On September 12, the New York Times ran a blatantly biased front-page article by U.N. correspondent Barbara Crossette about Iraq's decision not to allow two teams of United Nations experts into Iraq to assess the effects of the sanctions. This article is only the latest example of Crossette's alarming willingness to repeat increasingly shrill-- and largely discredited-- charges from the U.S. State Department that the Iraqi government is sabotaging the U.N.'s relief work. (See http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1025.)
Throughout the article, Crossette's reporting aims to give the impression that Iraq does not allow any outside experts to investigate humanitarian conditions inside the country. The headline reads, "Iraq Won't Let Outside Experts Assess Sanctions' Impact on Lives." The lead paragraph reported, "Iraq will not allow independent experts into the country to assess the living conditions of Iraqis a decade after economic sanctions were imposed, Secretary General Kofi Annan told the Security Council today."
Crossette anonymously quotes "a diplomat" who says, "They claim they can't get things done, but won't let anybody come in and fix it." She cites an anonymous "official" as saying that government repression has "made it almost impossible to work there." An anonymous "European diplomat" is quoted as saying that there are "fairly solid reports" that Iraq is exporting its medicines abroad, with no further evidence given. Crossette writes that "concern is growing" that "if no independent collection of information is possible, Iraq can continue to blame outsiders, particularly the United States, for illnesses and deaths from disease or malnutrition."
In fact, there are literally hundreds of outside experts in Iraq who regularly collect such information and have done so for years. They include officials from the World Health Organization, the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Development Program, UNESCO, UNICEF and the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator's office in Baghdad. They make thousands of visits each year to water projects, power plants, farms, warehouses, mills, food distributors, schools, hospitals and ordinary homes.
The U.N.'s Baghdad office maintains a 150-person verification team, the Multidisciplinary Observer Unit, to inspect relief distribution. It also employs a Swiss auditing company on contract with the United Nations to verify humanitarian shipments. Not only do the Iraqi ministries cooperate with these groups, but the U.N. requires Iraq to pay for the operating expenses of these last two groups out of the proceeds used to buy food and medicine.
All of this is documented in the very same United Nations briefing that is the subject of Crossette's article. For example, the briefing describes a World Food Program study carried out this summer to investigate Iraq's system for transporting food. It "found most of the equipment...in a deplorable state, owing to age, poor maintenance and lack of spare parts." The investigators were "encouraged to learn, however, that the government of Iraq was already entering into contracts for the gradual replacement" of the aging equipment.
In July, a World Health Organization team visited an Iraqi medicine factory. "The observers reported that the plant would require substantial investment...to bring it up to international standards." The factory's Iraqi management "gave assurances that it will cooperate fully with the United Nations and that observation of its facilities can be carried out at any time, with or without prior notification," the Secretary General reported.
Several other examples of Iraq's cooperation with UN humanitarian workers were discussed in the report. Yet Crossette's article, based on the same report, sought to give exactly the opposite impression.
Last year, UNICEF worked with the Iraqi Ministry of Health on a comprehensive nationwide survey of child and maternal mortality. Ironically, the study was reported in the New York Times in an article by Barbara Crossette (8/13/99). It went unmentioned in yesterday's article.
In a December 1998 letter to the London Independent, Michael Stone, the outgoing chief of the U.N.'s Multidisciplinary Observation Unit wrote that British officials, like their American counterparts, "frequently state that the Iraqi leadership have diverted supplies under this [humanitarian] program. This is a serious error. Some 150 international observers, travelling throughout Iraq, reported to the United Nations Multidisciplinary Observer Unit, of which I was the head. At no time was any diversion recorded. I made this clear in our reports to the UN Secretary General, and he reported in writing to the Security Council accordingly."
Other top United Nations officials have also challenged the assertion that Iraq interferes in the relief effort. Former U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Denis Halliday and his successor, Hans von Sponeck have both expressed frustration that the U.S. and British governments were putting out misleading information designed to make it appear that Iraq was sabotaging the U.N.'s relief work. Crossette has refused to cover their criticism (Hans von Sponeck, U.N. Press Briefing, 10/26/99; Denis Halliday, press release, 9/20/99).
Crossette's reporting is astonishingly selective. The Secretary General's briefing, which Crossette's article is based on, is a 90-day progress report that covers all aspects of the oil-for-food program. Typically, the Secretary General notes both improvements and problems in the ongoing program, praising and criticizing the Iraqis as necessary. But Crossette notes only the criticisms, inflating and distorting them out of all recognition.
Out of this week's 50-paragraph briefing, Crossette's entire front-page article is devoted exclusively to paragraphs 11 and 12, which note that Iraq declined to host the newly proposed teams of experts. She fails to mention that elsewhere in the briefing, Secretary General Kofi Annan praised Iraq for improvements in its nutrition program that were made in response to criticism Annan offered in a briefing last year.
In August 1999, Crossette wrote an entire article about that two-paragraph criticism, found in Annan's 104-paragraph briefing, which noted some flaws in Iraq's distribution of food supplies. Crossette trumpeted the comments as an example of the U.N.'s alleged exasperation with Iraq ("Do More to Aid Nourishment of Very Young, U.N. Tells Iraq," 8/24/99).
Since then, Iraq has implemented the changes that the Secretary General recommended. In this week's briefing, Annan praised the government for having followed his suggestions: "I welcome the decision by the Government of Iraq to increase considerably the allocations... to meet the food, nutrition and health requirements of the population.... [The steps taken by Iraq] are both welcome and in line with the recommendation contained in my supplementary report."
The praise went unmentioned in Crossette's September 12 article.
ACTION: Call on the New York Times to publish an editor's note clarifying two points: (1) that Iraq has hundreds of outside inspectors and experts verifying the humanitarian relief programs, contrary to the Times' front-page September 12 story; and (2) that United Nations humanitarian officials who dispute the charge that Iraq sabotages the U.N. aid programs should have been quoted in this story.