay the price for the lucrative arms trade and power politics. We are reminded of Martin Luther King's words: "A time has come when silence is betrayal. That time is now."
We want to encourage people everywhere to protest against unscrupulous policies and against the appalling disinformation put out about Iraq by those who know better, but are willing to sacrifice people's lives with false and malicious arguments.
The US Defense Department, and Richard Butler, former head of the UN arms inspection team in Baghdad, would prefer Iraq to have been behind the anthrax scare. But they had to recognize that it had its origin within the US.
British and US intelligence agencies know well that Iraq is qualitatively disarmed, and they have not forgotten that the outgoing secretary of defense, William Powell, told incoming President George Bush in January: "Iraq no longer poses a military threat to its neighbors". The same message has come from former UN arms inspectors. But to admit this would be to nail the entire UN policy, as it has been developed and maintained by the US and UK governments.
We are horrified by the prospects of a new US-led war against Iraq. The implications of "finishing unfinished business" in Iraq are too serious for the global community to ignore. We hope that the warnings of leaders in the Middle East and all of us who care about human rights are not ignored by the US government. What is now most urgently needed is an attack on injustice, not on the Iraqi people.
Hans von Sponeck was UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq from 1998 to 2000; Denis Halliday held the same post from 1997 to 1998.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001