Radicalized by U.S. disregard for Iraqi people

By Robert Jensen

Published in Baltimore Sun · August, 2000

DENIS HALLIDAY spent 34 years in the bureaucracy of the United Nations, rising to assistant secretary general as he ran development programs around the world and managed the human resources office.

Halliday’s work gave him a behind-the-scenes look at the realities of world politics and the hidden agendas of the world powers. It’s the kind of work that usually produces insiders — not radicals. But seeing U.S. policy up close in Iraq changed that for Halliday.

In September 1997, he took over as humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, where he saw first-hand the results of a policy he now calls genocidal. The economic embargo, which is technically imposed by the United Nations but remains in place because the United States demands it, has killed at least 1 million innocent Iraqis, at least half younger than 5, according to U.N. studies.

Halliday’s resignation-in-protest in October 1998 pushed him into public view, where for two years he has talked in increasingly more radical terms, going so far as to say that the past two U.S. presidents are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq.

I met Halliday a few months after he resigned, when he landed in Austin, Texas, on a national speaking tour. He wasn’t hard to spot as he got off the plane; he looked, well, so diplomatic — dressed similar to the businessmen getting off with him.

Halliday’s message on that trip was clear — lifting the sanctions to stop the death of innocents was a moral imperative — but his rhetoric was cool, not inflammatory. His criticisms of U.S. policy were sharp, but expressed in measured, even polite, terms.

For two years, I have kept an eye on Halliday’s activities, reading numerous interviews and speeches he has given while traveling the world to speak out against the sanctions. As time passed — as more and more Iraqi children died from malnutrition and disease — I noticed Halliday’s criticism becoming sharper-edged.

Had this diplomat and bureaucrat turned into a radical?

Noting that the Financial Times had labeled him a “Quaker militant,” Halliday said he had no problem being called a nonviolent radical.

“Yes, I am a radical on this genocidal embargo,” he told me. “I have been radicalized by the policies of the USA.”

Although Halliday is one of the most public people in the anti-sanctions movement, his experience mirrors that of many I’ve talked to. Americans who want to believe that their government takes seriously the ideals of peace and justice have had to face a painful reality: U.S. officials are willing to kill children and other innocent people, especially nonwhites in the Third World, to protect and extend U.S. power. That fact has turned many mainstream folks into radicals.

Last Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the sanctions, which were imposed after the illegal Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. At the time, many in the peace movement supported temporary sanctions to force Iraq to withdraw, hoping to avoid the bloody war that eventually did take place at the behest of President George Bush.

Now, an international movement is working to lift the embargo so that Iraq can begin rebuilding a society devastated by the destruction of the Persian Gulf war, the strangulation of the sanctions, and the ongoing (and quite illegal) U.S./British bombing campaign in the so-called “no-fly zones.”

U.S. officials say the sanctions are necessary to keep Iraq from rebuilding weapons of mass destruction, though they also talk of using the sanctions to force the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

From the beginning of his activism, Halliday has made it clear that even if the sanctions had the effect of blocking Iraqi weapons plans, it is unacceptable to knowingly let innocents die to accomplish that.

He also has always pointed out that instead of helping the Iraqi people bring about a democratic government, the sanctions have strengthened Hussein’s control over the country and left the Iraqi people isolated and alienated.

His assessment of the policies and the leaders of the United States and Britain has grown more blunt over time. In an interview last month with an Egyptian newspaper, Halliday said genocide was the appropriate term for “an intentional program to destroy a culture, a people, a country.”

“The United States and the United Kingdom in particular have continued the economic embargo despite their knowledge of the death rate of Iraqi children,” he said. “That is genocide.”

In the interview, Halliday criticized what he called the U.S. corruption of the U.N. Security Council, suggesting that U.S. leaders are imposing neocolonialism “to dominate the Arab world in order to control the supply of oil, and destroy and suppress perhaps the strongest country within the Arab world, which in 1990 dared to challenge the West.”

Halliday is no supporter of Hussein, nor does he apologize for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. But he said Hussein’s “grave mistake” provided an opening to crush the Iraqi people, which Bush seized.

In the course of the gulf war, the U.S. officials “broke international law and the Geneva Conventions. They deliberately targeted the civilian infrastructure — committing crimes against humanity,” Halliday said.

Desert Fox, the December 1998 bombing of Iraq that President Clinton ordered without U.N. Security Council approval, was also a crime, according to Halliday. So, should Clinton face a trial?

Absolutely, Halliday said. “There was no justification for this, no U.N. resolution. It is a breach of international law. It is outrageous, and it is, of course, a crime against humanity.”

Halliday also has been blunt in analyzing U.S. motivations: “To control the financial and oil resources of the Arab world in order to provide opportunities to sell American weapons and the American Army.”

“The Americans have got what they wanted,” he said. “Who cares about 6,000 to 7,000 people dying every month?”

Halliday cares, which is why he resigned rather than stage-manage a humanitarian program that was by design inadequate to meet the needs of Iraqis.

After he realized how Washington was playing the game, he concluded that it was futile to continue working for the United Nations. He left the job, and his U.N. career, to be free to speak out. “There was no way I was going to be associated with this program and manage this ghastly thing in Iraq,” he said.

In the past year Halliday’s successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest, as did the director of the World Food Program in Iraq, Jutta Burghardt. Slowly, the anti-sanctions movement has gained strength. Last Sunday, about 1,000 activists protested in Washington, marking the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 55 years ago and 10 years of sanctions against Iraq.

The anti-sanctions movement is made up of a wide variety of people, from religious pacifists to left/progressive activists. While Halliday does not have the stereotypical appearance of a radical, he’s not afraid to be called one. A friend in the movement describes him as “our guy with banker’s shoes.”