Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq


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Westminster Watch

This article was originally published in CASI's July 2002 Newsletter (View full contents)

‘Smart sanctions’

With the debate at the UN largely limited to modifications to import restrictions, domestic political discussion of the sanctions on Iraq has followed suit. The UK government, in contrast to the UN Humanitarian Panel’s own analysis of the situation in Iraq, has continued to present access to civilian goods as the only obstacle to the well-being of the Iraqi people, and its ‘smart sanctions’ proposals as removing the burden from them.

On 8 January, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Denis MacShane, told the House of Commons that "Britain has taken the lead in ensuring that sanctions do not harm the Iraqi people directly." Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, described the government on 12 March as "playing a leading role in establishing a new control regime which better targets the importing of military-related goods to Iraq, while allowing normal civilian goods to be imported without restriction." On the same day, Straw passed an 8-page briefing paper to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) which claimed:

It is not credible to blame the UN for the suffering of the Iraqi people. Since 1996 UN controls have been increasingly targeted on military items and items of potential use in Iraqi weapons programmes. It is a myth that the UN prevents the delivery of food and medicines.

The briefing attributed the continued suffering of the people of Iraq to their government’s insufficient ordering of goods, and to the diversion of funds for "grandiose projects" to serve the regime. There was no acknowledgement of the Iraqis’ more fundamental need for income.

On 16 April, Elfyn Llwyd (Plaid Cymru, Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) tried to expand the terms of the debate, asking the Foreign Secretary:

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in March 1999 a UN humanitarian panel of experts recommended a number of modifications to the sanctions on Iraq, which they thought might lead to incremental improvements in the internal humanitarian situation? One of those recommendations was to authorise foreign investment in Iraq’s non-military export industries. Why is that recommendation absent from the Government’s smart sanctions proposal, under which all exports from Iraq other than oil will be banned?

Straw’s response didn’t engage with the criticism. He stated that the recommendation had been followed up through the smart sanctions proposals, and blamed the Iraqi government for Russia’s reluctance to agree to the Goods Review List.

In an article in The Times the previous month, Straw had again limited the discussion of the effects of sanctions to the delivery of goods:

It angers me when well-meaning people are taken in by these lies. The UN allows the regime access to more than enough money for all the humanitarian goods the Iraqis need. It is the regime which refuses to use these funds to order food and medicine. It suits Saddam to make Iraqis suffer and starve, because this distracts attention from the threat he poses to global security. [‘Saddam Must Allow Weapons Inspectors into Iraq or Suffer The Consequences’, 5 Mar 2002]

Statements since the passage of Security Council Resolution 1409 have closed off the sanctions debate completely. During a debate on the UN on 23 May, Denis MacShane described the new resolution:

It removes Saddam’s spurious excuses for the suffering that he inflicts on the Iraqi people and puts more pressure on the regime. It will also bring a significant reduction in UN bureaucracy to allow swifter delivery of goods to Iraq under the Oil for Food programme, and it will underline, once again, that the Security Council has only ever had a problem with the Iraqi regime, not the Iraqi people.

Concerns over military action

At the same time as securing the adoption of ‘smart sanctions’ at the Security Council, the government has been engaged in the more high-profile task of dealing with parliamentary and media speculation over possible military action against Iraq. Since President Bush’s State of the Union address on 29 January, when he described Iraq as forming part of an "axis of evil" seeking weapons of mass destruction to "threaten the peace of the world", the question of UK participation in a US-led war on Iraq has been high on the domestic political agenda.

In the House of Commons in March, the Prime Minister said only that "no decisions have yet been taken" and that there would be "an opportunity for the house to express its view" [6 March 2002]. At a joint press conference with US Vice-President Dick Cheney on 11 March, he stated: "The issue of weapons of mass destruction will have to be addressed but no decision has yet been taken on how we proceed." By 7 April he had told an audience in Texas, including former US President George Bush Snr.: "If necessary the action should be military, and again, if necessary and justified, it should involve regime change." In the same month in the Commons he described Kuwait’s annexation by Iraq in the 1990s as leading to "the first Gulf War" [17 April 2002], suggesting that there may be a second.

Opposition to the prospect of military action among MPs and the general public has been widely reported. 161 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion (EDM 927, 4 March 2002) stating that "a further military attack on Iraq would be unwise at this time", while the BBC’s On the Record polled 100 Labour MPs, of whom 86 expressed opposition to military action. A Guardian/ICM poll in March found that 51% of the public disapproved of Britain backing America with military action against Iraq, with 35% approving.

The possibility of splits in the government and the Labour party has received particular attention. In March, the Financial Times stated that, according to government insiders, "Tony Blair faces the threat of ministerial resignations – including at least one cabinet member – if he backs any US military action against Iraq" [‘Ministers coul quit if Blair backs attack on Iraq’, 8 March 2002]. The Daily Telegraph reported that "At least two Labour MPs have said privately that they would resign the whip and sit as independents if Britain was drawn into war" [‘100 MPs back protest over strikes on Iraq’, 15 March 2002]. The latter also reported that David Blunkett had "warned Tony Blair that military action in Iraq could provoke serious civil disorder in Britain" [‘Blunkett warns Blair of riots in Britain over Iraq’, 17 March 2002], whilst Clare Short was quoted in The Independent describing military action as "unwise" [‘Short: Military action against Iraq is ‘unwise’’, 18 March 2002].

The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, expressed his concerns in December that an attack on Iraq "in the absence of clear proof of an Iraqi link with the events of 11 September […] would not only break apart the coalition but could also easily lead to retaliation by Saddam Hussein against Israel" [‘Kennedy warns against Iraq attack’, BBC News Online, 28 December 2001]. Menzies Campbell, the party’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, argued in the Commons on 12 December that the strategy of containment and deterrence had been effective, and should not be abandoned. On 16 April, in a question to the Foreign Secretary, he stated that "neither the charter of the United Nations, nor indeed any other principle of international law, nor even the ceasefire resolutions which affect Iraq, authorise regime change".

