News

26 October 1999



Press Briefing



BRIEFING BY HUMANITARIAN COORDINATOR IN IRAQ

19991026

Hans von Sponeck, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, told correspondents today at the United Nations noon briefing that the situation in Baghdad had improved. With the infusion of additional resources totalling between 3 and 4 billion dollars, the humanitarian programme had expanded. The Iraqi Government had been encouraged to increase the content of the food basket, he said, noting that this was an issue that had been of concern throughout the six phases of the Iraqi oil-for-food programme. His office had negotiated with the authorities under phase 6 for a small increase of 50 calories per day, bringing the daily allowance up to 2100 calories. In the process, they had learned from the Government that food stocks were available for 75 per cent of the population.

Mr. von Sponeck said the Government had been persuaded to use all available funds under phases 4, 5, and 6 of the programme for specially targeted nutrition programmes for pregnant and lactating mothers, children and vulnerable groups. There were no more resources available under those phases. The Government had also contracted with firms in Holland, Yemen and France for vitamin-reinforced biscuits and therapeutic milk. The Government should be encouraged to increase the caloric content of the food basket even further, he added.

As the humanitarian programmes developed, he said, it was ill-advised to look at each sector in isolation. A healthy individual needed more than just food and medicine but also required clean water and adequate sanitary facilities. Throughout the years, there had been complaints of unsatisfactory distribution of medicine. The press had followed that in detail; in February, there had been stories of overstocks of medicine.

His office, he said, had just published a report on available stock, showing, sector by sector, what had arrived, what had been distributed, what had been kept in stock and why. Certain portions of the stock must be kept in reserve for emergencies. Such a buffer stock comprised the major portion of the stock that was not distributed. Certain items were not distributed because they were unusable without complementary parts that were unavailable. For instance, a supply of IV fluids could not be distributed because there were no syringes.

He said it was important to take the humanitarian programme out of the mainstream of political discussion. Because the memorandum of understanding between the Iraqi Government and the United Nations placed an emphasis on food, there was not much left for such items as education. Now the Government could be encouraged to invest in education. The Government, which was currently spending 10 per cent of what had been spent on education before sanctions were imposed, had proposed a 100 per-cent increase for that budget item. If the new generation of Iraqis were to be well prepared, everyone must help the United Nations to persuade the Iraqi Government to maximize its investment in people, to make them good national citizens, good representatives of their region and good global citizens.

A correspondent asked how much of the programme satisfied the overall needs of the Iraqi people.

Mr. von Sponeck said the only good answer was that it was inadequate. It was next to impossible to give percentages. Prior to the imposition of sanctions, the per capita allocation for Iraq had been $3000. It was now


Von Sponeck Press Conference - 2 - 26 October 1999

$550, putting Iraq into the category of a least developed country. In the past, Iraq had invested in state-of-the-art equipment. That equipment was now a liability because it was too expensive to maintain.

In response to questions concerning the blocking of items that could be helpful to the Iraqi people, he said the whole picture had changed recently. The number of items being held back had increased in recent months, making it difficult to implement the humanitarian programme. Some items that could be used for humanitarian purposes had not been released. Complementary items that were on hold were particularly troublesome. The Secretary-General had written a strong letter of concern about that problem. He hoped that he and colleagues in Baghdad could do a better job of conveying to the Council the need to remove those items from hold status.

As often as not, he added, items were put on hold because of inadequate technical information. The Government must talk to its contractors and have them provide better information. The providers of the item and those who needed them must be very accurate in their descriptions. In one instance, he had tried to carve out drought relief items and encouraged Council members to take interest in removing them from hold. It had worked to some degree, but the Iraqi Government had not wanted sanctions to be relaxed only with regard to special items.

Asked if the situation were getting worse or better, he said there had been an increase in relative allocations for food and medicine, as the Council was careful to ensure that such needs were covered first.

As the Humanitarian Coordinator, he did not want to talk about sanctions, he said. He wanted to talk about deprivation. Of course, deprivation could be due to internal, as well as external reasons. He was not there to apportion blame but to encourage rethinking. After nine years, the population was at the brink of coping. His main concern, he said, was that Iraqi youth be prepared for the future.

Was there information that Iraq was exporting humanitarian goods out of the region? a correspondent asked.

Mr. von Sponeck said that if there were a large-scale export of food or humanitarian supplies, “we would know”. However, they might not know if such activity took place on a small scale. “We are living in a big world of misinformation”, he said. He challenged anyone to say that the items were not going where they belonged, more or less.

Replying to a question about the overall implementation of the programme, he said that items went where they were supposed to go, but that did not say much about impact. Eventually, the international community must be concerned about the limitations of a six-month programme. For successful institution-building, every nation needed to have a sense of ongoing planning and training.

Asked what would constitute a better alternative, if the United Nations were to do away with the present programme, he said he would separate the humanitarian discussion from the disarmament discussion. He would work on getting the two “de-linked”.

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