Denis Halliday doesn’t mince his words. In a north London apartment where we have met to discuss the current Iraqi crisis, he explicitly tells me that he accuses the UN Security Council of ‘genocide’ for the devastating effects their sanctions have had on the people of Iraq. From a hot-headed young activist such claims might be dismissed as the result of hormonal imbalance, but from a former Assistant Secretary-General to the United Nations – the man responsible for running the ‘Oil for Food’ programme between 1997 and 1998 – this is a stinging condemnation.
It is now four years since Denis resigned in protest of the sanctions – leaving both his post as Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, and the UN itself – an organisation he had served for some 34 years. At the time of his resignation, Denis was at pains to speak out against the 4000 – 5000 ‘unnecessary’ deaths of children he said occurred on a monthly basis as a result of the sanctions. In our discussion today, Denis has lost none of his outrage at what he views to be the injustice of UN policies. Indeed, his scorn for the United Nations Special Commission – the department originally in charge of over-seeing Iraq’s disarmament – is also evident:
‘There’s a great success story there in terms of destruction by UNSCOM,’ he tells me. ‘Every conceivable manufacturing capacity in Iraq that could be remotely linked to chemical or biological weapon preparations – and that means milk plants, baby food, food storage & refrigeration plants, manufacturing devices for pharmaceuticals, insecticides, pesticides, all of these fertiliser plants…they were all destroyed – irreparably destroyed.’
The destruction of pharmaceutical facilities and the stringent restrictions on medical imports have certainly taken their toll on Iraqi society, with many Iraqis forced to rely on handouts from donors and the black market. ‘I myself smuggled in drugs for a child who needs leukaemia treatment only last week,’ Denis voluntarily admits.
It is, I suspect, precisely this sort of brazen honesty and unflinching commitment to humanitarian concerns that brought Denis’s work to the attention of the Ghandi Foundation. The night before our interview, he had arrived in London to accept their International Peace Prize. It sits – a bronze, miniature Mahatma – on a nearby coffee table.
I ask Denis if he feels optimistic about the prospects for peace in the coming weeks and months.
With the calm, measured cadence of a veteran diplomat, he rails against George Bush and Tony Blair – suggesting that both leaders take a ‘messianic, simplistic’ approach to world affairs that is ‘as frightening as Mr Bin Laden’s.’
‘I think the secret – if there is one left – is public opinion. And I think public opinion in the US is changing… They’ve seen the difference between Bush’s approach to North Korea, where there are nuclear weapons and they were ready for talks and dialogue, and [their approach to] Iraq where we’ve got this obsession with going to war. I think Americans are asking themselves: “Why should my son or daughter be killed in a war against Iraq without justification? If it’s all about cheap oil at the pump, that’s not a justification.”’
I put it to Denis Halliday that Iraq’s co-operation with weapons inspectors has been criticised in recent reports from Mohamed El Baradei and Hans Blix, but he remains unfazed. ‘[El Baradei] has given Iraq just about a clean bill of health on the nuclear front – which frankly, for most of us, is the only serious weapon of mass destruction. Chemical and biological weapons – unless they’re weaponised, and they’re already loaded, and the Iraqis have capacity for delivery – are not weapons per se. And people like Scott Ritter will tell you there’s no capacity for delivery in Iraq.’
Like Scott Ritter, Denis Halliday’s experience, credibility and outspoken criticism have combined to make him one of the celebrated voices of dissent – and a thorn in the side of Washington’s hawks. Having just returned from touring the Middle East, Denis says he never came across anyone who felt threatened by Iraq, dismissing the suggestion as ‘propaganda from Washington.’ White House assertions that Baghdad has connections to Al-Qaeda he considers risible: ‘Those of us who know Iraq and the Middle East, know perfectly well that secular Iraq and secular Saddam Hussein is totally anathema to Al-Qaeda; totally incompatible with Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda movement. Some of us remember that Bin Laden went to the Saudi monarchy in 1990, and asked them to pay him enough money to put together an army of 100,000 to drive Iraq out of Kuwait himself. So I don’t think there is any collaboration there at all.’