In contrast, the Conservative Party has been at pains to present itself as firmly behind the US position of regime change. Iain Duncan Smith visited Washington in December to meet senior American officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and stated that the UK should be prepared to support military action if there was evidence of Iraq supporting international terrorism. By March he was quoted in The Guardian calling for Europe’s leaders to "stop gazing at their political navel" and give their support "until the US completes its unfinished business with the Iraqi leader" [‘Voters say no to Iraq attack’, 18 March 2002]. He also authored a pamphlet entitled ‘A race against time’ which stated that "America’s determination to topple Saddam is fully justified. […] Failure to act now would be a victory for Saddam". The pamphlet claimed that Iraq will produce a nuclear bomb within five years unless the Iraqi leader is ousted.

Meanwhile, 63 Tory MPs have signed Early Day Motion 922 (4 March 2002) which "welcomes the support for action against Iraq given to President Bush by the Prime Minister".

Weapons dossier

The argument for military action rests on Iraq’s alleged development and possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and its refusal to co-operate with UN weapons inspections. To show the seriousness of this refusal, the government was reported earlier this year to have prepared a dossier of evidence on Iraq’s WMD capabilities to be published before Easter. In an article in The Express in March, Tony Blair claimed: "Saddam is continuing his chemical and biological weapons programmes and is developing the long-range missiles to deliver them" [‘Why Saddam is still a threat to Britain’, 6 March 2002]. On 12 March in the Commons, Jack Straw described the Iraqi regime as representing "a severe threat to international and regional security as a result of its continued development of weapons of mass destruction." As yet, however, the dossier has not been published.

Asked on Breakfast with Frost if the dossier had been pulled because of a lack of evidence, the Prime Minister said: "It wasn’t pulled. We will publish it at the appropriate time, and when that’s going to be I simply do not know. The evidence of Saddam Hussein on weapons of mass destruction is simply vast" [21 April 2002]. Earlier that week in the Commons, Straw had said: "We do not have to wait for the publication of a dossier, which is held up only by difficulties in determining whether intelligence should be made public" [16 April 2002].

Yet as The Times reported, Jack Straw’s separate briefing to the Parliamentary Labour Party in March "adds that there is no firm evidence that President Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction at present" [‘Iraq ‘is on the brink of nuclear capability’’, 13 March 2002]. Speaking in the Commons on 10 April, the Prime Minister admitted: "although we do not know what has happened, we suspect that the piles of chemical and biological weapons remain."

On the BBC’s Newsnight in May the Prime Minister stated: "Oh, there’s masses of evidence about what Saddam’s up to. I don’t think anyone is any dispute about that" [‘Transcript from the second night of Blair’s interview’, Guardian Unlimited, 16 May 2002]. Yet with no intrusive weapons inspections since 1998, however, whether Iraq possesses WMD seems unlikely to be known for certain (see ‘Non-conventional weapons, sanctions and the threat of war’, page 9). As Angus Robertson of the Scottish National Party said in the Commons on 16 April:

I dislike Saddam Hussein’s regime as much as anyone else in the Chamber, but we still wait for the famed dossier on the weapons of mass destruction programme of Iraq. Dossiers and intelligence on al-Qaeda were shared and briefings were done on Privy Council terms in the run-up to the situation in Afghanistan. Why is the same not true of the Iraqi information that we have been promised?

Calls for explicit UN resolution and Commons vote

Two further Early Day Motions (EDMs) have emerged from the debate in the Commons, one seeking explicit approval of any military action from the UN Security Council, the other from a House of Commons vote.

In the Westminster Hall debate on Iraq on 6 March, Alistair Carmichael (Lib Dem, Orkney and Shetland) said: "Our bottom line must be that nothing can be done without the full authority and approval of the UN. There can be no departure from that as the baseline for future action." He added: "I do not think that there is a United Nations resolution that gives the Americans the right unilaterally to take action." EDM 955, submitted the following day (7 March 2002), has been signed by 32 MPs. It states that "any international offensive military action against Iraq can only be morally justified if it carries a new and specific mandate from the United National Security Council".

The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, however, has stated on ITV’s Jonathan Dimbleby that "we would be perfectly entitled to use force without the support of a UN Security Council resolution" [24 March 2002]. Tony Blair refused to commit to a similar statement. Asked on the BBC’s Newsnight whether military operations would have to be endorsed by the UN, he replied: "They have to be compliant with UN law, as we did the last time. Whether that needs another specific UN resolution is not an issue yet because we simply do not know what military action we might or might not take" [16 May 2002].

Calls for British participation to be mandated by a Commons vote have met with a similar response. EDM 1041 (20 March 2002), calling on the government "to ensure that there is a debate and substantive motion in the House before any further British forces are deployed in any military action beyond present commitments against Iraq", has been signed by 60 MPs.

Asked in the Commons by Diane Abbot on 6 March if he accepted that "in the event that British troops are sent into action, there should be a debate and a vote on the Floor of the House", the Prime Minister would only promise that "there should be an opportunity for the House to express its view". Pressed by Tam Dalyell, he said: "of course we will come and consult the House properly as we should." Jack Straw, in response to a request for a vote from Douglas Hogg (Con, Sleaford and North Hykeham) on 12 March, was slightly more explicit: "the right honourable and learned Gentleman is aware of the conventions of this House about the basis on which military action is decided. There is an argument for those conventions to be changed, but those are the conventions."

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CASI Newsletter - July 2002



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Iraq sanctions reform

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Non-conventional weapons, sanctions and the threat of war

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