Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 10th April 2002.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 5:50 pm, 10th April 2002

My Lords, the noble Baroness has placed Iraq firmly in the wider context of the Middle East and others have supported that. I am grateful for that. Iraq has an ancient history in its own right, an ancient civilisation. Its people are proud of their past achievements, although not of their present tyrannical rulers. If Iraq is to return to the family of nations we must look beyond its appalling regime to the young people who will shape the future of that community.

Iraq is a potentially rich country. Its people are well educated and have been used to a relatively high standard of living. It is a sad commentary, not only on Saddam Hussein, who our Government keep insisting is solely responsible, but on the architects of 10 years of sanctions that so many people now live in poverty, deprived of proper healthcare and sanitation. As someone who has never had to work in government, I reject all official excuses, including the one that Saddam is entirely to blame, which we hear frequently, when there is so much more that the United Nations could do to improve its own sanctions.

Even before the latest threats of war, there was a strong case for targeting sanctions more effectively. Now that Iraq has been declared part of the "axis of evil" and was again the ogre of the Texas summit, the necessity for proper safeguards for vulnerable groups is stronger than ever.

I have worked with several NGOs which are active in Iraq today and have consulted them as experts on the condition of ordinary Iraqis. Those NGOs should not be in Iraq at all; there are so many other priorities in much poorer countries. Yet Iraq, despite the benefits of oil, remains low in the human rights index. For example, a household survey carried out by Save the Children Fund last year in northern Iraq showed that three in five families have to live on only 6 US dollars per week over and above the standard food ration, and one in five have only 3 US dollars per week on which to live; that is for a whole family. Figures for Baghdad and Basra are hard to come by but it is well known that poverty and malnutrition are much more severe in the centre and south of Iraq in the Shiite areas. Despite UN Security Council Resolution 986, which was supposed to relax sanctions, Iraq's mortality and morbidity rates are still among the worst in the world.

Since the Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions there has been a steady deterioration, not only in the standard of living of the poorest, but in the quality of healthcare, water, sanitation and other vital services. At the same time, sanctions and financial restrictions have stifled the economy and private enterprise so that there are few means for families to generate wealth for themselves. Salaries cannot be paid on time or in full, with resulting unemployment and family hardship adding to existing shortages.

Last week I spoke to a charity coping directly with shortages of equipment in Iraqi children's hospitals, which said that it can still take months to obtain spare parts and even as long as two years if any components are manufactured in the United States. Staff cannot even replace light bulbs or carry out routine repairs because of the accumulated effect of sanctions on hospital administration. On top of that is the recent sudden increase in cancer among children in the south, which is said to be linked to depleted uranium fragments from the Gulf War. It is hard to get medicines for that cancer because of their short shelf life. The director told me:

"It is really heartbreaking to see birth defects arising from this condition and the sickness these children have to endure".

The extended oil-for-food programme has so far averted a humanitarian crisis, but it has not altered the parlous state of Iraqi institutions and services or the underlying economic crisis. Those in the West who have felt complacent about containing Saddam Hussein in the past 10 years have conveniently ignored the plight of the Iraqi people. They have decided to overlook the effects of this policy of containment on vulnerable groups and its failure to have a marked impact on the ruling elite. Even the so-called smart sanctions mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, proposed under Security Council Resolution 1284, are evidently not yet designed to target the elite. Can the Minister explain how the goods review list will help the poorest among the Iraqi population, for example? Can she confirm that this Government will continue to consult the NGOs, such as the Save the Children Fund, about the most effective forms of embargo and ways of designing sanctions to protect the poorest?

The NGOs are becoming impatient with a UN system which cannot deliver either on material goods or on its own resolutions and promises of support. That problem is familiar to students of the West Bank and Gaza today and, indeed, of much of the Middle East. It cannot be blamed on the failure of the UN. It is clear that a few powerful countries, for their own political reasons, have the ability to control the express will of the entire family of nations.

The UK is one of those countries, although, as the noble and gallant Lord hinted, in the context of anti-terrorism it is a follower rather than a principal. What began as a legitimate campaign against terrorism could now become another dangerous western crusade, with all the racism which that implies. Despite our historic responsibilities, despite the efforts of individuals in our foreign service, this Government have been unable to show any independence of the United States or, indeed, to reflect any European or international view. Instead, we have been a willing accomplice of a deliberate strategy of cherry picking, divide and rule and outright aggression in the Middle East.

This week we remembered the Holocaust, the Dir Yassin massacre of Palestinians and the genocide in Rwanda—three occasions when the world was apparently powerless to act. The past few days, while we have been a nation in mourning, have also seen the most brutal onslaught so far on the West Bank, and we have done nothing about it. We have hardly made a Statement about it until today. Who would have thought a month ago that Palestinians could be so humiliated and terrorised as they have been in Jenin and Nablus; that the holiest shrine in Bethlehem could be under siege; and still the great powers seem unable to stop their friend, the tiny state of Israel? Which is the tin pot nation: the little bully that does the damage or the cowardly one which lets it happen? Where are the rules of engagement? We have gone way beyond the Good Samaritan when ambulances are being attacked, Red Cross and Red Crescent workers are denied access to the dead, and peace monitors become legitimate targets.

I am talking about something happening in Israel, our old military ally and trading partner. This is not defence against suicide attacks. Who can any longer dare to make that comparison? It is a brutal occupation, which the "civilised" world watches on television and allows to happen.

I hope that General Sharon tunes into the wisdom of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, tonight. How can the Arab world, let alone the Palestinian people, ever forget the unholy alliance which is conspiring ostensibly against terrorism but in fact against the survival and credibility of an oppressed people whose land and future we have guaranteed? What have we to say about American hypocrisy in the past few days? Colin Powell says that he does not even think he can get a ceasefire. How much time does Israel need before it believes that the spirit of Palestinians is crushed and the prospect of a peaceful settlement is gone for ever?

Leaving aside Iraq, which I know is the subject today, and which is making its own capital out of this, how can any government any longer justify standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States over a campaign against terror when we condone and tacitly support the same terror among our own allies, the people who we say uphold the same standards of democracy and decency?