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UK PMOs Briefing 28th March 2003

PRESS BRIEFING: 11AM FRIDAY 28 MARCH 2003

IRAQ

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) took the opportunity to update journalists on the work taking place to deal with the humanitarian situation inside Iraq. As we had been making clear over recent days, the UN's immediate priority was to restart the Oil-for-Food programme. The Prime Minister had had a good meeting in New York yesterday with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Both were in total agreement that restarting the programme was an urgent priority in relation to the humanitarian situation inside Iraq. A draft Resolution on this matter had now been tabled - or 'gone into blue' in UN parlance - by Germany and had been co-sponsored by the UK, Chile, Bulgaria and France. It was important for the Resolution to be adopted swiftly - hopefully within the next twenty-four hours - so that we could get the necessary aid flowing into Iraq. It would also give Kofi Annan a central role in ensuring that happened by enabling him to take over the functions which had been allocated previously to Saddam's regime. As the Prime Minister had pointed out on Wednesday, the amount of money unspent in the Oil-for-Food programme kitty was around $2.3bn. We would obviously be pleased to see an end to the days of the Oil-for-Food programme being used by the Iraqi regime to import thousands of chewing gum machines, for example.

The PMOS advised journalists that we were hoping the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Sir Galahad, would begin to unload its cargo of aid today - hopefully this afternoon. This had been delayed while the mine clearance operation was being completed in the channel. It went without saying that this was also an important development.

Asked if the Oil-for-Food Resolution addressed the concerns expressed by some countries in the past about appearing to endorse American control in Iraq, the PMOS said that the draft was technical and focussed on the practical administration of the programme, such as escrow accounts. It was important to ensure that the Oil-for-Food programme did not stall because the Iraqi regime, which had never taken the programme as seriously as we would have wished, was no longer operating it. The Resolution put in place a mechanism whereby the Secretary General of the UN, together with representatives designated by him, would undertake a co-ordinating role reviewing needs, looking after contracts and determining the relative priorities for medicines, health supplies, food stuffs and other materials.

Asked to explain how the programme had worked in the past and would work in the future, the PMOS said that before the UN Oil-for-Food programme administrators had had to withdraw from Iraq as a result of the military action, Iraq had prepared a list of goods every 180 days which it assessed it required to meet its humanitarian needs. The list had then been looked at by the Sanctions Committee and the goods then processed by the UN through the funding offset against an escrow account held in France, following which the suppliers of the goods were then paid. The Resolution would ensure that the authority for ordering and distributing goods shifted to the UN Secretary General and would give him the responsibility for ensuring that the appropriate humanitarian needs were met. We hoped and expected that there would be rather more requests for syringes and medical products than mobile phones and chewing gum machines, which had been what Saddam had chosen to spend the money on. Pressed as to whether the proceeds raised from the oil in the southern oil fields would flow into the programme, the PMOS said we had always maintained that the oil produced by Iraq should be used to benefit the Iraqi people. He reminded journalists that there were $2.3bn in the Oil-for-Food programme kitty which had not yet been used. Given the humanitarian crisis which already existed in Iraq, everyone across the board recognised the importance of continuing to administer the programme. Questioned as to whether the restoration of the Oil-for-Food programme under the new UN Resolution would reinstate the status quo, the PMOS said that fundamental point of the Resolution was to transfer authority, and management of it, to Kofi Annan and his representatives.

Asked who would administer the Oil-for-Food programme and where, the PMOS drew journalists' attention to Op 4 of the draft Resolution which stated that the Security Council "authorises the Secretary-General and representatives designated by him to.....establish alternative locations, both inside and outside Iraq, in consultation with the respective governments, for the delivery, inspection and authenticated confirmation of humanitarian supplies and equipment provided under the Programme, as well as to re-direct shipments of goods to those locations, as necessary".

Questioned as to whether the entire $2.3bn left in the Oil-for-Food programme kitty would be spent on aid supplies or whether some of it would go towards reparations for Kuwait, the PMOS said that as he understood it, previously around 72% of the revenue had been allocated to buy civilian goods. The rest had been spent on meeting compensation and administrative costs. However, it was clear that significant sums had not been spent under the programme. It was true that sanctions had been imposed on Iraq. However, Saddam had chosen to use the Oil-for-Food programme to buy 'luxury goods' for his regime, rather than necessary food and medicines for his people. He could have had as much as he needed. He had chosen not to do so, presumably because he had believed it was preferable, for his own propaganda reasons, to keep his people in poverty and deprivation. No doubt there was a shared desire within the international community not only to make sure that the unspent sums were spent, but to ensure that they were spent to better effect.

