UN failed to refute Saddam propaganda, former official says

David Rennie
The Daily Telegraph
June 12, 2004
Washington: During his years at the United Nations, monitoring sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf war, critics called Michael Soussan a baby killer. One said the oil-for-food program administered by the UN amounted to “overseeing genocide.”

To Mr. Soussan’s dismay, the most vocal critics worked alongside him at the UN. The genocide charge was levelled by an assistant secretary general in charge of humanitarian work in Iraq.

His colleagues blamed the Security Council – especially the United States and Britain – for the suffering of Iraqis, ignoring evidence that Saddam was stealing food from his own people’s mouths.

They could hardly ignore the wickedness of Saddam’s regime. Foreign UN staff could sense the terror in Iraqis they met, and saw for themselves the gilded excesses of the Ba’athist elite.

But somehow that wickedness was taken as a given, then promptly smothered in a warm soup of moral relativism.

“We have a notion of sovereignty at the UN that doesn’t distinguish between governments that deserve sovereignty and those that do not. And that really skews our moral compass,” Mr. Soussan said in an interview.

“[My colleagues] devoted most of their moral outrage towards the United States and the U.K.,” he said.

The oil-for-food program was the largest humanitarian project in UN history. Following the fall of Saddam, evidence has emerged indicating fraud and corruption on an equally historic scale.

Mr. Soussan, a co-ordinator for the program from 1997 until 2000, when he resigned, recently testified before a U.S. congressional panel investigating the scandal, one of several probes under way in Washington, New York and Baghdad.

Mr. Soussan, a Dane, found many senior UN staff did not believe in their own mission.

“To them, the containment of Saddam Hussein was not a priority. They saw things through a humanitarian lens: that some countries are dictatorships, well, so be it, and the Iraqi people deserve better than being treated this way.”

Divisions within the international community were visible, even in the UN canteen in Baghdad. The weapons inspectors of UNSCOM sat at one end, mocking humanitarian officials as “bunny-huggers.”

Oil-for-food workers sat at the other, denouncing UNSCOM staff as “cowboys.” Mr. Soussan recalled humanitarian colleagues wearing T-shirts, bearing the accusing slogan “UNSCUM.”

“It would have been funny if it wasn’t so tragic,” he said.

Mr. Soussan does not deny the pain caused by sanctions from the first Gulf war in 1991 to 1996, before oil-for-food sales began. A quarter of a million children died, by conservative estimates.

But during those five years, it was Saddam who refused offers to sell his oil and import humanitarian goods under UN supervision. “[He was] banking that images of dying babies would eventually force the international community to lift the sanctions altogether,” Mr. Soussan told Congress.

By 2000, there was no limit on the amount of oil Saddam was allowed to sell, and few limits on the civilian goods he was allowed to buy.

Iraq was only under sanctions “to the extent that they couldn’t import military goods,” said.

Yet still Saddam claimed sanctions were killing 5,000 infants a month, parading tiny coffins in the streets to ram the point home.

“The UN did not stand up to this propaganda. It cowered in the face of this notion that the sanctions were killing Iraqi babies,” Mr. Soussan said.

UN staff did not speak out when Saddam refused to buy high-protein foods recommended by UN experts, or spent oil-for-food millions on sports stadiums, or broadcasting equipment for his propaganda machine.

The UN turned a blind eye to signs that Saddam was bribing cronies at home and abroad with black market oil vouchers and was skimming billions from funds meant for food and medicine, demanding secret, 10% “kickbacks” on humanitarian contracts.

The UN recently claimed it “learned of the 10% kickback scheme only after the end of major combat operations” in 2003.

A lie, said Mr. Soussan, recalling the hapless Swedish company that called in 2000, seeking UN help after being asked to pay kickbacks.

The Swedes’ plea was quickly lost in red tape and inter-office turf wars. After a “Kafka-esque” flurry of internal memos, the Swedes were told to complain to their own government.

It did not help that, inside the Security Council, France, Russia and China openly opposed sanctions, threatening doom for any UN official tempted to blow the whistle on Saddam’s cheating.

“Most high-level UN employees need to be on good terms with key countries in the Security Council if they want to have a career.”

Now top UN officials are under investigation. Mr. Soussan hopes the shock will force a major debate on how to deal with rogue regimes.

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