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Pilger: Yet again they are lying to us

The New Statesman (UK)

Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us 
John Pilger Monday 20th March 2000  

The Foreign Office repeatedly hides the truth from the
public: on Cambodia, on East Timor, on arms sales and
now on sanctions. By John Pilger 

Mark Higson was the Iraq desk officer at the Foreign
Office in 1989 when the British government was still
giving Saddam Hussein almost anything he wanted,
secretly and illegally, a year before Iraq invaded
Kuwait. Higson, who resigned in protest, was one of
the few British officials commended by the Scott
inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq scandal. He described "a
culture of lying" at the Foreign Office.

"The draft letters I wrote for various ministers," he
later told me, "were saying that nothing had changed,
the embargo on the sale of arms to Iraq was the same."

"Was that true?" I asked.

"No, it wasn't true . . ."

"And your superiors knew it wasn't true?"

"Yes. If I was writing a draft reply for a minister,
replying to a letter from an MP, I wrote the agreed
line. I also wrote replies to go to members of the
public. The letters were awfully polite. But we were
all quite well aware that nothing had changed: that
Jordan was being used [to get arms to Iraq]."

"So how much truth did the public get?"

"The public got as much truth as we could squeeze out,
given that we told downright lies . . ."

I went to the Foreign Office that same year, 1989, to
interview Lord Brabazon, a junior minister. The
subject was Cambodia. The Thatcher government was then
supporting the Khmer Rouge-led coalition and the SAS
was secretly providing training in mine- laying. Like
its part in the arms-to-Iraq scandal, the Foreign
Office was lying about it. (Two years later, the Major
government owned up.)

I was met by a minder from the news department, Ian
Whitehead, who took me aside, as he was no doubt used
to doing with journalists, and told me to "go easy" on
the minister. With the interview under way, he began
shouting that I had departed from the "agreed line of
questioning". No "line" had been agreed. These days,
the style is less obtuse, but the aim is the same.
Senior broadcasters and commentators pop in to the
Foreign Office without any material favours expected;
for them, the flattery and "access" are enough. Thus,
much of the world is represented in terms of its
usefulness to western "interests".

Over the years, I have been able to observe how the
Foreign Office, the last true citadel of the British
imperium, treats the public. From time to time,
documentary films that I have made have caused people
to write to the government and their MPs, seeking
answers to serious questions about the effects of
British policies on large numbers of human beings all
over the world. East Timor was a prime example. For
years, British officials denied any British complicity
in the genocide there and sought to devalue the scale
of suffering. One official, J L Wilkins of the South
East Asia department, was the prolific author of
replies to the public. "No one really knows the truth"
about the death toll, was his message, because some
estimates "are sometimes so dramatically different"
from the British government's that they "cannot help
but suspect them to be exaggerated." The same devotion
to historical accuracy was shown by another official
who, when asked about the huge death toll, replied,
"Yes, but it didn't happen in one year."

In 1993, a letter sent to the Labour MP Greg Pope, and
signed by a senior official in the Indonesia section,
claimed: "We are currently pressing the Indonesians to
allow resumed [Red Cross] access to Xanana Gusmao."
This was entirely bogus. An internal Foreign Office
memorandum, which accompanied the letter, read:
"Attached for infn/edification. The letter is for

The sale of British Aerospace Hawk aircraft to
Indonesia, and their use in East Timor, is a famous
case in point. In 1978, when David Owen, the Labour
foreign secretary, approved the export of the first
Hawks to Indonesia, a young MP called Robin Cook
described the sale as "particularly disturbing"
because the Jakarta regime was "at war in East Timor".

Sixteen years later, Cook, now a member of Labour's
front bench, lambasted the Tories for selling more
Hawks to Indonesia. The minister, said Cook, "will be
aware that Hawk aircraft have been seen on bombing
runs in East Timor in most years since 1984". He was
right. Indeed, Mark Higson told me that the Foreign
Office had known all along exactly where and how the
Hawks were being used in East Timor.

