Denis Halliday: A Voice of Reason in an Insane World
By Nicolas J. S. Davies – Common Dreams (*)
Denis Halliday is an exceptional figure in the
world of diplomacy. In 1998, after a 34-year career with the United
Nations—including as an Assistant Secretary-General and the UN Humanitarian
Coordinator in Iraq—he resigned when the UN Security Council refused to lift
sanctions against Iraq.
saw at first hand the devastating impact of this policy that had led to the
deaths of over 500,000
children under the
age of five and hundreds of thousands more older children and adults, and he
called the sanctions a genocide against the people of Iraq.
Denis has been a powerful voice for peace and for human rights around the
world. He sailed in the Freedom
Flotilla to Gaza in 2010, when 10 of his companions on a Turkish ship were
shot and killed in an attack by the Israeli armed forces.
interviewed Denis Halliday from his home in Ireland.
Davies: So, Denis, twenty years after you resigned from the UN over the
sanctions on Iraq, the United States is now imposing similar “maximum
against Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, denying their people access to
food and medicines in the midst of a pandemic. What would you like to
say to Americans about the real-world impact of these policies?
Halliday: I’d like to begin with explaining that the sanctions imposed
by the Security Council against Iraq, led very much by the United States and
Britain, were unique in the sense that they were comprehensive. They
were open-ended, meaning that they required a Security Council decision to end
them, which of course never actually happened – and they followed immediately
upon the Gulf War.
War, led primarily by the United States but supported by Britain and some
others, undertook the bombing of Iraq and targeted civilian infrastructure,
which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and they took out all electric
power networks in the country.
completely undermined the water treatment and distribution system of Iraq,
which depended upon electricity to drive it, and drove people to use
contaminated water from the Tigris and the Euphrates. That was the
beginning of the death-knell for young children, because mothers were not
breast-feeding, they were feeding their children with child formula, but mixing
it with foul water from the Tigris and the Euphrates.
bombing of infrastructure, including communications systems and electric power,
wiped out the production of food, horticulture, and all of the other basic
necessities of life. They also closed down exports and imports, and they
made sure that Iraq was unable to export its oil, which was the main source of
its revenue at the time.
to that, they introduced a new weapon called depleted uranium, which was used
by the U.S. forces driving the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait. That was used
again in southern Iraq in the Basra area, and led to a massive accumulation of
nuclear debris which led to leukemia in children, and that took three, four or
five years to become evident.
So when I
got to Iraq in 1998, the hospitals in Baghdad, and also of course in Basra and
other cities, were full of children suffering from leukemia. Meantime
adults had gotten their own cancer, mainly not a blood cancer diagnosis. Those
children, we reckon perhaps 200,000 children, died of leukemia. At the same
time, Washington and London withheld some of the treatment components that
leukemia requires, again, it seemed, in a genocidal manner, denying Iraqi
children the right to remain alive.
And as you
quoted 500,000, that was a statement made by Madeleine Albright, the then
American Ambassador to the United Nations who, live on CBS, was asked the
question about the loss of 500,000 children, and she said that the loss of
500,000 children was “worth it,” in terms of bringing down Saddam Hussein,
which did not happen until the military invasion of 2003.
point is that the Iraqi sanctions were uniquely punitive and cruel and
prolonged and comprehensive. They remained in place no matter how people
like myself or others, and not just me alone, but UNICEF and the agencies of
the UN system – many states including France, China and Russia – complained
bitterly about the consequences on human life and the lives of Iraqi children
in resigning was to go public, which I did. Within one month, I was in
Washington doing my first Congressional briefing on the consequences of these
sanctions, driven by Washington and London.
So I think
the United States and its populus, who vote these governments in, need to
understand that the children and the people of Iraq are just like the children
of the United States and England and their people. They have the same
dreams, same ambitions of education and employment and housing and vacations
and all the things that good people care about. We’re all the same people and
we cannot sit back and think somehow, “We don’t know who they are, they’re
Afghans, they’re Iranians, they’re Iraqis. So what? They’re dying. Well, we
don’t know, it’s not our problem, this happens in war.” I mean, all that sort
of rationale as to why this is unimportant.
