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  1. Politics
27 March 2000

Will he film Saddam’s next victims?

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, replies to John Pilger's criticisms of his policy on Iraq

By Robin Cook

John Pilger is angry about the suffering of the Iraqi people. So am I. We both think it is wrong to deny medicines to the sick and food to the hungry. We disagree on the cause.

In his New Statesman article last week, John Pilger accused me and others at the Foreign Office of lying. To disagree with John Pilger is not to lie. I regret that he denied me the opportunity to reply in his recent television programme Paying the Price. I offered an interview at the end of the programme. It was his decision to deny me a right to reply.

But I will not trade abuse with him. I would rather trade facts. Let me deal with each of Pilger’s main criticisms of our policy.

Pilger has convinced himself that the blame lies with us and with the Americans. The truth is that it is Saddam Hussein who is responsible. “Oil for food” has been working for three years and could have started years earlier had Saddam not blocked it.

The international community has now gone further by adopting Security Council Resolution 1284, a British initiative. The recent report from the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, states that the “programme has provided substantial assistance to address pressing humanitarian needs” and that “by adopting Resolution 1284, the Security Council has responded to concerns that weaknesses in the ‘oil for food’ programme had not been addressed”.

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But the Iraqi people have never seen the full benefits. Pilger’s most disturbing claim is that sanctions are responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children because sanctions prevent food and medicines from getting to them. His film showed harrowing pictures of a cancer ward. The doctors said that they could not get the drugs they need. Yet there is nothing to prevent Iraq ordering more medicine, and the UN repeatedly urges them to do so. On food, for example, the UN recommends that Iraq set aside $91 million for a targeted child nutrition programme every six months. Iraq allocated only $24 million – around 25 per cent of what is required. Annan has criticised the Iraqi government’s failure to distribute food and medicine on time and in full, and only last week called again on the Iraqi government to put this right.

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The humanitarian programme is entirely unconditional. There is no limit on Iraqi oil sales to pay for it. Iraq is the world’s second-biggest oil exporter and has more than $8 billion available this year for foods, medicines, clean water, electricity, agriculture, education and the oil industry. No one starves in Egypt, Syria and Ukraine – examples of countries that lack such oil resources. No one need starve in Iraq; no one starves in northern Iraq where Saddam’s writ does not run.

Pilger accuses the US and UK of putting too many holds on contracts in the sanctions committee. Britain puts holds on less than 1 per cent of contracts, most of them temporary while more details are awaited. Under 1284, most humanitarian contracts will be handled by the UN Secretariat without reference to the sanctions committee.

Saddam does seem able to build elaborate palaces despite the suffering around him. He does not use “oil for food” money (which the UN controls), but money from oil smuggling, most of it controlled by his family. The most effective action is to stop the smuggling and thus increase the pressure on Saddam. We are working hard to do this.

Pilger also recycles the Iraqi line on no-fly zones. Against a backdrop of footage of the oil fires started by the Iraqi army as it pulled out of Kuwait, he told us in his film about the “constant bombing” and thousands of combat missions by allied aircraft. The no-fly zones were established to stop Saddam’s air force from bombing his own people – the Kurds in the north and Shia in the south. They stopped him. We still need to be there because his threat remains. And Iraq fabricates claims of death and destruction. Unwittingly, Pilger himself demonstrated this. His film included a shot of the intact St Matthew’s Monastery; Iraq claimed that allied aircraft had destroyed it.

There are no sanctions on humanitarian goods. Resolution 1284 provides for the suspension of the remaining (ie, non-humanitarian) sanctions if Iraq co-operates with the weapons inspectors. This should not be difficult. Suspension could happen within months. But Saddam’s real ambition is to have weapons of mass destruction.

Pilger claims that there is no threat. This is not what 22 independent experts concluded last year in the UN disarmament panel’s report. The solution is obvious. Let the weapons inspectors back. Only that way can we discover the truth.

Pilger and our other critics have the luxury of disregarding the consequences of the alternative they advocate: abandon sanctions; let Saddam get his hands on the oil money; cross our fingers as he smuggles in a new stock of weapons; and wish the best of luck to the Kurds, the Shia and his neighbours. Were we to do so, I hope Pilger would return to the region to film Saddam’s next victims.