Iraq is helped and hurt by UN

PHILIPPE HEFFINCK was not in the best of moods. When I saw him last February, he said, I had made him out to be a heartless bureaucrat as I sat in his air- conditioned Unicef office with its comfortable chairs, enjoying his excellent coffee. I had suggested, he said, that he was a little divorced from the human tragedy going on outside.

So I guess it was generous of Mr Heffinck to see me again. The chairs were just as comfortable and the statistics of Unicef success poured from the documents he handed to me. But there was no coffee this time.

Let it be said at once, then: Mr Heffinck and his assistants do an extraordinary and valiant job of doing what almost every United Nations official does in Iraq - alleviating the suffering caused by the UN's own sanctions. You have only to look through his glossy-covered pamphlets to understand the worth of Unicef's work: Community Empowerment for Better Nutritional Status of Children, Rehabilitation of the Water Treatment Plants ... And you have only to study the small print to comprehend the wickedness of UN sanctions.

Here, for example - buried deep inside Unicef's own paper on the 1997 nutritional survey at Iraqi health centres - is the kind of startling admission which the United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and her friends wilfully ignore: "Since 1990, the embargo on Iraq has resulted in a cumulative deterioration in the economy and of basic needs - food, medicine, water and sanitation, social and cultural.

"Escalating prices, lower purchasing power, reduced food production and a breakdown of health services and facilities ... has caused a continual worsening of living standards throughout the whole country..."

Note how President Saddam Hussein and his cronies get no mention here. And why should they? After all, they are untouched by our sanctions regime. Little food, water and sanitation, massive inflation - that is what the embargo is about. Could there be a more damning indictment of the UN's own sanctions in a UN publication?

So it is remarkable, when you come to think about it, that Mr Heffinck can keep his sanity, let alone his sense of perspective - for both may be sorely tested by the Iraqi ministry of health's latest request to Unicef and the World Health Organisation (WHO): to make a survey of infant and maternal mortality rates.

"The three of us have agreed it will be done and we are looking for a consultant," Mr Heffinck says. "We will be able to see the trend from 1991. But of course, the cause of death is a different issue."

So we will be told the speed at which Iraqi children and their mothers are dying - but not how. And the boys back at UN headquarterscan relax - at least until the WHO reveals the effects of depleted uranium shells on child mortality in a couple of years' time. But there is good news. Mr Heffinck can announce that a March 1998 survey suggests malnutrition is "stabilising" and that the oil-for-food programme (UN resolution 986) is preventing an already dire situation from getting worse.

Unicef, Mr Heffinck says, is encouraging the Iraqi government's community childcare units, which will be taught to weigh a malnourished infant and "if something goes wrong [sic], to refer the child immediately to the child centre which can refer the child to a nutrition centre".

Mr Heffinck says that the "community" was a component that was missing in previous health schemes and there are now 1,333 childcare centres in Iraq, which have screened 650,000 children. And of these - if you do not believe this, read Unicef's file of 2 September 1998 - one-quarter of a million (one-quarter of a million) were malnourished. Unicef has provided material and reporting systems for local school teachers.

The word "community" is one of those nouns that is acceptable to both the UN and the Iraqi authorities. And I suspect it is a substitute for the word "victims". Resolution 986 has a lot to answer for. As Mr Heffinck rightly says, 986 covers 85 per cent of the population, but only for supplies. It provides no funds for distribution, training, participation.

"Little donations don't make that much difference - it's more important to use the non- governmental organisations for what they're good at," Mr Heffinck said. "They can repair hospitals. Enfants du Monde are rehabilitating a centre for street children. CARE International [which distributed Independent readers' pounds 100,000 worth of medicines to Iraqi child cancer victims] are doing excellent work on water using their engineers to roam around the country to all 230 water treatment plants."

Unicef is printing enlarged dictionaries for the deaf and dumb, rewriting the highly restricted sign language in use before the 1991 war. It is supporting a project to restore a child rehabilitation centre in Baghdad.

During 1997, 20,000 severely malnourished children were admitted to nutritional rehabilitation centres. Admissions average 2,000 a month - in July this year, 2,230 were admitted, 501 of them in Baghdad. If there are lies, damned lies and statistics, it is these last statistics that must surely be damned.

We caused cancer in the Gulf,

Review, page 4