Press Briefing


Originally envisioned as a temporary arrangement, but now entering its sixth year, the “oil-for-food” programme in Iraq was beginning to show signs of ageing, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the Office of the Iraq Programme, Tun Myat, told correspondents this afternoon.

Speaking as a guest at today’s noon briefing, he said that common Iraqis showed great resilience in the face of the problems and concerns they encountered in their everyday lives.  There was no question that as a result of the programme’s activities, the overall situation of an average Iraqi had improved.  That was hardly surprising, considering its input over the period of five years since its inception, which amounted to over $16 billion in goods.  Many problems remained, however, and much still needed to be done.

Yesterday, the Security Council had passed its resolution 1382, which, subject to agreement from the Government of Iraq, would bring in phase 11 of the humanitarian programme.  When it started, the Programme had been designed as a limited exercise for food and medicine.  Now, very large amounts of money were involved, although the funds available for the programme had dipped in 2001 compared with previous years.  The Programme had expanded, now covering such sectors as electricity, water, sanitation, housing, education, agriculture and nutrition.

Among the major problems that remained, despite the efforts to address the situation in the country, was the amount of holds on goods in various sectors, which amounted to over $4 billion at last count, he continued.  To encourage the Sanctions Committee to release those holds, the programme had been trying to provide as much credible information as possible.  In the north of the country, United Nations agencies were responsible for the implementation of the programme in their respective sectors, continuing also to deal with the “administrative problems of a constant nature” which included the issue of obtaining the required number of visas.

As for the programme’s relations with the Government of Iraq, he said that it was “a mixed bag”.  One example of successful collaboration was a project for the reconnection of the northern governorates of Iraq to the national electric grid.  Following its presentation by Mr. Myat to the “661 Committee”  [The Security Council Committee established by resolution 661 (1990) concerning the situation between Iraq and Kuwait], the project had been approved in principle.  Only one minor aspect of the problem still needed to be confirmed by the Mission.   All the parties concerned, including the Government and the local authorities, had participated in that project.   In certain other areas, the programme “could have done a lot better”.

Asked in what way the programme was showing its age, Mr. Myat said that it had been designed as a short-term programme to provide the population of Iraq with food and medicine.  Now, it was dealing with numerous other aspects of the situation in that country, particularly in the North.  It was encountering problems which had not been anticipated at the programme’s inception.  Among those problems were issues of ownership and emoluments, which would be presented to the “661 Committee” early next year.

To a question about the problem of ownership, he added that over the years the programme had rehabilitated some factories and built hospitals, power plants and so on.  Now, the question of their ownership had become an issue, because United Nations programmes had implemented those projects on behalf of the Government of Iraq.  Until the matter was resolved, the ownership of those facilities rested with the programme.

In removing the holds, what sectors represented a priority? a correspondent asked.

Mr. Myat replied that all sectors were important.  However, now that adequate food and medical supplies were being provided for the country, fresh water and sanitation, closely followed by electric power, were among the priorities.  There were also many needs in the area of agriculture.

About the situation of children in Iraq, he said that when answering the question on priorities, he had, in fact, been thinking about the children.  It was not the lack of food or medicine that was killing the children.  Many deaths could be attributed to the lack of clean water and poor sanitary conditions.

Asked about the benefits of the programme for the population of Iraq, he answered that notwithstanding various difficulties, the life of an average inhabitant of the country had definitely improved.  There was improvement in a number of areas, including the provision of food and medicine.  There was also “a construction boom” in the housing sector.  He did not mean to say that the lot of the people was devoid of suffering.  No matter how much was brought in, Iraq still did not have a functioning economy, without which it was not realistic to significantly improve the situation there.

Responding to a question about the programme’s cooperation with the Government of Iraq, he said that while there was good collaboration on a number of issues, serious problems remained.  In particular, it was difficult for the programme’s staff to obtain visas and permits needed for their work.  It was necessary to find ways and means of satisfying the Government’s concerns and misgivings, at the same time making sure that the mandate entrusted to the programme by the United Nations was met.

