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BRG Interview with Hans von Sponeck (1 May 2000)

Introduction: The Boston Research Group (BRG) interviewed the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, on 1 May 2000 in Boston, USA. Mr. von Sponeck has stated that the "Oil-for-Food" Program is not enough to "guarantee the minimum of that a human being requires which is clearly defined in the universal declaration of human rights" (Reuters, "Top UN Official Urges End to Iraq Trade Sanctions", 8 Feb. 2000). The framework for this short interview was elaboration on some of the Program’s specific fundamental flaws and insufficiencies. This interview followed Boston Mobilization for Survival’s (MOBE) interview with Mr. von Sponeck, an interview referred to in the first question below as "earlier remarks". To contact MOBE about its interview, telephone 617-354-0008 (a U.S. number), or E-mail For more information about the BRG interview contact:

Nathaniel Hurd, Research Analyst
The Boston Research Group (BRG)
2161 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA  02140
Tel.: 617-492-4570
Fax: 617-354-2832
E-mail: or

Interview Subject: Hans von Sponeck

Interviewer and Transcriber: The Boston Research Group (BRG)

Venue: The Carr Center for Human Rights, Harvard University

Date: 1 May 2000

BRG: You said in your earlier remarks that you thought that the "green list" was insufficient. Let’s say, for example, that the Security Council passes a resolution giving the [Sanctions] Committee 24 hours to explain why there is a problem with a particular application and to request additional information. This same resolution will also mandate the Committee, in the absence of such explanations or requests, to approve non-green list items within two days. Do you think that these measure will be enough to expedite the process and to resolve a lot of the holds’ problems that we’ve consistently seen throughout the life-span of the Program?

von Sponeck: Theoretically, yes. In practice, a review of the holds’ reality shows that there is frequently no rationale behind it. You may have an item that is released in one phase but not in another. You may have an item that is released for one company but not for another. You may have an item that is released for one country, but not for another. So it’s a wild array of reasons, and I don’t think that the act of introducing a shorter time span for processing in and of itself will do miracles. I’m sure it may or will improve the speed to some extent. But it will not create a major change for the simple reason that a perfectly running procurement system isn’t wanted. We are living in sanctions. We don’t want to make it a perfect system. That’s the mindset. I think that’s what I want to identify. Maybe I’m wrong. But I’ve yet to see in the 17 month evidence that I’m wrong.

BRG: So you would argue that you have not seen any indication that the Security Council will come up with a series of processing or Program guidelines that will completely maximize the efficiency and the expediency of the Program.

von Sponeck: First of all, we must not think that the Security Council is one homogeneous entity. There are a lot of positions in the Security Council. But the best equipped to handle the sanctions regime are no doubt the Americans and the British. They have invested a lot of money and they have technical staff that is dealing with this. So a lot of things that are happening are happening because they have the capacity to make them happen. Whether there is interest in timely arrival or the opposite is not a question. So I don’t believe that one wants to create a perfect system. I haven’t seen it. There are too many vested interests here. Maybe I now do an injustice, but I have not seen during my tenure a picture which would suggest to me that the Security Council as a whole, or as each individual Security Council member, really wants to see a perfectly functioning system.

BRG: In his 10 March 2000 report the Secretary-General indicated that 96% of delivered goods for Iraq’s electricity sector had been installed. Ninety six percent, a figure that he went on to say was much higher than that for the other sectors. In your opinion, what is the explanation for what appears to the lay reader to be a very high rate of electrical sector distribution and installation versus that for the other sectors?

von Sponeck: First of all, when you come to the food sector, distribution works very well. With electricity we are only dealing with a dozen or so electricity facilities. So it isn’t as complex a sector as, for example, agriculture. Electricity also means dealing with a very large set of components that can go to one place. So it is simply less complex. This is one reason why. The other one is that the Government of Iraq has paid particular attention to the electricity sector. This is because a lot of things can go right or wrong in other sectors depending on the availability of electricity. Take health. In hospitals you need electricity for operating, for the welfare of the patients. In schools you need light. Sometimes in the universities there is the need for equipment that requires electricity. In agriculture electricity powers pumping and irrigation. So electricity is a pre-condition for many things. Therefore, the Iraqi Government has paid attention to electricity and unfortunately has faced very stiff resistance from those who sit in the Sanctions Committee and have to approve these items. I happen to know the figures quite well.