And I think
that aspect of life in the sanctions world continues, whether it’s Venezuela,
whether it’s Cuba, which has been ongoing now for 60 years. People are
not aware or don’t think in terms of the lives of other human beings identical
to ourselves here in Europe or in the United States.
frightening problem, and I don’t know how it can be resolved. We now
have sanctions on Iran and North Korea. So the difficulty is to bring alive
that we kill people with sanctions. They’re not a substitute for war – they are a form of warfare.
Nicolas Davies: Thank you, Denis. I think that brings
us to another question, because whereas the sanctions on Iraq were approved by
the UN Security Council, what we’re looking at today in the world is, for the
most part, the U.S. using the power of its financial system to impose unilateral sieges on these countries, even as the U.S. is
also still waging war in at least half a dozen countries, mostly in the Greater
Middle East. Medea Benjamin and I recently documented that the U.S. and its allies have dropped
326,000 bombs and missiles on other countries in all these wars, just since
2001 – that’s not counting the First Gulf War.
for the UN and UNDP for 34 years, and the UN was conceived of as a forum and an
institution for peace and to confront violations of peace by any countries
around the world. But how can the UN address the problem of a powerful,
aggressive country like the United States that systematically violates
international law and then abuses its veto and diplomatic power to avoid
Halliday: Yes, when I talk to students, I try to explain that there are
two United Nations: there’s a United Nations of the Secretariat, led by the
Secretary-General and staffed by people like myself and 20,000 or 30,000 more
worldwide, through UNDP and the agencies. We operate in every country,
and most of it is developmental or humanitarian. It’s good work, it has real
impact, whether it’s feeding Palestinians or it’s UNICEF work in Ethiopia. This
UN collapses is in the Security Council, in my view, and that is because, in
Yalta in 1945, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, having noted the failure of the
League of Nations, decided to set up a United Nations that would have a
controlling entity, which they then called the Security Council. And to
make sure that worked, in their interests I would say, they established this
five-power veto group, and they added France and they added China. And that
five is still in place.
and this is 2021, and they’re still in power and they’re still manipulating the
United Nations. And as long as they stay there and they manipulate, I
think the UN is doomed. The tragedy is that the five veto powers are the very
member states that violate the Charter, violate human rights conventions, and
will not allow the application of the ICC to their war crimes and other
On top of
that, they are the countries that manufacture and sell weapons, and we know
that weapons of war are possibly the most profitable product you can produce. So
their vested interest is control, is the military capacity, is interference.
It’s a neocolonial endeavor, an empire in reality, to control the world as the
way they want to see it. Until that is changed and those five member states
agree to dilute their power and play an honest role, I think we’re doomed. The
UN has no capacity to stop the difficulties we’re faced with around the world.
Davies: That’s a pretty damning prognosis. In this century, we’re
facing such incredible problems, between climate change and the threat of
nuclear war still hanging over all of us, possibly more dangerous than ever
before, because of the lack of treaties and the lack of cooperation between the
nuclear powers, notably the U.S. and Russia. This is really an existential crisis for humanity.
is also, of course, the UN General Assembly, and they did step up on nuclear
weapons with the new Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which has now officially entered
into force. And every year when it meets, the General Assembly regularly and
almost unanimously condemns the U.S. sanctions regime against
wrote my book about the war in Iraq, my final recommendations were that the
senior American and British war criminals responsible for the war should be
held criminally accountable, and that the U.S. and the U.K. should pay
reparations to Iraq for the war. Could the General Assembly possibly be
a venue to build support for Iraq to claim reparations from the U.S. and the
U.K., or is there another venue where that would be more appropriate?
Halliday: I think you’re right on target. The tragedy is that the
decisions of the Security Council are binding decisions. Every member state has
got to apply and respect those decisions. So, if you violate a sanctions regime
imposed by the Council as a member state, you’re in trouble. The General
Assembly resolutions are not binding.
referred to a very important decision, which is the decision about nuclear
weapons. We’ve had a lot of decisions on banning various types of
weapons over the years. Here in Ireland we were involved in anti-personnel
mines and other things of that sort, and it was by a large number of member
states, but not the guilty parties, not the Americans, not the Russians, not
the Chinese, not the British. The ones who control the veto power game are the
ones who do not comply. Just like Clinton was one of the proposers, I think, of
the ICC [International Criminal Court], but when it came to the end of the day,
the United States doesn’t accept it has a role vis-a-vis themselves and their
war crimes The same is true of other large states that are the guilty parties
in those cases.
