often it’s the innocent who suffer
Sanctions against Iraq
The sanctions against Iraq were a near-total financial and trade embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Ba’athist Iraq. They began August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq‘s invasion of Kuwait, stayed largely in force until May 22, 2003 (after Saddam Hussein‘s being forced from power), and persisted in part, including reparations to Kuwait, through the present. The original stated purposes of the sanctions were to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, to pay reparations, and to disclose and eliminate any weapons of mass destruction.
Initially, the UN Security Council imposed stringent economic sanctions on Iraq by adopting and enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 661. After the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, those sanctions were extended and elaborated on, including linkage to removal of weapons of mass destruction, by Resolution 687. The sanctions banned all trade and financial resources except for medicine and “in humanitarian circumstances” foodstuffs, the import of which into Iraq was tightly regulated.
The effects of the sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq have been disputed. Whereas it was widely believed that the sanctions caused a major rise in child mortality, research following the 2003 invasion of Iraq has shown that commonly cited data were doctored by the Saddam Hussein regime and that “there was no major rise in child mortality in Iraq after 1990 and during the period of the sanctions”.
Effects on the Iraqi people during sanctions
High rates of malnutrition, lack of medical supplies, and diseases from lack of clean water were reported during sanctions. In 2001, the chairman of the Iraqi Medical Association’s scientific committee sent a plea to the BMJ to help it raise awareness of the disastrous effects the sanctions were having on the Iraqi healthcare system.
The modern Iraqi economy had been highly dependent on oil exports; in 1989, the oil sector comprised 61% of the GNP. A drawback of this dependence was the narrowing of the economic base, with the agricultural sector rapidly declining in the 1970s. Some claim that, as a result, the post-1990 sanctions had a particularly devastating effect on Iraq’s economy and food security levels of the population.
Shortly after the sanctions were imposed, the Iraqi government developed a system of free food rations consisting of 1000 calories per person/day or 40% of the daily requirements, on which an estimated 60% of the population relied for a vital part of their sustenance. With the introduction of the Oil-for-Food Programme in 1997, this situation gradually improved. In May 2000 a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) survey noted that almost half the children under 5 years suffered from diarrhoea, in a country where the population is marked by its youth, with 45% being under 14 years of age in 2000. Power shortages, lack of spare parts and insufficient technical know-how lead to the breakdown of many modern facilities. The per capita income in Iraq dropped from $3510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996, heavily influenced by the rapid devaluation of the Iraqi dinar.
Iraq had been one of the few countries in the Middle East that invested in women’s education. But this situation changed from the late eighties on with increasing militarisation and a declining economic situation. Consequently, the economic hardships and war casualties in the last decades have increased the number of women-headed households and working women.
Thomas Nagy argued in September 2001 issue of The Progressive magazine that United States’ government intelligence and actions in the previous ten years demonstrates that the United States government had acted to intentionally destroy Iraq’s water supply. Michael Rubin criticized Nagy for “selective” use of sources and argued that “the documentary evidence eviscerates Nagy’s conclusions”:
The oil-for-food program has already spent more than $1 billion in water and sanitation projects in Iraq. Baghdad estimates that providing adequate sanitation and water resources would cost an additional $328 million. However, such an allocation is more than possible given the billions of dollars in oil revenue Baghdad receives each year under sanctions, and the additional $1 billion dollars per year it receives from transport of smuggled oil on the Syrian pipeline alone. Indeed, if Saddam Hussein’s government has managed to spend more than $2 billion for new presidential palaces since the end of the Persian Gulf War, and offer to donate nearly $1 billion to support the Palestinian intifada, there is no reason to blame sanctions for any degradation in water and sanitation systems.
Denis Halliday was appointed United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq as of 1 September 1997, at the Assistant Secretary-General level. In October 1998 he resigned after a 34-year career with the UN in order to have the freedom to criticise the sanctions regime, saying “I don’t want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide“ However, Sophie Boukhari, a UNESCO Courier journalist, reports that “some legal experts are skeptical about or even against using such terminology” and quotes Mario Bettati for the view that “People who talk like that don’t know anything about law. The embargo has certainly affected the Iraqi people badly, but that’s not at all a crime against humanity or genocide.”
Halliday’s successor, Hans von Sponeck, subsequently also resigned in protest, calling the effects of the sanctions a “true human tragedy”. Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Program in Iraq, followed them.
Estimates of deaths due to sanctionsEdit
Estimates of excess deaths during the sanctions vary widely, use different methodologies and cover different time-frames. The figure of 500,000 child deaths was for a long period widely cited, but recent research has shown that that figure was the result of survey data manipulated by the Saddam Hussein regime. A 1995 Lancet estimate put the number of child deaths at 567,000, but when one of the authors of the study followed up on it a year later, “many of the deaths were not confirmed in the reinterviews. Moreover, it emerged that some miscarriages and stillbirths had been wrongly classified as child deaths in 1995.” A 1999 UNICEF report found that 500,000 children died as a result of sanctions, but comprehensive surveys after 2003 failed to find such child mortality rates. A 2017 study in the British Medical Journal described “the rigging of the 1999 Unicef survey” as “an especially masterful fraud”. The three comprehensive surveys conducted since 2003 all found that the child mortality rate in the period 1995-2000 was approximately 40 per 1000, which means that there was no major rise in child mortality in Iraq after sanctions were implemented.
