Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq
Newsletter - February 2001

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Westminster Watch

The Future of Sanctions report

CASI's May 2000 newsletter reported on the International Development Select Committee's 10 February report, "The Future of Sanctions". On 16 May, the government produced its response. These are usually produced within two months; one interpretation is that this response was delayed because of the report's complicated nature, which required a response for various government departments (including the Department for International Development, the Treasury and the Foreign Office).

The government's response, while often sensible, resembled a letter from the Foreign Office when it discussed the situation in Iraq. It began by noting that the "Government fully agrees with the conclusion of the Committee that the responsibility for the plight of the Iraqi people must ultimately lie with the Iraqi leadership" and went on to describe the faults of the Iraqi leadership. The response does not recognise that the sanctions on Iraq cause hardship directly, by design, nor that the indirect hardship caused by Iraqi government policies is still an indirect consequence of the sanctions.

Bowen Wells (Cons - Hertford and Stortford) opened the 29 June Commons debate on the report and its response. He criticised the government's response as "complacent and, in many ways, flabby". Ann Clwyd (Lab - Cynon Valley) blamed the Iraqi government for all the hardship in Iraq. She argued that the sanctions put pressure on the Iraqi regime, which she compared to the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge. She listed its abuses at length.

Oona King (Lab - Bethnal Green and Bow) started by remarking that, when the Committee began its work, her thoughts were "largely informed by" the view that holds "Saddam Hussein ... ultimately responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people". Acknowledging the deaths attributed directly to the Iraqi regime, she then reported Unicef's estimate that a half million extra children under five had died under sanctions. In her comments, she quoted approvingly from a letter by Andrea Needham, of Voices in the Wilderness UK. Noting that the sanctions on Iraq had "failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein" while hurting "the ordinary people of Iraq", she observed that one sanction not currently applied against Iraq is the use of the International Criminal Court, a very targeted form of sanction. She concluded by remarking on the lack of common sense in the case of Iraq and recommended the consideration of targeted sanctions.

Nigel Jones (LibDem - Cheltenham) confirmed, from first hand experience, the Iraqi regime's disregard for human rights. He argued for continued but smarter sanctions and claimed that recognising that the choice for Iraqi regime members was between remaining in power and oblivion was "the starting point for all his strategic consultations". Jones' later comments did not differentiate between types of sanctions: he argued, for example, that the "sanctions are necessary to stop [Saddam Hussein] building up his arsenal". He identified the importance of using Russia to mediate some form of settlement with Iraq.

Richard Spring (Con - West Suffolk) noted the importance of sanctions and expressed his fear that, unless they were properly targeted, confidence would be lost in them and the ability to use them reduced. At the same time, he noted that private financial sanctions (e.g. freezing regime members' bank accounts) remained untested.

A parliamentary source involved in the Select Committee's report told CASI that Committee members have been surprised by the government's hostile treatment of Hans von Sponeck. He had impressed them when giving testimony for the original report.


On 22 May, Tam Dalyell (Lab - Linlithgow) put five questions on Iraq to Peter Hain in the House of Commons. He asked: why the British government continued to report hoarding of supplies by the Iraqi government when the UN reported the opposite; why the recommendation by the President of the Security Council that the impact of sanctions be monitored had not been applied to Iraq's case; what the UK, as the sponsor of SCR 1284, was doing to end the stalemate that it had created; how the government responded to educated Iraqis' increasing references to both sanctions-related suffering in Iraq and to human rights violations; and, what the government intended to do about widespread smuggling in Iraq.

Hain's response praised SCR 1284 and blamed the Iraqi government for hardship. On smuggling, he did support Iran's impounding of some tankers and said that he was pressing Turkey as well. He had met with various people to seek the implementation of SCR 1284.

The following day saw debate on Iraq in the Lords. Lord Islwyn (Lab) quoted Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck, Amnesty International and the Security Council's Humanitarian Panel report. He concluded by noting that "Surely it is time to end the sanctions".