So I would
go back to your suggestion about the General Assembly. It could be
enhanced, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be changed, but it requires
tremendous courage on the part of member states. It also requires acceptance by
the five veto powers that their day has come to an end, because, in reality,
the UN carries very little cachet nowadays to send a UN mission into a country
like Myanmar or Afghanistan.
I think we
have no power left, we have no influence left, because they know who runs the
organization, they know who makes the decisions. It’s not the
Secretary-General. It’s not people like me. We are dictated to by the Security
Council. I resigned, effectively, from the Security Council. They were my
bosses during that particular period of my career.
I have a
lecture I do on reforming the Security Council, making it a North-South
representative body, which would find Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa in
situ, and you’d get very different decisions, you’d get the sort of decisions
we get in the General Assembly: much more balanced, much more aware of the
world and its North and South and all those other variations. But of
course, again, we can’t reform the Council until the five veto powers agree to
that. That is the huge problem.
Davies: Yes, in fact, when that structure was announced in 1945 with the
Security Council, the five Permanent Members and the veto, Albert Camus, who
was the editor of the French Resistance newspaper Combat, wrote a front-page
editorial saying this was the end of any idea of international democracy.
So, as with
so many other issues, we live in these nominally democratic countries, but the
people of a country like the United States are only really told what our
leaders want us to know about how the world works. So reform of the
Security Council is clearly needed, but it’s a massive process of education and
democratic reform in countries around the world to actually build enough of a
popular movement to demand that kind of change. In the meantime, the problems
we’re facing are enormous.
thing that is very under-reported in the U.S. is that, out of desperation after
twenty years of war in Afghanistan, Secretary Blinken has finally asked the UN to lead a peace process for a
ceasefire between the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban and a political
transition. That could move the conflict into the political realm and
end the civil war that resulted from the U.S. invasion and occupation and
endless bombing campaign.
So what do
you think of that initiative? There is supposed to be a meeting in a
couple of weeks in Istanbul, led by an experienced UN negotiator, Jean Arnault,
who helped to bring peace to Guatemala at the end of its civil war, and then
between Colombia and the FARC. The U.S. specifically asked China, Russia and
Iran to be part of this process as well. Both sides in Afghanistan have agreed
to come to Istanbul and at least see what they can agree on. So is that a
constructive role that the UN can play? Does that offer a chance of peace for
the people of Afghanistan?
Halliday: If I were a member of the Taliban and I was asked to negotiate
with a government that is only in power because it’s supported by the United
States, I would question whether it’s an even keel. Are we equally
powerful, can we talk to each other one-to-one? The answer, I think, is
chap, whoever he is, poor man, is going to have the same difficulty. He
is representing the United Nations, a Security Council dominated by the United
States and others, as the Afghans are perfectly well aware. The Taliban have
been fighting for a helluva long time, and making no progress because of the
interference of the U.S. troops, which are still on the ground. I just don’t
think it’s an even playing-field.
So I’d be
very surprised if that works. I absolutely hope it might. I would think,
in my view, if you want a lasting relationship within a country, it’s got to be
negotiated within the country, without military or other interference or fear
of further bombing or attacks or all the rest of it. I don’t think we have any
credibility, as a UN, under those circumstances. It’ll be a very tough slog.
Nicolas Davies: Right. The irony is that the United
States set aside the UN Charter when it attacked Yugoslavia in
1999 to carve out what is now the semi-recognized country of Kosovo, and then to attack
Afghanistan and Iraq. The UN Charter, right at the beginning, at its heart, prohibits
the threat or use of force by one country against another. But that is what the
U.S. set aside.
Halliday: And then, you have to remember, the U.S. is attacking a fellow
member state of the United Nations, without hesitation, with no respect for the
Charter. Perhaps people forget that Eleanor Roosevelt drove, and
succeeded in establishing, the Declaration of Human Rights, an extraordinary
achievement, which is still valid. It’s a biblical instrument for many of us
who work in the UN.
neglect of the Charter and the spirit of the Charter and the wording of the
Charter, by the five veto members, perhaps in Afghanistan it was Russia, now
it’s the United States, the Afghanis have had foreign intervention up to their
necks and beyond, and the British have been involved there since the 18th
century almost. So they have my deepest sympathy, but I hope this thing
can work, let’s hope it can.