As of Phase IV the needs of the electricity sector were identified. The conclusion was that in order to fund a basic rehabilitation of Iraq’s electricity sector you needed 7.1 billion U.S. dollars [all dollar figures hereafter are in U.S. dollars]. Seven point one billion. What then was allocated was not $7.1 billion but $1.2 billion. This was the allocation that became available for the electricity sector. And what actually arrived, ultimately, was $112 million. So ultimately, out of $7.1 billion required as needed, $112 million, a fraction, 1.5% actually arrived.

BRG: As Iraq has yet to meet the target levels for nutrition, the kilo-calories per day targets, there is a shortage of pharmaceuticals in the face of tremendous need, and the allocation for the electricity sector is second only to food, would you say that in terms of its allocation decisions the Iraqi Government has been under-ordering in the areas of both food and medicine?

von Sponeck: I think that however you play this game of budget allocation, it’s a picture of inadequacy. So if you save in one area you add in another. But in both areas, the overall allocation is inadequate. I think that it’s correct to conclude that the electricity sector has received an unusually high interest as far as the Iraqis are concerned. We always try to argue that there has to be better prioritization in the allocation beyond medicines and foods which are of course priorities under the [1996] Memorandum of Understanding. I think that the Government of Iraq could have done better in prioritizing. But whatever formula you identify, ultimately you are dealing with an overall aggregate amount of resources that is inadequate, that is not enough. So whatever decision you make, you are benefiting one, you are victimizing another, you can’t get it right across the board.

BRG: Therefore, it’s not a matter of inappropriately prioritization. It’s simply that the needs all of the sectors are so overwhelming that anytime you prioritize one sector over another you are open to that label.

von Sponeck: Yes. But I think that one could have done better. One could have had a more even picture of inadequacy.

BRG: What is your explanation for that?

von Sponeck: A tremendous concern for the material side of the discussion at the expense of education. Education became the step-child of the Humanitarian Program, and one regrets that. I don’t want to be too definitive about why this is so. But I would say that I do not have evidence that this is done out of any sense of malice.

On food and on medicines there is little room for maneuvering. They have to meet certain minimum requirements. Then you get into water, sanitation and electricity. Electricity, in the opinion of the Iraqi Government, was more important than anything else because it impinged on these other sectors. But once you have played this through you begin to realize that there is also education. And that is regrettable. I think that the education budget could and should have been bigger than it was.

BRG: In 1999 both the Humanitarian Panel and the Secretary-General talked about the imperative for some sort of cash component, particularly, in the case of the Secretary-General, for "Target Nutrition Programs" in Southern and Central Iraq. Could you briefly talk about the specific benefits of the cash component? Perhaps you can use a particular sector as an example.

Please also address the cash component in relation to the Target Nutrition Program, and answer whether or not you think that the lack of a cash component is the explanation for why the Secretary-General continues to say that that the Target Nutrition Programs can’t expand and are currently insufficient.

And then, if you would, please also say a few words about what the long-term implication is for Central and Southern Iraq without a cash component.

von Sponeck: The cash component concern has been prevalent in all agencies because it is Humanitarian Program weakness due to the fact that there is no access to cash in the Center/South. And as a result, the absorbency capacity of items that come in under the 986 Program is severely restrained. It also explains the delays in the installation of equipment.

Take water and sanitation for example. A new water purification plant is brought into the country, but maybe, in order to install this, you need 3%, 4%, let’s say 5% of the value of this equipment as cash in order to have the required labor and the local materials: Perhaps sand, and maybe cement. You also need to have implements, like shovels. All of that is not obtainable under the "Oil-for-Food" Program. So it all must wait until the Government somehow finds or allocates the money. The result is that some of this equipment waits, and is installed later than it is supposed to be. The absence of the cash component has a restraining effect, a delaying effect on the implementation of the "Oil-for-Food" Program.

