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Article on the morality of Iraq sanctions

Article by Middle East specialist Stephen Zunes, Assistant Professor of
Politics at the University of San Francisco (


Are Iraqi Sanctions Immoral? 
By Stephen Zunes
Foreign Service Journal / February 1999


The question of whether and under what circumstances the United States
should impose economic sanctions on foreign countries has long been a
source of controversy. Critics on both the left and the right have
advocated and condemned the use of sanctions, often based in part on the
ideological orientation of the regime in question. Some conservatives of
a libertarian persuasion oppose sanctions on principle since they
interfere with the rights of investors. Indeed, with the creation of the
World Trade Organization, it has become more difficult to legally
justify sanctions on non-economic issues at all. In addition, recent
efforts by the United States to enforce its unilateral sanctions against
Cuba and Iran on foreign companies have led to heated diplomatic
exchanges with our Canadian and European allies.

One of the biggest criticisms of the use of economic sanctions, however,
has not been in the legal or political realm, but with regard to ethical
questions over their impact on the civilian population. Most people
recognize that civilians will, in the short term, inevitably suffer to
some degree from economic sanctions. However, it is hoped that this
suffering will thereby spur the population to challenge the policies of
the government which led to the imposition of sanctions and perhaps even
lead to the overthrow of the offending regime. Sanctions, then, while
not painless, are often seen as a nonviolent alternative to military
intervention as a means of applying pressure to recalcitrant regimes. In
the case of Iraq, however, ongoing United Nations sanctions _ most
vigorously supported by the United States _ may have actually been more
destructive than war, in terms of the number of lives lost as a result.
While there is virtually no opposition to the United Nations' strict
weapons embargo against Iraq, the mbargo against civilian trade has
created great controversy due to its humanitarian consequences and
questionable political effectiveness. Though overshadowed here in the
United States in recent months by renewed military confrontations
between the United States and Iraq, the sanctions regime has become the
major concern for Iraq and much of the Middle East. Indeed, it was the
perceived lack of prospects for lifting the sanctions which prompted
Iraq's defiance of United Nations inspectors, prompting the recent
military confrontations. The Iraqis have seemed resigned to heavy air
strikes, with many expressing the sense that they had very little left
to lose.

Sanctions That Bite

Sanctions were originally imposed by the United Nations in August 1990,
immediately following Iraq's invasion, occupation and annexation of
Kuwait. There was little controversy within the international community
or in the United States about such a course of action. Indeed, many
believe that had the U.N. imposed sanctions following Saddam Hussein's
1980 invasion of Iran or his use of chemical weapons against Iraqi
Kurds, he would not have been emboldened to invade Kuwait in the first

When finally imposed in August of 1990, the sanctions were the most
rigorously enforced in history. The CIA estimated in a report that
autumn that U.N. sanctions were blocking 90 percent of Iraqi imports and
97 percent of Iraqi exports. (Since the Iraqi defeat in 1991, sanctions
have been less effective.) Sanctions alone were insufficient to pressure
the Iraqis to withdraw their forces, however. Some argue that the Bush
administration's insistence that sanctions would continue even if Saddam
Hussein withdrew his forces from Kuwait gave the Iraqis little incentive
to comply. Furthermore, the simultaneous preparation for an armed
assault caused many Iraqis who might otherwise have challenged the
regime over the country's deteriorating economic situation to rally
around the flag in the face of an imminent attack.

Others, however, are convinced that Saddam Hussein would not have pulled
out in any case and that sanctions alone were insufficient to force the
Iraqi withdrawal.