Davies: I brought that up because the U.S., with its dominant military
power after the end of the Cold War, made a very conscious choice that instead
of living according to the UN Charter, it would live by the sword, by the law
of the jungle: “might makes right.”
those actions because it could, because no other military force was there to
stand up against it. At the time of the First Gulf War, a Pentagon consultant told the New York Times that, with the
end of the Cold War, the U.S. could finally conduct military operations in the
Middle East without worrying about starting World War III. So they took the
demise of the Soviet Union as a green light for these systematic, widespread
actions that violate the UN Charter.
what is happening in Afghanistan is that the Taliban once again control half
the country. We’re approaching the spring and the summer when the
fighting traditionally gets worse, and so the U.S. is calling in the UN out of
desperation because, frankly, without a ceasefire, their government in Kabul is
just going to lose more territory. So the U.S. has chosen to live by the
sword, and in this situation it’s now confronting dying by the sword.
Halliday: What’s tragic, Nicolas, is that, in our lifetime, the Afghanis
ran their own country. They had a monarchy, they had a parliament – I met
and interviewed women ministers from Afghanistan in New York – and they managed
it. It was when the Russians interfered, and then the Americans interfered, and
then Bin Laden set up his camp there, and that was justification for destroying
what was left of Afghanistan.
Bush, Cheney and a few of the boys decided, although there was no justification
whatsoever, to bomb and destroy Iraq, because they wanted to think that Saddam
Hussein was involved with Al Qaeda, which of course was nonsense. They
wanted to think he had weapons of mass destruction, which also was nonsense.
The UN inspectors said that again and again, but nobody would believe
deliberate neglect of the one last hope. The League of Nations failed,
and the UN was the next best hope and we have deliberately turned our backs
upon it, neglected it and distrusted it. When we get a good Secretary General
like Hammarskjold, we murder him. He was definitely killed,
because he was interfering in the dreams of the British in particular, and
perhaps the Belgians, in Katanga. It’s a very sad story, and I don’t know where
we go from here.
Davies: Right, well, where we seem to be going from here is to a loss of
American power around the world, because the U.S. has so badly abused its
the U.S., we keep hearing that this is a Cold War between the U.S. and China,
or maybe the U.S., China and Russia, but I think we all hopefully can work for
a more multipolar world.
As you say, the UN Security Council needs reform, and
hopefully the American people are understanding that we cannot unilaterally
rule the world, that the ambition for a U.S. global empire is an incredibly
dangerous pipe-dream that has really led us to an impasse.
Halliday: Perhaps the only good thing coming out of Covid-19 is the slow
realization that, if everybody doesn’t get a vaccine, we fail, because we, the
rich and the powerful with the money and the vaccines, will not be safe until
we make sure the rest of the world is safe, from Covid and the next one that’s
coming along the track undoubtedly.
implies that if we don’t do trade with China or other countries we have
reservations about, because we don’t like their government, we don’t like communism,
we don’t like socialism, whatever it is, we just have to live with that,
because without each other we can’t survive. With the climate crisis and
all the other issues related to that, we need each other more than ever
perhaps, and we need collaboration. It’s just basic common sense that we work
and live together.
has something like 800 military bases around the world, of various sizes. China
is certainly surrounded and this is a very dangerous situation, totally
unnecessary. And now the rearming with fancy new nuclear weapons when we
already have nuclear weapons that are twenty times bigger than the one that
destroyed Hiroshima. Why on Earth? It’s just irrational nonsense to continue
these programs, and it just doesn’t work for humanity.
hope the U.S. would start perhaps retreating and sorting out its own domestic
problems, which are quite substantial. I’m reminded every day when I
look at CNN here in my home about the difficulties of race and all the other
things that you’re well aware of that need to be addressed. Being policeman to
the world was a bad decision.
Nicolas Davies: Absolutely. So the political,
economic and military system we live under is not only genocidal at this point,
but also suicidal. Thank you, Denis, for being a voice of reason in this insane