Scholar Ramon Das, in the Human Rights Research Journal of the New Zealand Center for Public Law, examined each of the “most widely accepted ethical frameworks” in the context of violations of Iraqi human rights under the sanctions, finding that “primary responsibility rests with the UNSC [United Nations Security Council]” under these frameworks, including rights-utilitarianism, moral Kantianism, and consequentialism.
Many academics, American and UN officials, and Iraqi citizens contend that this ignores the overriding control of Saddam Hussein and the corrupt contractors who maintained it, as well as the consequences of allowing Hussein to continue his policies with no deterrence and unlimited capacity. During its last decade, the regime of Saddam Hussein cut public health funding by 90 percent, contributing to a substantial deterioration in health care.
Controversy about regional differences
Some commentators blame Saddam Hussein for the excess deaths during this period. For example, Rubin argued that the Kurdish and the Iraqi governments handled Oil For Food aid differently, and that therefore the Iraqi government policy, rather than the sanctions themselves, should be held responsible for any negative effects. Likewise, David Cortright claimed: “The tens of thousands of excess deaths in the south-center, compared to the similarly sanctioned but UN-administered north, are the result of Baghdad’s failure to accept and properly manage the UN humanitarian relief effort.” In the run-up to the Iraq War, some disputed the idea that excess mortality exceeded 500,000, because the Iraqi government had interfered with objective collection of statistics (independent experts were barred).
Other Western observers, such as Matt Welch and Anthony Arnove, argue that the differences in results noted by authors such as Rubin (above) may have been because the sanctions were not the same in the two parts of Iraq, due to several regional differences: in the per capita money, in war damage to infrastructure and in the relative ease with which smugglers evaded sanctions through the porous Northern borders. This argument was debunked by several UN-sponsored studies taken after the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, which revealed that the previous childhood mortality figures for South/Central Iraq were inflated by more than a factor of two and that the childhood mortality rate in those regions was even lower than the rate in northern Iraq.
Arguments about the sanctions and the Iraq War
Some persons, such as Walter Russell Mead, accepted a large estimate of casualties due to sanctions, but argued that invading Iraq was better than continuing the sanctions regime, since “Each year of containment is a new Gulf War.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, also argued that ending sanctions was one benefit of the war. Citing recent studies disproving any increase in childhood mortality in Iraq under the sanctions regime, Michael Spagat declared “this claim should now take up its rightful place in the historical record next to Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction.”
There were also arguments saying the sanctions had not been as effective as people had thought, due to reports of companies not following trade sanctions on Iraq during this time. One of those countries being France as shown in The Guardian, Washington Times  according to Bill Gertz, and New York Times  articles that they had been trading Iraq weapons, supplies and nuclear technology leading up to and some argue after the sanctions helping support the Iraq government. So overall the sanctions didn’t help in the way it was intended or at least were not successful.
On May 12, 1996, Madeleine Albright (then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) appeared on a 60 Minutes segment in which Lesley Stahl asked her “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” and Albright replied “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.” Albright wrote later that Saddam Hussein, not the sanctions, was to blame. She criticized Stahl’s segment as “amount[ing] to Iraqi propaganda”; said that her question was a loaded question; wrote “I had fallen into a trap and said something I did not mean”; and regretted coming “across as cold-blooded and cruel”. The segment won an Emmy Award. Albright’s “non-denial” was taken by sanctions opponents as confirmation of a high number of sanctions related casualties.
Iraqi government reaction to sanctionsEdit
There is evidence that the Iraqi government did not fully cooperate with the sanctions. For example, Hussein’s son-in-law is heard speaking of concealing information from UN inspectors on audiotapes released in 2006. “I go back to the question of whether we should reveal everything or continue to be silent. Sir, since the meeting has taken this direction, I would say it is in our interest not to reveal.”  Hussein may have considered the many governments’ displeasure with him, but particularly that of two veto-wielding UNSC members, the United States and United Kingdom (both of which took the hardest lines on Iraq), as a no-win situation and disincentive to cooperation in the process.
It has been alleged that UNSCOM had been infiltrated by British and American spies for purposes other than determining if Iraq possessed WMDs. Former inspector Scott Ritter was a prominent source of these charges. Former UNSCOM chief inspector David Kay said “the longer it continued, the more the intelligence agencies would, often for very legitimate reasons, decide that they had to use the access they got through cooperation with UNSCOM to carry out their missions”.
Renewed pressure in 2002 led to the entry of UNMOVIC, which eventually received some degree of cooperation; before it could complete its work, the United States required it to leave Iraq to avoid its impending 2003 invasion of Iraq.
- United Nations Special Commission
- United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483
- United Nations Security Council Resolution 1958
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