THE resignations should be a wake-up call for Washington. Hans Von Sponeck, the United Nation's assistant secretary general and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, announced his resignation last week after 15 months on the job, because he became convinced that "every month, Iraq's social fabric shows bigger holes."
The next day, the chief of the U.N.'s World Food Program in Baghdad, Jutta Burghardt, quit as well, also to protest how the economic sanctions against Iraq are eroding its society.
Von Sponeck's predecessor, then-Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday, quit the same position after 13 months, also to challenge the sanctions responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
In his turn, Von Sponeck recognized that the U.N.'s humanitarian program could never seriously protect Iraqi civilians from the ravages of those sanctions supposedly aimed at the Baghdad regime.
The fact that two sequential assistant secretaries general, one German, the other Irish, each with distinguished U.N. careers, felt compelled to quit the same job should result in some serious U.S. soul searching. The resignations underscore the failure of the sanctions, a Security Council policy imposed largely through U.S. pressure.
The resignation of an able and respected director of the World Food Program should emphasize the point even further. Unfortunately, at least judging by the State Department's response to Von Sponeck's resignation, no such examination is on the agenda. State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin, on learning of Von Sponeck's decision, said, "Good," and suggested falsely that Von Sponeck had been working "on behalf of . . . the regime" in Iraq.
Since November, Clinton administration officials, along with their counterparts in London, had been demanding that Von Sponeck be fired. His crime? As humanitarian coordinator for the world body, he insisted that tracking the civilian casualties from the continuing U.S.-U.K. bombings in the unilaterally declared "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq was part of his job.
Further, and perhaps most telling, he made clear that the economic sanctions were devastating the people of Iraq. They, not the regime, were his concern.
True to form, Rubin announced last fall that Von Sponeck had overstepped his mandate in "raising his own personal views as to the wisdom of the sanctions regime."
To his credit, Secretary General Kofi Annan resisted the pressure and extended Von Sponeck's contract. But the U.N.'s sanctions program remained in place. The most recent Security Council resolution, which many in Washington like to claim would lift the sanctions, does no such thing. It creates a new arms monitoring agency, and considers, more than a year down the line, the possibility that some economic restrictions might be temporarily suspended.
But the default position remains that economic sanctions stay, unchanged, unless the Security Council, including the U.S. with its veto, affirmatively votes to keep them suspended after each four-month period.
Under such restrictions, no oil company worth its stockholders is likely to risk serious large-scale investment in Iraq, however much they might covet Iraq's oil wealth. And without such investment, repair and reconstruction of the oil industry will remain impossible, and Iraq's poverty will deepen.
The sanctions, in place for almost a decade, have been responsible not only for the deaths of about 1 million Iraqis -- 500,000 of them children, according to UNICEF -- but also for the absolute shredding of the cultural, economic, political, family and intellectual fabric of Iraqi society.
When the first delegation of congressional staffers traveled to Iraq last summer, Von Sponeck provided extensive briefings and made his top staff accessible to them. He described for them the less visible but more corrosive long-term effects of the sanctions on Iraqi society.
Food shortages resulting from the sanctions remain a serious problem in Iraq. Burghardt, who just quit her post as the World Food Program's director, told the congressional staffers that 70 percent of household income goes for food: by U.N. and world standards, she said, that is considered an indicator of imminent famine.
Burghardt described how the oil-for-food program is shielding, but not reversing, the accumulated effects of sanctions. "Iraq's middle class is disappearing," she said, "and the stunted children will never recover. The monthly food basket lasts only about 21 days. Many families have no other income, and so are living in a situation of complete deprivation."
Like other U.N. officials working in Baghdad, Burghardt made clear her criticisms of the Iraqi regime. She said that the Iraqi government deals only with the food question on an emergency basis and has been reluctant to take sufficient steps to resolve the problem. World Food Program inspectors monitor the food distribution program in Iraq. These observers have documented the fact that many Iraqis -- especially children -- are malnourished. It is understandable that U.N. humanitarian and development workers, trained to end, not maintain, humanitarian disasters, would find implementing the sanctions unacceptable.
'Under serious attack'
Von Sponeck told the congressional aides six months before his resignation, "Iraq's social fabric is under serious attack."
What is less understandable is why our government refuses to hear or take seriously the concerns of these United Nations officials, or the concerns of the 70 members of Congress who urged President Clinton to lift the economic sanctions.
Maybe the State Department's longstanding demonization campaign has taken root within its staff. Maybe Jamie Rubin and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright believe that Iraq is populated by almost 23 million Saddam Husseins.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She accompanied the congressional staff to Iraq in August.