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Economic Sanctions Iraq. Morality or Missiles?

I realise that recipients of this message do not have to be convinced about the injustice of collective punishment being imposed by the international community or national governments on civilian populations innocent of crime. You may be able to make use of my recent piece which follows.

Iraq. International Social Justice Through Morality or Missiles?

We continue to witness the imposition of economic sanctions on the people of Iraq against the backdrop of the policy of powerful nations who must at all costs to others dominate with their will. There is continuing reluctance to allow the people of Iraq the right to international justice and the right to live. This is particularly painful to the conscience of the world at a time when the leader of its superpower pleads before the highest court in his land for the right to keep his job. Many in Iraq do not have a job.

The recent speaking tour in the United Kingdom by Denis Halliday, the former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN who late last year resigned from his post of head of the oil-for-food programme in Iraq, has helped immensely to open the eyes and ears of both members of the electorate and the parliament to what can be called international crime. A former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, in his letter of 5 January to the five new members of the UN Security Council (The Netherlands, Argentina, Canada, Malaysia and Namibia, succinctly and starkly supports the statement that the Security Council’s sanctions against Iraq "are a genocidal act" and that they have caused "serious bodily and mental harm" and inflicted "conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the people of Iraq".

All those who dispute this remind me of a great truth. With apologies if another, I think it was Aleksander Solzhenitsyn who wrote that sometimes, some persons wishing to cover themselves or to give a poor impression of somebody else, present a positive misrepresentation not involving a direct lie but going beyond concealment of the truth. There have been many examples of this and worse recently in several capitals. Such is the art of politicians but not statesmen.

These attitudes from the stronger members of the international community indicate that only the symptoms and not the causes of the Middle East difficulties are being addressed. This is the tragedy from the Mediterranean to beyond the River Tigris. Lack of understanding or desire to understand and acknowledge the rights of all the peoples of the Middle East over the past eighty years has heaped one human disaster upon another.

One can be excused for thinking that the last successful USA battle associated with the Vietnam War was fought in Iraq. At the end of the Gulf War in 1991 the then President of the United States, George Bush, enthusiastically proclaimed that "we have beaten the Vietnam syndrome". In doing that, Iraq was thrust almost into oblivion. Today’s President of Finland, Martti Ahtissari, made an inspection visit to Iraq immediately following the war in his then capacity as an Under-Secretary of the UN. He stated that " most means of modern life support has been destroyed or rendered to a pre-industrial age, but with all the disabilities of a post-industrial dependency on an intensive use of energy and technology".

My wife and I saw the evidence of this when we arrived in Iraq in May 1991 to work with UNICEF. Soon after, we were noting that over 4,000 children under the age of five were dying each month as a result of the sanctions; through lack of adequate amounts of potable water, food, medicines and hospital and laboratory facilities. Over seven years later Denis Halliday, in a statement given at Harvard in November 1998 (and elsewhere) said that this figure had risen to six to seven thousand per month.

Many legislators have become anaesthetized to reports of and scenes of deprivation of others.

Living through many years of an aggressive military occupation elsewhere in the Middle East, I had seen the slow process of dehumanization of numerous officials at several levels. It became urgent to sensitize authorities to the basic rights of all humanity.

One danger of continuing economic sanctions on Iraq is that the sanctions-imposing nations will lose their sense of feel for the human needs of others. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN, when speaking at the University of Tehran on Human Rights Day in December 1997, included the words, "Human rights are the foundation of human existence and co-existence ........... Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent .................. Human rights are what make us human .............".

There is the danger that powerful nations through the exercise of their power - often without moral or international legal authority - will lose their souls. If a nation can restore its spirit through war, it can certainly retain its soul through compassion.

In the land we know today as Iraq, the great Babylonian law-making King Hammurabi over 2,500 years ago decreed that the strong must not oppress the weak. Subsequently, the Middle East gave birth to the three monotheistic religious faiths. Each of them preach the spirituality of the exercise of compassion and social justice.

Constructive positive engagement with the peoples of the Middle East and the treatment of the causes and not the symptoms of misunderstandings could yet replace missiles with morality.


By Roy E. Skinner (30 January 1999) retired senior UN official and author (1995) of "Jerusalem to Baghdad 1967-1992 Selected Letters".

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