A less than festive set-to with Tariq Aziz in Iraq
Saddam’s foreign minister and David Norris did not see eye to eye on human rights when they met in 2000
In December 2000 David Norris was part of an Oireachtas delegation to Baghdad along with David Andrews, Michael D Higgins, John Gormley and Senator Mick Lanigan.
WE MET the foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, who was quite a small man and dressed in military fatigues.
These occasions are usually highly choreographed and not entirely realistic. There will be an exchange of pleasantries by the senior figures, then everyone else gets their chance down the line.
Our delegation was led by David Andrews, who was a recent foreign affairs minister and chairman of the Irish Red Cross.
During his speech he mentioned the phrase “humanitarian values”, at which Tariq Aziz exploded and told him that Iraq was not a Third World country, to be lectured to about human rights by the likes of Ireland. He told us forcefully that his country was the cradle of civilisation, and condemned Anglo-American-Israeli aggression.
I was a lowly member of the delegation and had to wait a while before I had a chance to speak, but by the time it arrived I was ready to give it to him right between the eyes.
I said, “As regards Anglo-American-Israeli aggression, you’re not exactly virgins on that score but luckily most of the things you fired over at Israel weren’t fired straight so they landed in the sand.
“And as far as humanitarian issues are concerned, I expect you to be on my side, Dr Aziz. The principal reason I’m here is to look at the impact of United Nations sanctions on hospitals and on the women and children treated there. And I support your government and others in the rejection of these sanctions. But I’m also interested in the impact of your government’s policies on your own people . . .”
“Such as what?” he demanded.
“Well, how about intimidation, arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, torture, imprisonment, and murder, for a start?”
“None of that is true,” he said.
I contradicted him, and told him I was a patron of a group in Ireland who dealt with victims of torture by the regime he represented. I had met them and seen their scars.
He demanded their names, and I told him he must be joking: these people still had families in Iraq who might be endangered by my doing so. He said that it was a lie, and that the tortured people were CIA agents, at which I exploded and started shouting at him.
“How dare you make this accusation against these people who’ve already suffered enough? I demand you withdraw that disgraceful remark and apologise.”
We had to be hauled apart by uniformed staff before David Andrews stepped in and mollified the situation and the meeting continued.
I remembered that Dr Aziz was Christian, so when we were leaving, as it was nearly Christmas, I wished him the compliments of the season and we shook hands.
As he left the room the former foreign minister said to me out of the side of his mouth, “I sincerely hope, Norris, that we get out of this fucking country alive after what you just said to him!”
Months later I received an invitation to the 60th birthday party of Saddam Hussein and an offer to fly me to Baghdad.
I didn’t know whether this was a salute to my bravery or a ploy to get me there so I could be assassinated with the prod of a poisoned umbrella in my behind.
I told my PA to reply: “Mr Norris regrets he is unable to dine tonight.”