This page gives information about Dr Herring's paper. For copyright reasons only the Introduction and Conclusion are reproduced here. Full copies are available on request from the author, or can be found in the journal Review of International Studies, vol. 28 no. 1 (January 2002), pp.39-56.

Between Iraq and a Hard Place:
A Critique of the British Government's Narrative on UN Economic Sanctions

Dr. Eric Herring

Department of Politics,
University of Bristol
10 Priory Road,
Bristol BS8 1TU,
England, UK
Tel. +44-(0)117 928 8582
Fax +44-(0)117 973 2133

September 1999
All rights reserved.

Full paper published in Review of International Studies vol. 28 no. 1 (January 2002), pp.39-56.


The British government has been the key player along with the United States in keeping in place UN Security Council economic sanctions on Iraq. How does the British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair justify that policy? This is the central question I address. From the imposition of sanctions up to mid-1997, approximately 720,000 deaths occurred in Iraq beyond the normal rate. The deaths have hit children disproportionately because they are less able to cope with chronic malnutrition, polluted water and lack of proper medical care. The question continues to be a pressing one, as Iraqis continue to die in vast numbers and many times more who survive will have their lives shortened and their health blighted irreversibly. The question is also particularly relevant as Blair's New Labour government claims to have introduced an ethical dimension to British foreign policy and a doctrine of international community so that it is meant to be informed by something more than realpolitik. I propose criteria for assessing narratives; I outline the narrative upon which the British government relies to justify the sanctions on Iraq; and I point to many of the uncomfortable silences in, and counters to, the British government's narrative. My argument is that, when these silences and counters are taken into consideration, the British government's narrative and its denial of any responsibility for the devastation of Iraqi society become very difficult to sustain. I develop a counter-narrative in which ordinary Iraqis are suffering due to the policies of both the UN Security Council and the Iraqi government rather than the latter alone. However, I argue that one's weighting of their relative responsibility for that suffering is a product of one's values and interpretations rather than of the gathering of facts alone. I conclude with an assessment of the policy debate regarding the sanctions.

[see note at top of this page]


The British government's narrative asserts that Iraq has not complied with the relevant UN resolutions; Iraqi non-compliance is the reason why sanctions are in still in place; Iraq refused for years to accept an offer to allow it to sell oil to buy humanitarian supplies; Iraq is now allowed to buy humanitarian supplies freely; the Iraqi government is choosing to withhold medical supplies; and conditions are much worse in Baghdad-controlled central and southern Iraq than in the UN-controlled north due to the policies of Saddam Hussein. I have developed a counter-narrative which is superior by the criteria indicated at the outset and which runs as follows: that partial compliance has not been rewarded with partial relaxation of sanctions; Iraqi incentives to comply are undermined further by the way that the United States has made it clear, in violation of the relevant UN resolutions, that it wants to retain sanctions in the hope that they will lead to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein even if Iraq does comply; for a long time there was little evidence that the oil sales programme would provide significant amounts of humanitarian supplies; Iraq's attempts to purchase humanitarian supplies are often obstructed by members of the Sanctions Committee; problems in the distribution of medical supplies are due to less sinister reasons within Iraq and also due to problems caused by the Sanctions Committee; and conditions are much worse in the centre and south because the sanctions have been much harsher there. Saddam Hussein has been prepared to sacrifice ordinary Iraqis in his efforts to survive and beyond that to bring about the lifting of economic sanctions without giving up weapons banned by the UN, and the British government has been willing to sacrifice them in its efforts to limit his capabilities to acquire those weapons, to make him renounce them or even to overthrow him. Although a precise calculation of relative degree of responsibility cannot be made, the Iraqi people are being ground to pieces in a power struggle, caught between Iraq and a hard place.

Narratives involve implicit or explicit values as well as interpretations. The British government has been attempting to limit Iraq's military capability in ways which involve depriving Iraq's civilian population of many of the means necessary to survival. The British government has tried to defend its policy morally by trying to shift all blame to the Iraqi regime. But many of its supporting claims have been problematic. For the means to have been proportionate in this case, the threat must be truly apocalyptic, and the British government's narrative hypes the threat with statements such as 'Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq produced enough chemical and biological weapons material to kill the world's population several times over.' This is true only in the ludicrous scenario of everyone standing still while a tiny drop is administered to them individually.

In spite of all the suffering, the British government has failed to achieve its objectives. If the goal was overthrowing Saddam Hussein, he is still there. Indeed, the sanctions may be reinforcing his position, by feeding Iraqi nationalism and vengeful anti-Westernism, encouraging even more corruption, making Saddam Hussein seem less vile than the West to many Iraqis, requiring a rationing system which allows the Iraqi state to monitor even more closely most Iraqis, and undermining the civil society which might provide the best hope for a more humane successor government. If the goal was arms inspections without sanctions, that has not been achieved. We have the opposite - sanctions without arms inspections. The approach of Britain and the United States seems to be to prolong as long as possible the deadlock in the Security Council that keeps the sanctions in place, even though the sanctions have failed. Some who think that Iraq is extremely dangerous, including former members of UNSCOM Tim Trevan of Britain and Ritter of the United States, are in favour of dropping the sanctions and launching a US-led UN war to remove Saddam Hussein and transform the Iraqi political system. There is virtually no chance of this happening. The second option being considered is offering to lift the sanctions and allow full-scale foreign investment in return for a much more limited degree of (probably ineffective) disarmament monitoring than in the past. This is favoured by France, Russia and China (and is Ritter's fall-back option). The United States and Britain say this is unacceptable, and Iraq wants the sanctions lifted unconditionally and immediately, though either might in the end decide to go for this middle option. The third possibility is that the sanctions system will collapse and Iraq will get what it wants - no sanctions and no monitoring. The chances are that the world will have to learn to live with an Iraq with renewed NBC weapon and missile programmes. Fortunately, chemical and especially biological weapons are very hard to deliver to their targets in a way that will inflict significant casualties or do so with any reliability. Their military value can be minimised by counter-measures and their political value might be minimised by education about their limited killing power. Nuclear weapons are vastly more effective at killing, and can be delivered more reliably on missiles, aircraft or other systems. Some reassurance can be drawn from the fact that nuclear weapons are relatively difficult to produce, and with much more seriousness about export controls than in the past it could take Iraq many years to acquire any. Whatever the outcome with regard to disarmament and monitoring, the British government's narrative on sanctions merely serves to prop up a failed policy which is inflicting terrible costs on the Iraqi people.

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