The war had a devastating impact on Iraq's civilian infrastructure, as
the country experienced the heaviest bombing in world history. Unlike
some other countries subjected to heavy air strikes, such as largely
rural societies like Vietnam and Afghanistan, the heavily urbanized
Iraqis were severely impacted by the sudden absence of clean drinking
water, normal distribution systems for basic commodities and _ in part
due to the fact that they are a largely arid country dependent on
irrigation systems severely damaged by the bombing _ severe food

Sanctions have remained in effect for the eight years since the war as a
result of Iraq's less-than-full compliance with several provisions of
United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 imposed at the end of the
war. This has not only led to enormous human suffering, but many argue
that it has been counterproductive to the broader U.S. goal of bringing
down the Iraqi 

It was precisely out of Iraq's middle class that forces might have
emerged capable of successfully challenging Saddam's regime. Having been
reduced to penury, and struggling to survive, the middle class cannot be
a base for political opposition. Thousands have emigrated. Indeed, as
more and more families become dependent on government rations for their
very survival, they are forced to cooperate even more with the
government, and the already-high risks of challenging Saddam's rule have
become too great for many. Critics of the current sanctions regime argue
that the lifting of non-military sanctions would allow the country to be
deluged with business people and other foreigners, creating an
environment far more likely to result in a political opening than the
current sanctions regime which places the country in impoverished
isolation under Saddam's grip.

Public Health Devastation

There has been some limited media coverage in the United States of the
hardships the sanctions have inflicted on the once-prosperous Iraqi
middle class, such as professors selling their valuable books, families
selling their pets and women selling their family jewelry in order to
buy basic necessities, as food prices are now 12,000 times what they
were in 1990. Yet it is Iraq's poor, particularly the children, who have
suffered the most. Estimates of the total number of Iraqis killed as a
result of malnutrition and preventable diseases as a direct consequence
of the sanctions have ranged from a quarter million to over one million,
the majority of whom have been children. UNICEF estimates that at least
4,500 Iraqi children are dying every month as a result of the sanctions.
Indeed, perhaps there has been no other occasion during peacetime when
so many people have been condemned to starvation and death from
preventable diseases due to political decisions made overseas. 

While the repressive nature of Baathist rule under Saddam Hussein in the
1980s is well documented, the Iraqi regime _ like a number of fascist
governments historically _ maintained a comprehensive and generous
welfare state, generally doing a respectable job of meeting the
nutritional, housing and health care needs of its population; indeed,
Iraq had the highest per capita caloric intake in the Middle East. Most
of the population had direct access to safe water and modern sanitation
facilities; there was a wide network of well-functioning and
well-supplied hospitals and health care centers. The overall economy was
strong, with Iraq considered a "middle income" country, importing large
numbers of foreign guest workers to fill 
empty spots in its growing economy. Now, it ranks as one of the most
impoverished countries in the world.

According to a 1997 report by the U.N. Food and Agricultural
Organization (FAO), "Four million people, one-fifth of the population,
are currently starving to death in Iraq. Twenty-three percent of all
children in Iraq have stunted growth, approximately twice the percentage
before the war. Alarming food shortages are causing irreparable damage
to an entire generation of children." The FAO further estimates that
there has been a 72 percent rise in childhood malnourishment, affecting
32 percent of children under five. The World Health Organization (WHO)
estimates that "there has been a six-fold increase in the mortality rate
for children under five and the majority of the country's population has
been on a semi-starvation diet."

Does Saddam Care?

These deaths are a result of inadequate medical supplies, impure water
and nutritional deficiencies. With water purification and sewage systems
heavily damaged by American bombing raids in 1991, and with the Iraqis
unable to repair these facilities since the embargo prohibits the
importation of spare parts, there has been a dramatic increase in
typhoid, cholera and other illnesses which had largely been eliminated
in Iraq prior to the 1991 Gulf War. Ambulances and other emergency
vehicles, and even their spare parts, are among the items banned.
Hospitals are unable to acquire spare parts for incubators, kidney
dialysis machines and other equipment. Even materials such as food and
medicines not covered by the ban have become difficult to purchase due
to the lack of capital. Electricity is irregular and conditions at
hospitals are becoming increasingly unsanitary. With tap water no longer
safe, a gallon of bottled water now costs as much as 500 times more than
a gallon of gasoline.

