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Middle East 2007
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Comments on exchange of letters between
Hans von Sponeck/Dennis Halliday and
Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights

Richard Falk, TFF Associate


The relevant documents on which Richard Falk comments below are

Hans von Sponeck-Dennis Halliday letter to Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour's response to von Sponeck-Dennis Halliday


August 31, 2007

When distinguished international civil servants of the stature of Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday exhibit their urgent concern about the human rights situation in Iraq it underscores the existence of an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe of immense magnitude that has so far been fundamentally ignored by the United Nations System.

Both of these long-serving individuals impressively resigned their UN high-ranking posts as Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq during the late 1990s because they became appalled by the immense suffering that the UN-mandated sanctions programs was inflicting on Iraqi civilian society, and speak with particular authority about past and present conditions on the ground in Iraq.

It is thus especially distressing that the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Louise Arbour, should write such a bureaucratically dismissive letter in response to the von Sponeck/Halliday letter of carefully articulated substantive appeal. We can and should expect much more from someone who holds the highest appointment within the United Nations pertaining to human rights.

As has so often been pointed out, it is often impossible to carry out evil designs if the perpetrators unless these are backed up by the silence of the mainstream. With respect to Iraq the silence has been deafening ever since the Gulf War of 1991, throughout the entire course of thirteen years of punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq, a country already devastated by a UN war that had deliberately targeted the civilian infrastructure of the country, which for years badly obstructed access to safe water and needed electricity.

These sanctions, maintained under UN auspices and responsive to geopolitical pressures mounted by the United States Government, were flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, and were responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, mainly women and children. Madame Arbour completely ignores this part of the von Sponeck/Halliday letter when she should at the very least have offered either to request that the Secretary-General appoint a Special Representative to prepare a reflective report on the UN sanctions program in Iraq, 1990-2003.

Such reports have helped clear the air after UN failures in Rwanda (1994) and Srebrenica (1995), offering some slender hope that the UN is prepared to learn from past mistakes.

But even more disturbing, because it is ongoing, is Madame Arbour’s anodyne reassurances about the UN response to the dire circumstances that currently exist in Iraq.

Only a year ago the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the emerging norm of ‘a responsibility to protect’ as a sequel to the earlier diplomacy of so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ when it unanimously adopted Resolution 1674 on 28 April 2006. If ever there was a clear case for the application of this norm it is in relation to what is going on in Iraq, which is making the entire society an uninhabitable death chamber.

It is little short of shocking that a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights cares more about not ruffling geopolitical feathers than addressing as best her office is able the worst human rights crisis of the 21st century.

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At the very, very least a Special Representative should be immediately appointed by the UN Human Rights Council or High Commissioner to bear witness by collecting and formally presenting periodic accounts of the terrible spectacle of human rights abuse associated with the American-led occupation of Iraq now entering its fifth year. Even the Israeli occupation of Palestine, also much underreported, has at least had the benefit of high profile fact-finding missions and reports from a respect Speical Representative. Mary Robinson, while High Commissioner, herself led such a mission to occupied Palestine in 2000.

Since the UN System continues to play deaf and dumb, hopefully the entreaties of von Sponeck and Halliday, individuals of the highest credibility and purest motives, will engage the forces of civil society to look, listen, and act. Their letter also suggests the long overdue need for a serious reassessment of what we as world citizens can expect from the United Nations, as currently constituted and operating. Calls for global democracy are not empty slogans, but the necessary precondition for any meaningful fulfillment of what the United Nations promises to the peoples of the world.

The desperate situation in Iraq should at the very least awaken all of us to this challenge!   



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