"Sanctions must not punish the wrong people"

Hans-Christof von Sponeck at the seminar “Accountability and Justice for Iraq” held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on March 14, 2013

The aim of international sanctions is to de-escalate and solve conflicts, but there must be no hidden agendas, says Hans-Christof von Sponeck, former head of the United Nations Oil for Food programme in Iraq.

This content was published on March 27, 2013 - 11:00
Mohamed Cherif,

The German humanitarian aid expert stepped down from his post in 2000 in protest against UN sanctions. He said he did not want to be “an accomplice”.

In an interview with, he talks about the international embargo on Iran, the uprising in North Africa and the Arab peninsula as well as the crisis in Syria. What do you think about the UN sanctions regime against Iraq between 1990 and 2003?

Hans-Christof von Sponeck: During the 13-year sanction regime the UN supported and promoted an utterly insufficient survival programme for Iraq. All the UN could get into Iraq in the first five years consisted of voluntary contributions by the international community. There was no strategy by the Security Council to make sure that the innocent population was protected.

It was only in 1995 that the Oil for Food programme was started, which guaranteed a minimum – at least on paper. In reality it took even longer to enforce it.

The result was that only $28 billion (CHF26.3 billion) worth of humanitarian aid could be distributed to an estimated 23 million people. That is the amount of money the United States military spent in two-and-a-half months for its campaign in 2005. Were the sanctions justified? And did they achieve the goals set by the UN?

H.-C. v S.: Sanctions are part of a set of international tools to solve conflicts. It is a prerequisite that these sanctions be used in good faith to ensure that they do not punish the wrong people.

The Iraq sanctions were the exact opposite. The main victims were innocent people in Iraq, while the dictatorial rulers in Baghdad were left out. What began as a perfectly legitimate and acceptable policy under international law didn’t work in the end.

You cannot invade a neighbouring country and believe you’ll get away unpunished. The Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein had to reckon with the consequences of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. But the sanctions got out of hand and there was no protection for the population. You were a high-ranking UN official at the time and decided to step down. What were the reasons?

H.-C. v S.: When something has become illegal and you cannot do anything against it, you have to act. This was my motivation.

Heading the UN operations from Baghdad, I found that it was impossible to convince the Security Council – the US and the British in particular – that they had taken the wrong approach. It was a cruel way of punishing innocent people. I would have become an accomplice had I stuck with it. I told UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in February 2000 that I was quitting. It seems easy enough to understand why the US and British did not agree with you. How did Annan and your colleagues react?

H.-C. v S.: Kofi Annan has always been very understanding and tried to make the sanctions regime more humane. But he was just one of the many decision-makers. The leading figures were US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, later George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

Kofi Annan did his best to provide better conditions for the Iraqi population, but he succeeded only to a small degree. What price did the UN pay for its sanctions policy?

H.-C. v S.: I think the UN was very much weakened as a result of its policy on Iraq. It may have been a turning point as the UN became increasingly paralysed. And then came the Arab Spring and the implementation of the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle in Libya.

Similar to the situation with Iraq at the time, we could witness in Libya how a resolution was misinterpreted. All the actions were in the national interest and not in the interest of a multi-national institution.

As a result, the distrust among the permanent Security Council members deepened further and good concepts such as the ‘responsibility to protect’ initiative were no longer considered realistic options.

Hans-Christof von Sponeck

Hans-Christof Graf von Sponeck was born in Bremen, Germany, in 1939.

He served the United Nations for more than 30 years. From 1998 to 2000 he was the humanitarian coordinator of the United Nations and headed the “Oil for food” programme in Iraq.

Besides contributing to newspapers and books, he authored the 2003 book Irak – Chronik eines gewollten Krieges (Iraq: Chronicle of a deliberate war) with Geneva journalist Andreas Zumach and the 2005 book Ein Anderer Krieg: Das Sanktionsregime der UNO im Irak (published in 2006 as A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq).

He is president of the Geneva International Centre for Justice and is a member of the World Future Council.

End of insertion Do you still believe in the effectiveness of UN sanctions, or does everything have to be re-defined?

H.-C. v S.: If the sanctions are intelligent and focused, I wouldn’t say they should be completely left out in international crisis situations. This is on the condition, however, that there are no hidden agendas and that national interests do not play a role. The sole motive has to be de-escalation and resolution of a conflict. 

If the sanctions are part of a broader strategy, that is acceptable. But that’s unfortunately not how it is at the moment. In Iran, for example, where there is a so-called targeted sanction, the use of sanctions is being abused. It’s not possible to target the financial sector without having an effect on other sectors as well. Today it’s obvious that the Iranian people are worse and worse off.

The effects of this targeted sanction policy in Iran are perhaps more serious than was the case in Iraq because – in comparison to the Oil for Food programme – no humanitarian programme exists there. You have left the UN. What do you use your energy for nowadays?

H.-C. v S.: I think the world has become weary and no longer wants to accept the insincerity of today’s politics. With my energy and my conviction I want to achieve something. We want to fight fairly. The best basis are the facts we have at our disposal. From this perspective we can carry on, not as naive, utopian extremists but as normal citizens who ask for no more and no less than the international implementation of what is in the UN charter. Are the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements answers to this unease?

H.-C. v S.: We have the social forum that began in Brazil. We have Wall Street and the Arab Spring – in which major difficulties have emerged – which are, however, broadly influenced by international politics.

One of the major demands for the moment must be that these countries which are going through difficult processes of development be left alone and given the chance to make decisions for themselves. We should not continually apply external pressure to try to influence them based on our own interests. If the interference were to be exerted in terms of a peaceful world community, I would be in favour of it, but that is certainly not the case.

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