Responding, the Lord Bishop of Hereford agreed that the sanctions were harming the innocent, and that "there are some serious questions about the way in which Resolution 1284 is working". Surprisingly, he argued against a de-linking of the "sanctions policy, which has had such a devastating impact on health and welfare, from military and political considerations". He did not give reasons for his position beyond the hope that, if "the Iraqi Government were to comply with Resolution 1284" then sanctions could be lifted. One Church source commented angrily on this argument afterwards. The source felt that the Bishop had presented it because he was uninformed about this issue, and had joined the debate simply because he was the Bishop in attendance at the time.

Lord Rea (Lab) argued that the sanctions were responsible for civilian suffering, which did not touch Iraq's leadership. They did not help control Iraq's weapons, now only pursued by "sporadic bombing from a great height", which Rea felt was "an ineffective and inhumane way to achieve that".

On 7 November, after a summer recess, the Commons again discussed Iraq. Donald Anderson (Lab - Swansea East), Steve McCabe (Lab - Birmingham, Hall Green), Menzies Campbell (LibDem - North-East Fife) and Sir David Madel (Con - South-West Bedfordshire) all asked about the humanitarian situation in Iraq. Sir David asked whether all members of the Security Council agreed that Iraq's compliance with the terms of SCR 1284 would lead to sanctions' suspension. Campbell asked:

Is not it obvious that policy towards Iraq is based on containment by utilising the deterrent effect of credible military force? What possible contribution do non-military sanctions make to that policy? They do grievous harm to the ordinary people of Iraq, they have no effect on Saddam Hussein, his whisky or his brutality, they give him an enormous propaganda advantage and they cause grave disquiet throughout the Arab world. Ten years after the end of the Gulf war, is not it time for the United Nations to lift the non-military sanctions?

Hain avoided these questions.

In Prime Minister's questions on 22 November, Tony Blair himself faced questions on Iraq. Dr Norman Godman (Lab - Greenock and Inverclyde) asked whether Blair agreed, "that there is deep concern everywhere over the dreadful misery inflicted upon the Iraqi people by the sanctions regime? Has not the time come for the Government to agree to support the case for the suspension of sanctions, even though that might cause anger in Washington? Sanctions have to go, do they not?" Blair did not.

It is encouraging both to see parliamentarians from all parties who have not previously engaged the government on Iraq's humanitarian situation doing so with such intelligence and determination.

No-fly zones report

On 2 August the Select Committee on Defence released its thirteenth report, on the no-fly zones. The report began by concluding that their patrolling by the UK "is a humanitarian mission to protect ethnic and religious minorities and neighbouring countries of these regions from the terror and oppression exercised by Saddam Hussein and his regime". Throughout the report, there is no indication given that the Committee members are aware that Iraq's Shiites, for whom the southern no-fly zone was allegedly established, form the majority of Iraq's population.

The report believes that "Saddam's intentions towards the minority peoples [sic] has not changed and, although he has less ability to attack them from the air, repression on a lesser scale has continued through ground attacks".

The report cannot find more than "a tenuous basis in current international customary law" but nevertheless has "no doubt that UK participation in the no-fly zone operations over Iraq is justified on moral and humanitarian grounds". The evidence for this conclusion is never presented. This disinterest in evidence weakens the conclusion as there may be at least one argument in favour of at least the northern no-fly zone: that many of Iraq's Kurds regard it as a symbolic guarantee of their security. The ability to claim that the zones have led to any reduction in human rights abuses is further reduced by the admission that patrol planes only attack ground targets if they themselves are targeted: attacks by Iraqi government forces on civilian populations do not earn a response. In contrast to the report's optimistic assessment, the Washington Post quoted a pilot who had done four tours of duty in the zones: "I think almost everybody thinks it is a waste of time" [ 'Containing Iraq: A Forgotten War', 25/10/00].

A significant section of the report is devoted to "relations with host countries and other Gulf States". This section laments the current separation between defence sales and defence assistance and recommends that the "MoD should be prepared, on occasion, to be more direct in linking the promotion of UK equipment to military assistance".

Civil society opposition to sanctions mainstream

Over the past year, sanctions on Iraq has attracted more and more attention from civil society. What used to be a topic of limited and often uneasy discussion has developed into an issue of widespread concern. And an increasingly broad spectrum is coming to the conclusion that the present policy needs to be revised.

