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UK and holds and blocks

Dear CASI:

You may have noticed that UK officials are now as standard 
practice saying that the UK only puts about 1% of OFF 
contracts on hold, implying that this is only a trivial 
number with a trivial humanitarian impact, so there is just 
a big fuss about nothing surrounding holds.

Here is a letter I have just sent to the FCO. I'll let you 
know the response.


Jaimie Cooper
Middle East Department
Foreign & Commonwealth Office

20 April 2000

Dear Mr. Cooper

Sanctions on Iraq

I have received a copy of your letter of 27 March 2000 to 
Ms. A. Sinclair (<snip>) regarding John Pilger’s recent 
documentary on Iraq, which appears to be a standard letter 
to those writing to the UK Government with regard to that 

I would like to take to take up one particular point in 
your letter. You state that ‘The UK puts only a tiny 
percentage of “oil for food” contracts on hold (about 1% 

***OFF Sanctions Committee holds and blocks imposed by the 

Did you arrive at this by comparing the total number of OFF 
contracts throughout the life of the programme with the 
total number of OFF contracts currently on hold due to 
holds imposed by the UK at the UN Sanctions Commitee? 
Between the start of OFF on 10 December 1996 and 31 March 
2000, the UN received 12,225 OFF contracts. Of those 1,180 
were on hold at that time. UN documents don’t indicate 
which country has imposed holds, but, as Jon Davies agrees, 
the US imposes about 10 holds for each one by the UK, and 
other countries rarely impose holds. It does indeed follow 
that, with roughly 10% of OFF contracts currently on hold, 
the UK is responsible for only about 1%.

Or did you arrive at 1% by comparing the total number of 
OFF contracts throughout the life of the programme with the 
total number of OFF contracts on which the UK imposed holds 
at any point (that is, which are still in place and which 
have been lifted?) An illustrative snapshot (selected by me 
randomly from UN documentation)  from 12 October 1999 
indicated that 23.7% of contracts for that particular OFF 
phase (Phase V) were on hold at that time. Assuming the 
usual 10:1 ratio of US:UK holds, at that point the UK holds 
must have been at least 2% (a figure I agree could 
reasonably be accommodated within ‘about 1%’).

***Non-OFF Sanctions Commitee holds and blocks imposed by 
the UK***

What is the figure for UK holds and blocks on the UN 
Sanctions Comittee for non-OFF contracts? According to 
Peter Hain in a House of Commons written answer on 30 March 
2000, over 6,000 of such contracts were received in that 
category between 1 August 1998 and 20 November 1999, with 
2,654 approved, 427 put on hold and 2,823 blocked. Does the 
427 on hold refer to the number currently on hold? If so, 
how many of the contracts which were approved were on hold 
at some point? At minimum, over 50% were put on hold or 
blocked. Using the usual ratio, this would suggest that at 
least 5% were imposed by the UK.

***National level holds and blocks imposed by the UK***

As you know, all exports to Iraq from the UK must receive 
permission at UK level before they may even be considered 
by the Sanctions Committee. How many such requests have 
been made and how many have been put on hold at any point 
or blocked? I presume that such holds and blocks do occur. 
They would be in addition to the ‘about 1%’ figure you use.

***Calculating the impact of holds and blocks imposed by 
the UK and supported/not opposed by the UK***

Am I right in thinking that you want people to infer from 
the 1% figure that holds imposed by the UK are of only 
marginal significance for the humanitarian programmes 
funded by OFF?  If so, I would be interested to have your 
response to the following points:

First, looked at by sector in the same snapshot mentioned 
earlier, holds were very high in the following sectors: 
telecommunications (100%), electricity (65.5%), water and 
sanitation (53.4%) and oil spare parts and equipment (43%). 
Hence, following the usual US:UK ratio, my estimate is that 
UK holds counted at that point for about 10% to 4% of the 
total, depending on sector. Is this accurate? What is the 
percentage of UK holds by OFF sector?

Second, the imposition of a hold on one contract, even if 
it is lifted later, will often undermine the value of other 
related contracts, so that 1% holds may undermine the value 
of a much higher percentage of the contracts. You give no 
indication of this. In May 1999 Kofi Annan pleaded for 
‘expeditious approval by the Security Council Committee of 
applications in water and sanitation and other key sectors 
such as health, which have a direct bearing on the 
unacceptably high malnutrition levels.’  Similarly 
Executive Director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme 
Benon Sevan complained to the Security Council in July 1999 
that 'The improvement of the nutritional and health status 
of the Iraqi people through [a] multi-sectoral approach ... 
is being seriously affected as a result of [the] excessive 
number of holds placed on supplies and equipment for water, 
sanitation and electricity.'  Giving specific examples, 
Sevan argued out that the absence of even one small item 
can be enough to stall an entire project.

Third, the FCO figure of 1% also serves to distract 
attention away the overall figures for holds and blocks 
whoever imposes them. Your letter should indicate the UK 
Governments position on the rest of the holds and blocks  
imposed (almost always by the United States). Certainly, 
the UK Government does not publicly oppose those holds and 

Overall, an accurate summary of the situation with regard 
to holds and blocks would seem to be as follows: 

        The UK imposes holds on about 1% of OFF contracts 
overall and about 4-10% across a range of key OFF sectors 
(telecommunications, water and sanitation, electricity, and 
oil spare parts and equipment). It also imposes holds or 
blocks on at least 5% of non-OFF UN-level contracts. It 
imposes further holds and blocks at UK national level. The 
overall level of holds and blocks is about 10% for OFF 
contracts and over 50% for non-OFF UN-level contracts. The 
vast majority are imposed by the United States without the 
opposition of the UK. A hold or a block often undermines 
the value of a much larger percentage of related contracts 
and may wreck entire projects. 

Would you agree with this summary or something similar? If 
so, why is it not hinted at in your standard letter?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Eric Herring
Lecturer in International Politics

cc: Jon Davies, A. Sinclair.

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