Is there not a danger that in arguing against an invasion, in over-stressing the sovereignty of Iraq, we are frustrating the human rights of the very Iraqis whose welfare we claim to have at heart?
‘There are many issues in that question. You talk about human rights. We in the West, and the “Human Rights industry”, as I call it, are focused almost entirely on civil and political rights. There’s no question that the Iraqis have lost many of their civil and political rights. In fact they never had them; they’ve never been in an environment that really encouraged that. But the fundamental human rights – articles 23 through 27, and that’s healthcare, education, housing, employment, privacy of the family, the rights of the child – life itself; we, the United Nations – nobody else – have destroyed those rights of the Iraqi people.
‘The fact is that there are many Iraqis who have reservations about the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein. Thanks to Mr Bush, and thanks to sanctions, and Mr Clinton, and Thatcher and Blair, we have made Saddam Hussein stronger. We’ve given him extra power through the Oil for Food [programme] which ensures every Iraqi is now dependent on the Government. And by threatening him with assassination and removal, by threatening his country with an invasion, the Americans and the British together have made Saddam Hussein a very popular figure in his own country. The people have rallied around him, as people rallied around Bush after 9-11. And they’ve made him into a hero throughout the entire Middle East. He’s the only Arab leader who has shown this courage to thumb his nose at the United States, which is seen in the Middle East as an aggressive, empire-building, neo-colonial regime, [that is] there to re-map the Middle East, having purchased most of the Arab leaders already.’
Is that a fair assessment, in his opinion?
‘Absolutely fair….This is seen as a new Crusade. We know the first Crusades were not about Christianity, they were about greed and booty and wealth and land. The new one is about the same thing – booty and riches – except this time it’s oil.’
Denis appears acutely aware of the way Western foreign policies in Iraq are affecting the younger people in the country. The youth, he says, are ‘angry, isolated, hopeless and depressed.’ I ask him whether a post-Saddam Iraq might help to combat that.
‘A post-Saddam Iraq would help, providing Iraq is an independent country, with its dignity and honour intact, its revenue intact, its economy restored, and a new outlook on the world as [being] surrounded by friends, not enemies, confident that they could deal with the West and the United States. That would certainly change things. But if the new Iraq is going to be again isolated, and sanctions are going to be sustained, and aggression against Iraqis is going to be felt, we’ll turn these young men and women into the same angry people we now have running the country. They’re not going to give up their national sovereignty and their dignity and their patriotism.’
To Denis, the problems over Iraq are part of a wider issue he takes with the design of the UN Security Council. Unimpressed by a council that reflects the geo-politics of 1945, Denis believes that since the end of the Cold War, the Security Council has been manipulated by the one remaining ‘hyperpower’. ‘As Clinton and Albright will tell you, and have said many, many times, the UN is there to serve the vested interests of American foreign policy.’ Does he have a vision for a remodelled Security Council?
‘What I have talked about is that we should perhaps keep permanent seats, but allocate them differently. Latin America should have a permanent seat, as should Sub-Sahara Africa, North Africa & the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia – you can visualise a new framework whereby the South would have real influence in the decision making of the Security Council. Currently, the permanent seats are all North – and that includes China. Beyond that, I would like to try to phase out veto power, which is clearly undemocratic and improper.’ For Denis, this is not merely academic idealism, but a change he believes is essential to preserve the credibility of the UN itself: ‘I think nowadays, worldwide, most people judge the UN by the work of the Security Council, which is unfortunate because good work is going on every day all over the world.’
Mindful of the current divisions emerging in the Security Council over Iraq, I have to ask if he believes students have a role to play in opposing an attack. Denis seizes upon the question immediately, relating his admiration for the Indonesian students who led the struggle against the dictatorship of President Suharto. ‘You should never underestimate student power,’ he says, ‘It’s a reality.’