Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq


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Guide to Sanctions

[Guide contents & introduction]

2. What has caused the humanitarian problems in Iraq?

Whilst war, and inefficiency and neglect by the Iraqi government, have undoubtedly played a significant role in causing the present hardships endured by the vast majority of inhabitants of Iraq, it is also clear that sanctions have significantly deepened the human suffering and have been one of its primary sources. Humanitarian and human rights agencies working with and in Iraq unanimously agree that sanctions have had a considerable impact on the welfare on the Iraqi population.

In 1997, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted that:

"the effect of sanctions and blockades has been to cause suffering and death in Iraq, especially to children" (§4).

In 1998, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recognized that:

"the embargo imposed by the Security Council has adversely affected the economy and many aspects of daily life, thereby impeding the full enjoyment by the States party's population, particularly children, of their rights to survival, health and education" (§5).

The Humanitarian Panel of the Security Council wrote in March 1999:

"Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of the war" (§45).

Recently the British government has argued that sanctions have only caused suffering in Iraq because of failings of the government of Iraq. In an interview with the BBC's Newsnight on 6 February 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, talking about methods of containment, said:

"One was the method of sanctions which, because of the way he [Hussein] implements those sanctions is actually a pretty brutal policy against the Iraqi people."

The Iraqi government has been accused of causing suffering by impeding the effective implementation of the 'oil for food' programme in two main ways. Firstly it has used 'oil for food' revenue inappropriately. A Foreign Office press release of 24 November 2002 detailed how Iraq had submitted orders for "22,000 tons of chewing gum machines, 12,000 tons of mobile phones, 36,000 dishwashers and over three quarters of a million TVs."

Secondly it has reduced the revenue available to the programme by smuggling oil outside of the programme and by periodically stopping all oil sales for political reasons. In April and May 2002 Iraq suspended oil sales for 30 days in protest at the continuing violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. An estimated $1.2 billion were lost as a result. These are valid criticisms of the Iraqi government, but they do not absolve the British and American governments of their share of the blame for the suffering caused by sanctions.

Even the International Development Select Committee of the UK House of Commons concluded that, although "not all this humanitarian distress is the direct result of the sanctions regime", sanctions cannot be overlooked:

"This does not, however, entirely excuse the international community from a part in the suffering of Iraqis. The reasons sanctions were imposed in the first place were precisely the untrustworthiness of Saddam Hussein, his well documented willingness to oppress his own people and neighbours, his contempt for humanitarian law. The international community cannot condemn Saddam Hussein for such behaviour and then complain that he is not allowing humanitarian exemptions to relieve suffering. What else could be expected? A sanctions regime which relies on the good faith of Saddam Hussein is fundamentally flawed" (§40).

The British government claims that if the 'oil for food' programme were efficiently implemented there would not be a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Is this true?

The UN Secretary-General does not think so. On 2 March 2001 he told the Security Council that: "the programme was never meant to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people and cannot be a substitute for normal economic activity in Iraq." (§154)

Neither does Amnesty International. In February 2003 it commented: "There have been claims that the Iraqi authorities have deliberately manipulated the sanctions regime for propaganda purposes - but that does not absolve the UN Security Council from its share of the responsibility for failing to heed the calls to lift all sanctions provisions that result in grave violations of the rights of the Iraqi people."

During twelve years of sanctions the 'oil for food' programme has generated about as much oil revenue ($63 billion) as Iraq earned from oil sales in 1980 alone ($59 billion). This is not enough to meet the needs of the Iraqi people. In February 2002 Unicef described the Iraqi government's food distribution system as working "flawlessly", yet it still found that 23% of under fives in Iraq were suffering from chronic malnutrition. Unicef explained that a contributing factor to malnutrition in Iraq is the "breakdown of key Iraqi infrastructure such as power grids and water distribution networks as a result of two major wars and over a decade of comprehensive international sanctions." Tackling the humanitarian problems in Iraq requires rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, but the foreign investment which would allow this is not permitted under sanctions.

Iraq's failure to perfectly implement the 'oil for food' programme is detrimental at the margin, but by focusing on the actions of the Iraqi government the British government ignores the root cause of the problems in Iraq. Suffering is not an unintentional side effect of sanctions. It is their aim. Sanctions are instruments of coercion and they coerce by causing hardship.

An honest appraisal of the effects of sanctions would include an acknowledgement that they were imposed because it was believed that the suffering they would cause was a price worth paying for the policy objectives they were intended to achieve.

On 12 May 1996 Madeleine Albright demonstrated the difficulties involved in admitting the consequences of these sanctions in an appearance on the US television show, 60 Minutes. At the time she was the US ambassador to the United Nations; six months later she became Secretary of State. Host Lesley Stahl, referring to a 1995 figure, asked:

Stahl: "We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?"

Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it."

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