A correspondent wondered if the problems encountered by the population in many parts of the country were due to the misuse of funds, their insufficiency, or the reluctance of the Council to “open funds to Iraq”.  Mr. Myat replied that when talking about improvements, he had been referring to the situation after December 1996, when the “oil-for-food” programme had started.  He was not trying to compare the current situation in the country to what had preceded the sanctions.  Iraq had a long way to go to reach the level of 1990.  The country had been under sanctions for 11 years, for six and a half of which there had been no possibility to export oil.

Now, monthly rations of food were available to the population throughout the country.  The same applied to medications.  While the level of health care was better in some areas than in others, he could not attribute it to any “diversion” of funds.  As for the level of resources, since resolution 1284 there were no restrictions on the amount of oil Iraq could export.  In fact, the totality of oil

exported under the programme went into the country’s account.  After mandatory deductions for compensation and administrative costs, 72 per cent of all oil sales under the programme went towards humanitarian needs.  The Government of Iraq had a lot of leeway to decide which sectors received more money.

To a follow-up question, he replied that all applications for purchases had to go through the Sanctions Committee.  Asked to comment on the fact that the Government of Iraq continued to maintain that a large number of children were dying because of the lack of food and medication, Mr. Myat said that it was true that some people suffered more than others.  The point he was making, however, was that at least every man, woman and child got the food that they required.  Of course, it was debatable whether the food basket was adequate.  It did not include meats, vegetables, or fruits.  As for medicines, adequate amounts of generic drugs were being provided to the population.  In certain cases, drugs on the so-called “green list” could be imported fairly easily.  However, such substances as laboratory reagents and some vaccines were sometimes held up, because they could be used for dual purposes.  There were occasional shortages as a result of that.

Regarding the extension of the “oil-for-food” programme and the introduction of the “goods review list’ by the Council yesterday, he said that the Ambassador of Iraq was still awaiting a response from his Government.  He hoped that Iraq would have the wisdom to make the right choices in this case.  Good will and trust were of utmost importance.  Unfortunately, those two elements were “not very apparent” in the implementation of the programme.  If implemented correctly, the list would have a positive effect on the lifting of holds on the $4 billion worth of goods.  The list would only come into effect on 30 May 2002, and he hoped that it would be a positive development.

To a question about what the Iraqi Government could do to alleviate the suffering of the people, he said that the programme’s observers were monitoring its implementation.  He could say quite unequivocally that all the food that every individual in the country was supposed to get was being distributed.  He had not seen any attempts to divert that food anywhere else.  The same was true for medicine.  Both the programme and the Government had quite “a tall order” to fill, however.  The sheer extent of needs in the country indicated that despite all the revenues, much remained to be done to rehabilitate the infrastructure.  The task was simply enormous, and it would take a long time to meet all its needs.

If applied, would “smart sanctions” alleviate the problems? a correspondent asked.  Mr. Myat said that he was no longer talking about “smart sanctions”.  It was important to recognize the distinction between yesterday’s decision and the previous discussions.  Now, a review list had been introduced, to which he had been referring in his answers.  As the list of goods that could not be imported had now been predetermined, by exclusion, anything that was not on that list could be imported with greater ease.  In a way, that would be an improvement on the current situation.

About the cash flow, he said that despite the efforts to address it, it had always been a major problem in implementation of the programme.  There still seemed to be significant gaps between the Government of Iraq and the Security Council in that respect.  The Secretary-General had recently presented a report on

the oil sector, which was being considered by the Sanctions Committee.  Certain questions were being asked, which would go back to Iraq for further examination.

To a question about the State-owned industry in Iraq, Mr. Myat replied that it was important to give credit to the ingenuity of Iraqi engineers in the oil industry who had been able to maintain the production level.  Over the last couple of years, the Council had approved several increases in funds for the purchase of spare parts and equipment for the oil industry, which now amounted to some

$600 million for every phase.  Notwithstanding that, the condition of the oil fields and installations left much to be desired.  Literally operating on a shoestring, they would not meet Western safety standards.

Asked about the reasons for the water and sanitation problems, he said that many of those facilities had been damaged and never repaired.  In some areas, the situation was “quite horrific”.  Many of the parts needed to reconstruct those facilities were “the same sort of items that caused concern”, because they could be interpreted as dual-use items.

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