The issue of the Nutrition Program was the first case (I was involved in that one) that we used to test out how one could find a formula, acceptable to everybody, to make cash available to implement this Targeted Nutrition Program (as it is called). We quickly found out some things that we didn’t expect. First of all, we found out that within this Targeted Nutrition Program the value of the actual commodities were about $15 million. And the cash component was roughly $17 million. UNICEF, in charge of the Targeted Nutrition Program, pointed out to us that they have no capacity to handle $17 million worth of cash. So we had a problem with the implementing partner. The assumption at that point was that the Government of Iraq would go along with a UN agency having access to cash. That was a false assumption. The Government of Iraq does not want to have any outsider, not any UN agency or NGO, to be in possession of Iraqi cash. And the Security Council doesn’t want any Iraqi institution to have access to any cash. So here we have a complete deadlock. On top of it, the Government of Iraq, as you know, has rejected, in full, Resolution 1284 which provides for this at long last. How many times did I make a case for a cash component in the Sanctions Committee? In February of ’99 I submitted a program of different concerns that needed to be considered by the Security Council. A cash component was very prominently identified. We had no takers and it didn’t make any progress until this Resolution came. And then when we used this practical example of a Targeted Nutrition Program we discovered: A) The Government wasn’t willing to accept the UN as a custodian of cash; B) The very agency that had, until then, implemented the target nutrition Program, wasn’t willing to assume responsibility for the management for such a large amount of cash with the existing human resources that they had.

BRG: During his 22 July 1999 briefing to the Security Council, Benon Sevan, Executive Director of the Iraq Program, commented that some of the contractors, with whom Iraq made arrangements for supplies and commodities of one sort or another, have been sending low quality, and in some instances unfit, items to Iraq. How pervasive has been the problem of low-quality items going into Iraq, and has that severely hampered the effectiveness and impact of the Program?

von Sponeck: The stock reports that we issue show items that failed quality control tests. The circumstances in which Iraq finds itself — where it has to mix different criteria, the political issue of where it procures, the issue of cost, because it has limited resources — translates into realities where Iraq is getting into cahoots with fly-by-night outfits that produce inferior quality items. I know, for example, that about 6% of the medicines that have come in under Phases I-VI have failed quality control tests because they were of inferior standards. The figures for other sectors are lower. So it is an issue of concern for the Government, but I would not consider it an issue that explains the adequacy or inadequacy of the "Oil-for-Food" Program.

BRG: Then that 6% figure that you just cited is the high mark for all of the sectors.

von Sponeck: I have not seen a higher figure in other sectors. I remember (but don’t hold me totally responsible for this) that in the other sectors it hovered from 0% to 1% or 2%. But it was nothing that was so significant that one could use it to explain the performance of the sectors.

BRG: To what extent do the observations of your office, your former office, in Baghdad go into the Secretary-General’s reports?

von Sponeck: That’s an important question. I would say that we in Baghdad didn’t manage, we didn’t succeed, in our case, in our plea, to show the effect of the inadequacy and its full implications. What came out ultimately as official UN documents, in our opinion, did not adequately portray the inadequacy of the investment. We were worried about this, and we spoke out about this individually and increasingly with one voice. What we said was picked up by the Security Council. In the Security Council’s meeting on the 24th of March the French Representative to the UN pointed out that he wanted to see a lot more direct reporting from Baghdad. He wanted to see the Humanitarian Coordinator much more regularly in New York — this was a demand which had been made when I was in office — in order to provide the Security Council with an undiluted presentation of how we saw the reality.

I don’t want to now conjecture as to what extent this was done deliberately, or to what extent it was done simply for the sake of having a tighter, shorter document. But every time a report came out we were (and when I say "we" I mean the specialized agencies, mine included) not happy with what we saw. In fact, with regard to the review the review report that you referred to and that was presented to the Security Council on the 10th of March, there were letters of protest that were written by individual UN agencies to their headquarters saying that they could not go along with the final product. That is, I think, a warning to the Security Council that needs to be heeded. I think that the "Oil-for-Food" Program, the Office of the Iraq Program in New York, needs to give a much greater opportunity to the Baghdad operation to show how we see the reality on the ground.


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