From within the Church of England, several statements have put sanctions into questions. In an address to the Church Club of New York on 14 September, the Archbishop of Canterbury noted the Iraqi people's severe suffering, and said that while "there are arguments about the extent to which that is Saddam Hussein's own fault. But the evidence still suggests that the negative effect of sanctions is out of proportion to the good achieved ... this suggests at the very least that they need to be reconfigured to impact on those they are intended to target". In July, the Church's International and Development Affairs Committee published a report entitled "Iraq - a decade of sanctions". Reporting from a visit in April, the Committee reported on the "harm caused by the comprehensive sanctions policy" and stated that "the United Nations should ... consider substituting the present sanctions regime with an arms embargo and financial sanctions specifically targeted against the Iraq's ruling elite". On 14 November, Coventry Cathedral sent out a clear signal of similar sentiment, awarding the International Peace and Reconciliation Award of Cathedral and City of Coventry to Hans von Sponeck.

NGOs have also increasingly been vocal on the sanctions issue. In August, six international organisationsGlobal Policy Forum, Human Rights Watch, Mennonite Central Committee, Peace Action Education Fund, Quaker United Nations Office, and Save the Children UKsent a joint letter to the Security Council. They said that "whatever the extent of Iraqi non-compliance with the provisions of that resolution, the Council must recognise that the sanctions have contributed in a major way to persistent life-threatening conditions in the country" and called "upon Security Council member states in the strongest terms to take the further steps that are necessary to protect and advance these fundamental rights of civilians".

As we report in our article on Westminster in this newsletter, a change in the discourse of the political community is also taking place. While the Labour and Conservative parties remain broadly unchanged in their positions on sanctions, the Liberal Democrats took a new step at their annual party conference in September. Noting that the present sanctions amount "containmentand nothing more", the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell called for a lifting of non-military sanctions on Iraq. Focusing on the scope for exploitation of sanctions by the Iraqi leadership, Campbell said: "non-military sanctions do not hurt Saddam Hussein and the elite who surround him. But they are used by him to hurt his own people. After ten years it is time to deny him that opportunity" and "that it should now become the policy of the British Government that sanctions other than those directly relevant to military or military related equipment should be lifted".

As well as the Church, NGO and political voices, much of the press is now also calling sanctions into question. On 27 May, the prestigious medical journal 'the Lancet' ran articles on the health situation in Iraq. In its editorial, it said that "The courageous policy ... is to suspend (not abandon) sanctions lest upcoming generations of Iraqis, out of resentment, suffering, and isolation, grow up to be as aggressive as their current leader". Another statement came form the Guardian, which has been producing its own political manifesto in advance of the general elections anticipated this year. Closely modelled in style on the Labour Party consultation process, the resulting document stated that "The next Labour government should also: ... Unilaterally withdraw from the sanctions regime against Iraq if no solution to the current impasse is found within six months of the election". The 'original' itself, Labour's document "Britain in the World", however, states little more than a suggestion that sanctions should be "less harsh on people". What does this mean? One is left to wonder if Labour is hoping to make people less dependent on the economy?

The 10th anniversary of sanctions attracted widespread media attention, and perhaps more than any occasion provided an insight into current press attitudes. Critical voices came from unexpected quarters. On 26 July, Time Magazine's columnist Tony Karon wrote a piece entitled "Undiplomatic Dispatch: Iraq Sanctions Are Nasty, and They Don't Work", in which he outlined the failure of the present sanctions. As he pointed out: "sanctions do not a policy make; they're a holding pattern". Two days later, Newsweek's Rod Nordland reported from Iraq, and had a plain message: "There is no doubt that sanctions have badly hurt the Iraqi people".

With the voices of Time and Newsweek adding to the criticism, the US and UK government are getting increasingly isolated. Civil society, however, is moving. While conclusions differ, no serious voice disputes that sanctions afflict hardship, almost all advocate a new look at the present policy, and many call for the lifting of sanctions. It is time for the government to listen to mainstream opinion.