Iraq's primary source for foreign exchange, oil exports, is of course
subject to the embargo, with the exception of a limited amount of
petroleum which may be sold for food under strict U.N. monitoring. Until
recently, Iraq was allowed to sell only $2 billion in oil every six
months to purchase food. About one-third of that was allocated to Kuwait
for reparations and to the U.N. for administrative costs. Though the FAO
and the WHO have given Iraq high marks for their distribution of food
and medicine, the U.N. estimates that about $4 billion is the minimum
needed to meet basic needs for food and medicines. Over initial U.S.
objections, the U.N. raised the permitted amount to $5.2 billion (of
which $3.5 billion actually could go to Iraq) last spring, though the
lack of spare parts for its oil industry has made it difficult for Iraq
to produce that much oil.

A full quarter of Iraq's school-aged population is no longer in school,
in a country which previously had near-universal primary education. For
those who can attend school, books and other educational resources are
in extremely short supply.

The U.S. has blamed the suffering on the Iraqi regime for its failure to
more fully cooperate with the United Nations. Said Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright at the National Press Club on May 12, 1998, "Saddam
Hussein is the one who has the fate of his country in his hands, and he
is the one who is responsible for starving children, not the United
States of America." Furthermore, there has been some outcry at the Iraqi
government's decision to use scarce resources for the construction of
opulent mosques and additional palaces for Saddam Hussein, his family
and associates, though the Iraqis claim that these use indigenous
materials and are paid for in Iraqi dinars. Albright has justified the
sanctions in part as a test to prove if Saddam "really cares about his
people." Most knowledgeable observers of Iraq recognize that no such
test is necessary; Saddam's primary concern has always been his own
power. Indeed, Saddam Hussein is ultimately responsible for his people's
suffering from the sanctions. But since it has long become apparent that
such suffering is not altering Iraqi policy, one must also therefore
raise the question of moral culpability on the part of the United

Iraq's Totalitarian Regime

Part of the ineffectiveness of the sanctions comes from the nature of
Saddam Hussein's regime. It is more than simply another authoritarian
Middle Eastern government; indeed, next to North Korea, it is the most
totalitarian regime on the planet. Therefore, the ability of the
population to organize effectively against the regime or its policies,
particularly under dire economic conditions created by the sanctions, is
severely limited. Indeed, this is why virtually every recognized Iraqi
opposition group has come out against the sanctions regime. The
potential political effectiveness of sanctions _ as well as their
morality _ can be judged in part by the willingness of the opposition to
have its people endure the hardships imposed. A counter-example would be
the case of South Africa, where the black majority had long lobbied for
a tough stance by the international community against the apartheid

Surprisingly, there is little debate in the U.S. Congress regarding the
lifting of sanctions. Rather, some politicians would make them tougher.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has
called for a total blockade, including food. Some members of Congress,
such as Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), have begun to publicly
question its 

Much of the organized opposition has been among some churches,
humanitarian organizations and peace groups, which have sent delegations
to Iraq to bring medical supplies, often in direct defiance of the
sanctions. Such acts of civil disobedience and the stories participants
have brought back home to their congregations, civic groups and local
media have begun to influence public opinion, though some individuals
and organizations have compromised their credibility by citing
exaggerated statistics and engaging in apologetics for the Iraqi regime.

As word of the appalling conditions in Iraq has spread within the United
States and other countries, pressure has grown for a change in policy.
Though the humanitarian imperative has failed to resonate with the
Clinton administration or Congress, the fact that the sanctions have had
absolutely no tangible benefit in altering Iraqi policy may be enough to
persuade U.S. policy makers to liberalize the sanctions regime in order
to ease the human suffering.

A Sanctions Quid Pro Quo?