Five years later, with Labour in office and Cook the
Foreign Secretary, Foreign Office officials continued
to lie in off-the-record briefings to prominent
journalists that Hawks were not being used in East
Timor. There was plenty of evidence to the contrary;
but it was only last year, when the world's press
finally discovered East Timor, and a Hawk swept
menacingly over Dili, the capital, that the Foreign
Office came clean - with Robin Cook expressing
indignation that the Indonesians could do such a
thing, his expose from the opposition benches long

This brings us to the great suffering in Iraq, where
200 children die every day under the most ruthless
embargo in the modern era, enforced principally by the
United States and Britain and sustained by arguably
the biggest lie of all. "We must nail the absurd
claim," said Cook, "that sanctions are responsible for
the suffering of the Iraqi people." Again, the
evidence to the contrary has been overwhelming.
According to Unicef, half a million children have died
in eight years, having borne "the brunt of the
economic hardship" caused by sanctions.

Because few journalists bother to go to Iraq and the
propaganda of an entire society's guilt by association
with a tyrant has been seldom questioned, the
suffering and its principal cause are not news. Iraqis
are media "unpeople". So Cook can say, unchallenged:
"Food and medicines have never been covered by
sanctions." In fact, while food, medicines and
"supplies for essential civilian needs" are
technically exempt from sanctions, the truth is very
different: Iraq is prevented from obtaining foreign
currency and therefore from funding the minimum needs
of the population. Shortly before he resigned in
protest against sanctions, Hans von Sponeck, the UN
humanitarian co-ordinator in Baghdad, explained: "We
are allowed just $180 [over six months] for every
Iraqi. Everything must come out of that: food, water,
health, power. How can people live a proper life on
that? It is not possible." Currently, approval for
$1.5 billions'-worth of vital humanitarian-delayed
shipments is "on hold" at the UN Sanctions Committee
in New York, which Washington and London dominate.
This includes food and $150 million worth of medical

Then there is the $10-billion lie. Cook told
parliament that Iraq "can now sell over $10 billion of
oil per annum to pay for food, medicine and other
humanitarian goods." Under the oil-for-food programme,
the UN controls all the revenue from sales of Iraqi
oil and allocates only 66 per cent for humanitarian

The balance, more than a third of the revenue, pays
compensation to the multi-billionaire Kuwaiti royal
family and western oil companies and "expenses" to the
UN. The oil-for-food programme, said the Economist,
was "a meaningless gesture", because the Iraqi oil
industry had been so devastated by allied bombing that
it could not pump the quantity of oil permitted by the
Security Council. And less oil means less food and
medicine, and more dying children.

Last month, the UN executive in charge of the
sanctions office in New York attacked the Security
Council (that is, the US and Britain) for holding up
shipments of oil industry parts, which the Security
Council had already approved. This followed an
extraordinary attack by Kofi Annan, the UN
secretary-general, on the US and by implication on
Britain, for "using its muscle to put indefinite
'holds' on more than $500 million in humanitarian
goods that Iraq would like to buy". A senior US
official told the Washington Post: "The longer we can
fool around in the [Security] Council and keep things
static, the better."

Then there is the lie that the Baghdad regime is
culpably hoarding food and medicine while the
population goes without. Peter Hain, the Foreign
Office minister, offered this in recent letters to the
New Statesman and the Guardian. "The goods that come
into this country are distributed to where they
belong," said von Sponeck, the senior UN official in
charge. "Our most recent stock analysis shows that
88.8 per cent of all humanitarian supplies have been
distributed." Unicef and the World Food Programme
confirm this. The medicines which, says Hain, "lie in
warehouses" are there because, as UN officials
tirelessly explain, the World Health Organisation has
instructed Iraq to maintain emergency buffer stocks
and actually wants these increased. Because of the
delays in New York, they say, supplies arrive
erratically: for example, IV fluids frequently turn up
ahead of equipment, without which they are useless.

Much of the latest Foreign Office propaganda has come
almost word-for-word from a US State Department
briefing document, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, distributed
last September. Denis Halliday, the former UN
assistant secretary-general who also resigned in
protest rather than continue to administer the
oil-for-food programme, has analysed this report,
describing it as "garbage from beginning to end".
Saddam Hussein's palaces are said to cover "an area
greater than Paris". In fact, UN weapons inspectors
found his palaces to be nearer the size of Paddington.

