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A. Stephen Byers, the Sectretary of State for Trade and Industry, will be online on the Guardian's web-site tomorrow, Tues 5 June, at 3pm. The Sanctions Unit is housed at the DTI. You can email your sanctions questions for him to: firstname.lastname@example.org [My question: In September 1999 you were quoted in the Guardian as saying: "I don't see why poor people should suffer because of the attitude of their government." (Byers in Jakarta aid row, 15 September '99). Is this your belief and, if so, how do you reconcile this with the fact that your department is responsible for adminstering a regime of economic sanctions on on Iraq that Save the Children Fund UK has called 'a silent war against Iraq's children' (July 2000) and which has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi under-fives? ] B. The following piece appeared on the Guardian's web-site today (but not, as far as I can determine, in today's paper): Stopping sanctions from smarting America's new proposals for sanctions against Iraq may not look too smart, but they deserve to be given a chance, says Brian Whitaker Brian Whitaker Guardian Unlimited Monday June 4, 2001 Shortly before taking office as US secretary of state, Colin Powell announced that he would work with America's allies to "re-energise" sanctions against Iraq. Allies winced and others greeted the idea with scepticism or even ridicule: didn't he understand that sanctions were on the verge of collapse? But six months on, Powell seems to be succeeding. Last Friday the UN security council unanimously accepted the key principles of 'smart' sanctions: to lift the restrictions on imports of civilian goods to Iraq, while tightening controls on military items and cracking down on oil smuggling. Whether you regard the new sanctions plan as smart (as Colin Powell does), stupid (as Saddam Hussein does), or merely an example of the international community learning from its mistakes, there is no denying the significance of last week's decision. An international consensus on Iraq is emerging once again. In steering the proposals through the security council, Britain and the United States had to pay a price for unanimity - but it was a relatively small one. Instead of implementing the new sanctions regime today, as originally planned, there will be a delay of one month for discussion of the details, though not the principles. Saddam Hussein has responded by announcing that all Iraqi oil exports under the oil-for-food programme will cease as from today. This is unlikely to cause panic in the world oil markets - Iraq played the same card last December with negligible effect and Saudi Arabia has already said that it will make up any shortfall. But Iraq's protest has placed it in the odd position of objecting to measures which appear to offer significant benefits to the Iraqi people. The United States, meanwhile, celebrated its success in the security council by announcing that it would immediately release $800m (£564m) worth of contracts under the oil-for-food programme which are currently on hold. Although apparently intended as a goodwill gesture, this cast further doubt on the rationale for the hold-ups in the first place. Security council discussions over the next month will focus on two main issues: the implementation of border controls and the list of 'controlled' goods which have, or might have, military uses. The list of controlled items is still confidential, though last week a reader helpfully sent me a copy of the draft. Defining items that could have military uses is a highly technical business, and the British-American list attempts to simplify this by building upon what has already been agreed. The list is in three sections. The first section consists of items covered by the 1996 security council resolution 1051. (The resolution 1051 list is itself a bit of a moving target, as it is currently being updated, but we'll let that pass.) The second is of munitions and dual-use goods listed under the Wassenaar arrangement. The advantage of this list is that it is accepted by 33 countries, including the two most sceptical permanent members of the security council - Russia and France. The third section is new, runs to 22 pages and is virtually incomprehensible to anyone who lacks cutting edge knowledge in several branches of science. For instance, it includes ball bearings designed for operating temperatures above 300C and operating system software "specifically designed for real time processing equipment that guarantees a global interrupt latency time of less than 20 microseconds". It is scarcely surprising that the Russians and French felt they needed more explanation. The real issue, though, is not the final composition of the list, but how well the system will work in practice. Will it lead to hold-ups on essential goods, as has happened in the past? The intention is that it should not, because the aim of the new sanctions regime is to maintain a consensus of international support. Any unnecessary or unreasonable obstructions will weaken that support. They may still occur unless the bureaucracy that processes the applications is improved. The other matter to be discussed during the next month is the new arrangements for border controls around Iraq. Again, the real issue is the manner of their application. If inspectors decide to search every package in case it contains a ball bearing designed to operate in temperatures above 300C, there will be endless delays in letting imports through and the new sanctions regime will become discredited. The consensual approach of the British-American proposal suggests this is not the intention. But adopting a reasonable line on border controls does mean taking a calculated risk that some military or potentially military items will slip through. That, however, might not be disastrous because there are other safeguards, such as intelligence-gathering among the potential suppliers of specialist equipment. Another is that Saddam Hussein has been made well aware that there will be military consequences if he is found to be rebuilding weapons of mass destruction. For the new sanctions policy to be considered a success, it will have to meet two requirements. The first is that it must maintain an international consensus - which essentially means it cannot create effects that will stir up controversy outside Iraq. The second is that it must maintain or increase pressure on the Baghdad regime while avoiding - or minimising - hardship to the Iraqi people and thereby causing more international controversy. It doesn't look easy, but it deserves to be given a chance. 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