Part of the problem is that the United States has given Iraq little
motivation to cooperate with its international obligations. For example,
Madeleine Albright declared in March 1997 that the U.S. would veto any
U.N. Security Council efforts to lift sanctions, even if Iraq finally
came into full compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions; only
if Saddam Hussein no longer ruled Iraq would the U.S. allow the
sanctions regime to end. President Clinton reiterated this position in
November 1997. This stand not only goes far beyond the original U.N.
mandate _ it also gives the Iraqi government no incentive to cooperate:
Saddam might be willing to make further 
compromises on issues of weapons production and inspector access if that
would result in lifting sanctions, but not if sanctions would remain
intact anyway. Indeed, Saddam's harassment of U.N. inspections was based
largely on the realization that he has nothing to lose as long as the
U.S. maintains its uncompromising position.

It has long been recognized that for sanctions to work, one needs a
carrot as well as a stick, something which the U.S. has largely failed
to recognize. Indeed, there has been a historic tendency for governments
to ignore the huge body of evidence that punishment doesn't change
behavior of other governments as effectively as does reward. It would be
far more effective for the United States, in consultation with other
members of the Security Council, to offer to lift certain non-military
sanctions in return for compliance with inspections and other
outstanding issues of U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, and to be
specific as to what positive responses could be expected in return for
certain improvements in behavior. Former U.N. Special Commission chief
Rolf Ekeus has proposed just such a scenario, though the current UNSCOM
leader, Richard Butler, has taken a more hard-line approach.

The vigor with which the United States has pursued strict sanctions
against Iraq over its failure to comply with sections of one Security
Council resolution stands in stark contrast to the U.S. position
blocking sanctions against governments allied with the United States _
such as Indonesia, Israel, Morocco and Turkey _ for their ongoing
violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. This perception of a
double standard has led the Iraqis, rightly or wrongly, to determine
that the sanctions are punitive and politically motivated. Whereas
sanctions against Iraq during the occupation of Kuwait were widely seen
by ordinary Iraqis as the fault of their own government, the post-war
sanctions are almost universally blamed on the United States and the
West. The humanitarian crisis has also led to widespread resentment in
the Arab world, even by those very much opposed to Saddam Hussein. Such
resentment can spill over to anti-American violence. Indeed, along with
U.S. support for Israel and the Saudi royal family, the continued
sanctions against Iraq were among the main grievances expressed by
terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.

Morality and Consequences

The morality of a particular foreign policy is tempered by its results.
If human suffering from economic sanctions can advance a policy goal
that would lead to less suffering in the long term, one could make the
case that it was morally justified. Indeed, in an interview on "60
Minutes" regarding the devastating impact sanctions were having on the
children of Iraq, Albright declared that "we think the price is worth
it." Yet the apparent failure of the sanctions to move Iraq's level of
compliance with the international community forward raises serious
doubts. Former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali challenged
the international community to confront "the ethical question of whether
suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups in the target country is a
legitimate means to exerting pressure on political leaders whose
behavior is unlikely to be affected by the plight of their subjects."
Indeed, there is little indication that Saddam Hussein, his inner circle
and key elements of the military leadership are suffering any shortages
of food, drinking water and medical supplies. The suffering of the
civilian population has become an effective propaganda tool to stir up
anti-American sentiment, but does not seem to have had an impact in
altering Iraqi policy in ways consistent with U.S. interests.

This raises the question as to whether the morality and the political
efficacy of the ongoing sanctions regime can be separated. Like the air
strikes of recent months, the motivation appears to be more on an
emotional level than a rationally calculated strategy. Indeed, the worst
mistakes of recent years in foreign policy have tended to come from
reactive decisions born out of frustration at impudent regimes which
have challenged basic international standards and U.S. policy interests.
Diplomatic historians of the future will likely raise serious questions
regarding the morality of the sanctions regime against Iraq. They may
also come to see it as one of the key errors in U.S. policy which
eventually did serious harm to American interests 
in the Middle East. 


This article thanks to a US-based discussion list and the Helena Service
for Peace and Justice, (
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