Such desperation is evident in the government's
response to the ITV documentary on Iraq that I made
with Alan Lowery, Paying the Price, which, on 6 March,
drew a powerful response from the public. Peter Hain,
having metamorphosed in the depressingly time-honoured
way from a principled political activist to yet
another Foreign Office mouthpiece, wrote in the
Guardian that Saddam Hussein "makes sure there are
plenty of malnourished children to film". Those of us
who, unlike him, have watched Iraqi children dying in
front of us, reserve a particular contempt for such an
obscenity, and wilful ignorance. Tens of thousands of
malnourished children need no setting up; they are
everywhere. And they are dying because this government
bans vaccines and blocks standard equipment like blood
platelet machines, and refuses to allow the
restoration of clean drinking-water: a universal child
saver. Hain might like to see a cancer patient dying
in pain, denied morphine by this government, as I did.

Having brought a born-again zeal to his new career,
Hain indulges in smear. "The friends of the Iraqi
regime," he told parliament, are "all those who in one
way or another lend their weight" to Iraq's opposition
to sanctions. Dupes, in other words. As for the
parallels that he draws with the sanctions against
South Africa, these are absurd. Unlike Iraq, which
imported 70 per cent of its essentials, South Africa
was largely self-sufficient in food, and the majority
of people and the ANC supported the disinvestment and
cultural and sporting isolation that hit the white
elite. In Iraq, there has been an opposite effect;
instead of weakening the regime, the resistance has
been weakened, and the majority made more powerless
than ever. That is why both Nelson Mandela and Desmond
Tutu have publicly opposed sanctions against Iraq. To
Hain, they must be dupes, too.

Both Richard Butler and Scott Ritter, late of Unscom,
the weapons inspections agency, have said that Saddam
Hussein has been disarmed of his weapons of mass
destruction. With all non-military sanctions lifted,
Baghdad has indicated that the inspectors can return.
What alarms the US and Britain is a section of the
original Resolution 687 on Iraq, which they never
mention. This calls for the downgrading of weapons of
mass destruction throughout the region, meaning the
nuclear-armed Israeli invaders of Lebanon and the
Turkish invaders of Iraqi Kurdistan. It would also
mean the scaling down of the west's arming of
countries like Saudi Arabia, upon which much of
Britain's weapons trade depends.

The truth is that the policy of sanctions is
disintegrating, with US oil companies already making
secret peace with Baghdad. In the US State Department,
sanctions are dismissed as "Albright's vendetta", and
those officials and diplomats with an instinct for
career survival are keeping their distance and their
silence during the presidential campaign.

At the Foreign Office, there is sub- imperial
confusion. Jon Davies, the head of the Iraq desk - who
has never been to Iraq - stood up at a conference and
blamed the Americans, then told his listeners that his
remarks were "off the record". It seems that the FO
wants Britain to be a bridge between the US and
Europe, and if the government opposed sanctions, the
Americans would be displeased and the great strategy
would suffer.

That this obsequious bit of realpolitik has nothing to
do with Iraq, let alone its dying children, is by the
by. Davies has said privately that last December's
Security Council Resolution 1284, which Hain promotes
as a breakthrough, changes nothing. Publicly, the
Foreign Office says the opposite, of course.

It was understandable that no member of the government
would be interviewed by me for Paying the Price
without Millbank conditions of control. In parliament,
Robin Cook entirely misrepresented his refusal to
appear, claiming he was denied a "right of reply". For
two months, I offered him a major interview, with the
bulk of the questions supplied beforehand so he could
prepare his responses to longstanding criticisism.
Unlike the secretary-general of the UN and the US
State Department spokesman, he demanded special "as
live" treatment. Our fearless Foreign Secretary, an FO
man explained, did not want to be "skewered" nor
appear in a film "with dying babies". I asked for
Peter Hain, who in last week's NS described me as his
old friend. But he too was available only on
spin-doctors' terms.

I offer him this old friend's advice: sanctions
against the Iraqi people breach a multitude of
international laws, including the Nuremberg Charter
and the Convenant against Genocide. Even Margaret
Thatcher is careful where she travels these days, lest
she be indicted. So take care, Peter, that you are not
assigned the last watch as others scuttle overboard,
leaving a murderous policy that is already regarded,
judicially not rhetorically, as an epic crime against
humanity. Think of the company you keep, and the words
of Denis Halliday: "History will slaughter those
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