Asked if we were 'heartened' by the fact that the Resolution had been tabled by Germany and co-sponsored by France and whether it was an indication that a 'rapprochement' was on the way, the PMOS said that whatever the differences of opinion in relation to the military conflict and the diplomatic efforts leading up to it, the international community saw the importance of the continuation of a humanitarian programme which could deliver significant amounts of aid to a people who had been subjected to appalling deprivation as a result of the way the country had been administered. He said that it was not his job to characterise the positions adopted by other countries in relation to other issues. That said, on this particular matter, it was clear that their view was widely shared. Asked if the fact that the US wasn't a co-sponsor of the Resolution was significant, the PMOS said that given President Bush had underlined the importance of this issue yesterday, the answer to the question was quite clearly 'no'.

Asked to outline the proof the Government had that two British soldiers had been executed, as the Prime Minister had suggested in his joint press conference with President Bush in Washington yesterday, despite the families saying they had been told by the military that that was not the case, the PMOS said that he did not know the details of any conversations that might have taken place between representatives of the military and the families concerned. The information available to us indicated that the soldiers in question might well have been executed. That assessment was drawn from film footage showing that the bodies of the two soldiers had lain some distance from the vehicle in which they had been travelling and that they had been without their issued protective equipment. Put to him that he seemed to be implying that the Government was not 100% certain about what had happened, the PMOS said that our assessment of the information available drew us towards the conclusions we had taken. He added that he did not intend to say anything that was going to make what was clearly a very upsetting circumstance for the families any more difficult. Two soldiers had been killed and their bodies had been paraded on television. That was a terrible thing for anyone to have to deal with. Asked whether the Government would make inquiries into the tragic events, the PMOS said that of course every effort would be made to find out what had happened. But everyone accepted that this was a particularly difficult set of circumstances. Questioned as to whether there was any other evidence which we could use, apart from the video footage, to prove that the soldiers had been executed, the PMOS said that we would obviously try to take account of all possible sources of evidence. However, we had to accept that finding out precisely what had happened would be difficult.

Asked if he would agree it was odd that the families of the soldiers had been told one thing by the military, yet they were hearing something entirely different from Downing Street, and whether anything was being done to resolve the apparent contradiction, the PMOS said that he had not been privy to the conversations which had taken place between the Commanding Officer and the families. He took the opportunity to underline that no one had ever questioned, even for a second, the bravery and honour of the two soldiers concerned.

Asked if the Prime Minister was considering sending additional British troops to Iraq, the PMOS said that the situation remained as the Prime Minister had set out yesterday. There were no plans to do so.

Asked why the Prime Minister hadn't made more of his meeting with President Bush in attempting to bridge the gap between the US and Europe on a UN role, the PMOS said that the conclusions following the Azores Summit were significant inasmuch as they had underlined the role of the UN in a post-Saddam Iraq. The words of both the Prime Minister and President Bush in their joint press conference yesterday also spoke for themselves in terms of UN Resolutions and some of the post-Saddam issues. However, our immediate priority was to put in place the necessary humanitarian steps - which was why the Oil-for-Food programme was considered to be so important - and to prosecute the war.

Questioned as to whether the British Government wanted to see a civilian uprising now in Iraq, the PMOS said that it was not really a question of desire. As the Prime Minister had made clear many times in the past, it was not surprising that the Iraqi people were being cautious about rising up against the regime given the history of Iraq and the way vengeance had been taken by the regime on the Shiites in the south after the last Gulf War. It was entirely understandable. However, as the Prime Minister had said in his Today Programme interview this morning, no one should suppose that the Iraqi people did not want to be free of Saddam and his regime. Obviously they did. Put to him that the allies had leafleted the people of Iraq telling them to say indoors, which would seem to indicate that we did not support the notion of a civilian uprising, the PMOS said that if he was being asked about Basra, judgements clearly had to be made about the way to deal with a situation in which a hard core of Saddam's thugs were effectively still operating in the city. These were clearly not simple issues to address. That was why it was important for people to exercise some patience and some judgement in the way we dealt with them. But Iraq would be liberated.

ENDS

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