The Peter Hains beware...

4 January 2001

While his more senior colleagues in Whitehall and Washington understandably fall silent on the mounting deaths in Iraq, the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain has become a strangely aggressive voice in promoting the failed and lethal embargo.

Ambitious apostates are like that. For Hain, the folly is that he risks being remembered not for his honourable anti-apartheid activities, but for the dishonourable part he has played in the suffering of large numbers of Iraqi civilians, including, says Unicef, the deaths of half a million children. This is not polemic, as Hain has complained, but fact.

This is a minister who admitted he "placed on hold" a purely humanitarian flight to Iraq. It is the lies that have shocked Hain's old admirers. Moreover, each falsehood written by the Foreign Office, he repeats long after it has been publicly exposed. For example, in a letter circulating to MPs, he claims the RAF's current bombing of Iraq is "entirely lawful". I took the trouble to ask Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was secretary general of the UN when the US and Britain set up the so-called "no-fly zones" in which they dictate who can fly. "The Security Council never approved or anyway ratified these zones," he said. Does that make them illegal? I asked."Yes," he replied.

In the same letter, Hain claims there is "no credible research data" linking the use of depleted uranium, used by Britain and the US in Iraq, with a sevenfold increase in cancer among the civilian population. Since 1943,when the atomic bomb was being developed, it has been documented in abundance that depleted uranium destroys lung tissue and leads to cancer.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority quotes a theoretical "500,000 potential deaths" in the region if only a fraction of depleted uranium dust is inhaled. On 7 November, Hain addressed the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Hans von Sponeck, the former United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, the top official responsible for administering Security Council decisions in Baghdad, has studied this and other statements by Hain and written him an open letter. After 34 years with the UN, von Sponeck, like his predecessor Denis Halliday, resigned in protest against the "barbaric punishment" of Iraqi civilians by sanctions. He describes Hain's speech as "contaminating information" that contains "a large number of points which are either misleading the public or are outright false or constitute half-truths or serious distortions of the actual situation in Iraq". Here are a few:

Hain: "Our air crews risk their lives above southern Iraq."

Von Sponeck: "The public does not know that you do this without a mandate by the UN Security Council. It angered your office that I introduced air-strike reporting for 1999 while serving in Iraq. The public does not know that 144 civilians died and 446 were wounded by UK/US air forces."

Hain: "Our sailors are involved in activities to curb the illegal export of Iraqi oil."

Von Sponeck: "Here you are silent about the UK-condoned export of illegal oil from Iraq into Turkey. US/UK approval of this illegal export of oil is in exchange for Turkish government agreement to the use of Incirlik airbase in south-eastern Anatolia for allied sorties into Iraq."

Hain: "UN resolution 1284 [continuing sanctions] represents the collective will of the Security Council and has the full force of international law."

Von Sponeck: "You know how deceptive this assertion is. Three out of five permanent members and Malaysia did not support this resolution."

Hain: "Resolution 1284 removed the ceiling on the amount of oil Iraq is allowed to export."

Von Sponeck: "This is a political ploy. Your government knows well from annual UN reports that Iraq cannot pump more oil unless the Security Council allows a complete overhaul of the oil industry. You mention 'recent increases in production'. Why do you do this when you know that the Iraqi oil output has not increased at all?" (Iraq needs increased oil production merely to fund the UN humanitarian programme.)

Hain: "With [oil revenue] available, one cannot help but ask why we still see pictures of malnourished and sick children?"

Von Sponeck: "This tendentious statement [ignores] the blocking of contracts by the US/UK which has created immense problems in implementing a humanitarian programme. The present volume of blocked items amounts to $2.2bn, the highest ever!"

Hain: "It is an outrage that the Iraqi government wilfully denies food and medicines."

Von Sponeck: "Knowing what you know, you repeat again and again truly fabricated and self-serving disinformation. Why do you ignore UN stock reports which show a fully satisfactory distribution picture for food and medicines verified by UN observers?"

Von Sponeck says that Hain's repeated claims that Iraq is again developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have been denied by both the former UN chief weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, and the current head of the inspections agency, Hans Blix. When asked recently if Iraq was trying to rearm, Blix said: "No . . . we have nothing to substantiate this."

When the proposed international court judging crimes against humanity is finally set up, there may be surprises. Many human rights lawyers now believe that western politicians who condone and incite great suffering are accessories and bear secondary responsibility. The Hains beware.