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4 March 1999
Press information: Response to George Robertson's Comments about Iraq on 4th March
On Thursday, 4 March 1999, the Defence Secretary George Robertson sought on Radio 4's Today Programme to blame the Government of Iraq alone for the suffering of the Iraqi people, by pointing to reports that half the medicine imported into Iraq under the oil-for-food deal remains in government warehouses. This attribution of blame is only in part accurate, and the following information may be worth reading before Mr Robertson's claims are repeated as fact:
The claim that $275 million worth of medicine remains in the warehouses of Kimadia, the state-owned drug company, is made in the most recent 90-day report of Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General (see references below). However, the Secretary-General's stated reasons for this accumulation do not always tally with Mr Robertson's claims. In particular, Annan details how there is a lack of transport for moving the medical supplies to health centres, and there is a severe shortage of equipment for loading and unloading supplies. These items, together with spare parts for existing machinery, are banned from import under the sanctions regime, and are not part of oil-for-food. For example, the Secretary-General describes the problems Iraq faces in dealing with the sanitation equipment bought under the oil-for-food scheme:
For this reason, the Secretary-General stresses that it is 'important for the Security Council Committee to acknowledge that a humanitarian programme of such magnitude requires a commensurate level of transport, communications and material-handling equipment and to be ready to act favourably on requests for essential logistic support.' (para.106). At present, the UK government shows no sign of taking up the Secretary-General's important recommendation.
This point is borne out in reports by heads of UN programmes in Iraq. Benon V. Sevan, Executive Director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme, in his statement to the Security Council on 25 February 1999, noted that: 'Any humanitarian programme, on whatever scale and regardless of whether comprised of emergency or rehabilitation projects, necessarily requires supporting services. These range from basic transport and logistics to the design and execution of a particular project. Each aspect requires adequate planning, staffing and finance. Regrettably few of these essential prerequisites have been made available in an efficient and timely manner and as resolution 986 (1995) concentrates overwhelmingly on the provision of imported commodities, it has not been able to guarantee the optimum utilisation of goods supplied under the programme. I welcome the 661 Committee's recognition that major engineering projects in the oil and electricity sectors require the funding of service arrangements. This is a realistic response to a very grave situation and the unavailability, locally, of all necessary technical expertise and resources. However, many smaller projects and activities seeking to utilise supplies delivered under the programme also require similar assistance. A greater measure of flexibility by all concerned would be welcome and the Panel on Humanitarian Issues may wish to review the issues involved.'
Furthermore, Dr. Habib Rejeb, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Baghdad, stated, in November 1998, that: 'There is no handling equipment, so storage space is reduced. There are no forklifts, no refrigeration trucks to distribute to the governorates, and the governorates don't have cash to pick up the medicines. The governorates are informed to come and pick up medicines on a certain date of the month and they don't come because they don't have transport. And this filters down: The health centers can't come to the centers in the governorates to pick up the medicines. They have to distribute a large quantity of drugs and they don't have computers.'
Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 6 of Security Council Resolution 1210 (1998). S/1999/187. 22 February 1999
Introductory statement by Benon V. Sevan, Executive Director of the Iraq Programme, at the informal consultations of the Security Council, on 25 February 1999
Habib Rejeb, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Baghdad, interview with Bert Sacks, November 1998
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