Robin Cook's lies are worthy of David Irving, while the government perpetrates crimes against humanity

The Foreign Office continues to send out its standard dissembling letter on Iraq. Dozens of copies have been forwarded to me by members of the public bemused or angered by the contempt in which they are clearly held by the civil servants responsible. Some letters begin, "Dear - - - - -"; others use first names or misspelt surnames without a prefix. The ignorance of Asian names is striking. Many are signed by one Jaimie Cooper, a junior official with no specialist knowledge of Iraq. His is merely a name with which to brush off people, many of whom have taken the trouble to analyse lies that would make David Irving blush.

To suggest, for example, that "there is no credible research data" that links the use of depleted uranium with the sevenfold increase in cancer in southern Iraq is Irvingesque. The Atomic Energy Authority has quoted calculations of "500,000 potential deaths" in Kuwait alone if a fraction of DU dust was inhaled. As long ago as 1943, the effect of DU dust in the lung was documented by the US government. In 1993, the Ministry of Defence admitted that it was "aware of the hazards of depleted uranium" and, with the US Defence Department, made videotapes for training British and American troops. These left little doubt of the risks, but were never released. What makes the Foreign Office deceitful in this matter is that, under its sanctions policy, Iraq is denied equipment and ex-pertise to clean up its contaminated battlefields, as Kuwait was cleaned up. At the same time, the Sanctions Committee in New York, which the Americans and British dominate, has blocked or delayed a range of medical equipment that diagnoses and treats cancer, as well as chemotherapy drugs.

In his latest letter to the New Statesman, Robin Cook says that there is no ban on vaccines. This meets the Irving standard. Cook's letters are supervised by Jon Davies, the head of the Iraq Desk, who recently explained to a visitor how the ban works. The British government must be "reassured that the use of every batch of vaccine ordered by Iraq is not for weapons". That reassurance can only be given by United Nations weapons inspectors, who were expelled from Iraq in 1998 after it was found that they were being used to spy for Washington. Catch-22! Other UN personnel in Iraq are not to be trusted, says Davies. No "reassurance" equals no vaccine equals children dying from preventable diseases. Professor Karol Sikora, who visited Iraq as head of the Cancer Programme of the World Health Organisation, told me last December that he and colleagues had found "no possibility of converting these drugs into chemical warfare agents".

In his letter, Cook wrote: "Pilger claims that my officials think Security Council Resolution 1284 'changes nothing'. Nonsense." I actually quoted Jon Davies directly. In informal briefings, Davies has said that the resolution "changes nothing whatsoever". His listeners did not imagine this. It is an example of how "Chatham House rules" allow democratically unaccountable civil servants to say, behind closed doors, the truth on matters of grave public interest, while MPs and the public are fed the very opposite.

In one of his on-the-record briefings, Davies, who impresses visitors with his passion for maintaining sanctions against a society he has never seen, declared that the Iraqis were ordering whisky. "They tell the Sanctions Committee it is a food and that's how they get away with it," he said. A Foreign Office colleague contradicted him. "That's not true," she said. "They buy it with their own money." Davies also claims that Britain delays few vital supplies to Iraq. What he omits to say is that Britain unerringly never opposes the United States on the Sanctions Committee. This has caused such wilful obstruction, delaying everything from food and medical supplies to oil industry spare parts, that Kofi Annan, once regarded as the most compliant of secretary generals, has publicly attacked the Clinton administration.

The environmental catastrophe of sanctions across the region is seldom reported. The UN has found that half of Iraq's date trees have died, a total of 15 million screwworms are burrowing into humans and animals and spreading to Kuwait and other Gulf states. Foot and mouth disease has also spread across borders. Sanctions prevent the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation from ordering vaccines. "This will affect Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria," says the FAO, "and afflict the health of people and seriously undermine food security in all the countries of the Near East."

Most governments understand that the sanctions, after ten years of "near apocalyptic" conditions in Iraq (according to a UN mission in 1991), have devastated children and the vulnerable while entrenching the regime - the opposite of their stated aim. Increasingly, the zealots in London are isolated. That the European Convention on Human Rights is about to be incorporated into British law, while the Blair government perpetrates one of the true crimes against humanity, invites more of an unprecedented cynicism that is destroying public faith in mainstream politics, especially the Labour Party.

When Peter Hain can reject sanctions against Zimbabwe as a bad and inhuman idea "because they will affect not the elite, but the ordinary, innocent people", then almost in the same breath defend their imposition on the ordinary, innocent people of Iraq, he becomes the embodiment of that cynicism, along with his "ethical" Foreign Secretary. Robin Cook, by the way, has declined my invitation to join a public debate on Iraq in London next week. He says he will be abroad. I have written back, saying that any date will do. Watch this space.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone