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[casi] NYT Retrospective on Economic Sanctions on Iraq

Source: David Rieff, "Were Sanctions Right?", New York Times Magazine, 27
July 2003,
* David Rieff authored the book ''A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in

Rieff spotlights many relevant, core questions, issues, and answers.  The
article is worth reading (especially given its placement in the New York

Rieff concludes his piece by writing


[M]y own sense is that sanctions, even the ''smartest'' sanctions, will
continue to exact an appalling human toll.

There may indeed be no way around them. But in that case, we should be clear
about what we are really saying, which is that there is no way around the
ruined lives and the dead bodies strewn across the ruins of broken societies
either. Ultimately, as hard as some officials like Albright tried to
mitigate the worst effects of Iraq sanctions through oil-for-food and other
reforms, opting for them meant choosing American security over Iraqi mass
suffering. If tragedy, as the German philosopher Hegel said, is the conflict
of two rights, then sanctions are truly a tragedy.


The article does have some apparent flaws.  It seems to be imbalanced
regarding print space given to those who supported the policy and those who
opposed the policy.  The article reprinted many quotes from and comments by
individuals (mostly former Clinton Administration officials) who defended
the US Iraq-related economic sanctions policy.  Little print space went to
any of the many available persons who over the years deconstructed the
policy, highlighted the policy's flaws (most importantly the human cost),
and argued for an Iraq policy with foreseeable human consequences-standards
(sometimes alternatively framed as human rights and/or humanitarian

The article also neglected to contextualize post-1991 Gulf War economic
sanctions on Iraq with the considerable (notably also prohibited by
international humanitarian law) (1) 1991 Gulf War damage that US-led forces
did to Iraq's civilian infrastructure (e.g., electricity, petroleum,
education, and water and sanitation), (2) the infrastructural damage's
consequences for Iraqi civilians immediately following that war, (3) and the
economic sanctions' forthgoing impact on the civilian infrastructure (upon
which so many civilians depended (4): "[S]anctions have prevented any
comprehensive reconstruction effort." (5)

Finally, the article could have explicitly flagged and detailed the extent
to which and how UN Security Council members capitulated to US pressure
(actual and/or speculative) and enabled the policy, even in the face of the
policy's well documented, considerable human cost (past, current, and
foreseeable), especially on the most vulnerable Iraqis: children, women, the
elderly, the poor (whose numbers significantly increased under sanctions)
and the sick.  Non-US Security Council members during the sanctions lifespan
at least bear secondary responsibility for the economic sanctions policy's
consequences, headed by the UK as the US' primary partner in pushing for
these sanctions to remain in place.

Notwithstanding the article's shortcomings, for those concerned with the
policy's past, current and future consequences for Iraqi civilians, the
potential consequences for other civilians who might live under future
economic sanctions' policies, and the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W.
Bush administrations, and UN Security Council members' efforts to avoid
responsibility for the human consequences of their Iraq-related economic
sanctions actions, the article is an advisable read.

1. Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and
relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts
(Protocol I), 8 June 1977,,
especially art. 54 and 56
2. Barton Gellman, "Allied Air War Struck Broadly in Iraq", Washington Post,
23 June 1991,
and Patrick E. Tyler, "U.S. Officials Believe Iraq Will Take Years to
Rebuild", New York Times, 3 June 1991, and
Report to the Secretary-General on Humanitarian Needs in Kuwait and Iraq in
the Immediate Post-Crisis Environment by a Mission to the Area Led by Mr.
Martti Ahtisaari, Under-Secretary-General for Administration and Management,
Annex S/22366, 20 March 1991,  and Report to the
Secretary-General Dated 15 July 1991 on Humanitarian Needs in Iraq Prepared
by a Mission Led by Sadruddin Aga Khan, Executive Delegate of the
Secretary-General, Annex S/22799, 17 July 1991, and and International Study
Team, "Health and Welfare in Iraq after the Gulf War: An In-Depth
Assessment", October 1991,
3. International Study Team, "Health and Welfare in Iraq after the Gulf War:
An In-Depth Assessment", October 1991, and Patrick E. Tyler,
"U.S. Officials Believe Iraq Will Take Years to Rebuild", New York Times, 3
June 1991,
4. UN, "Likely Humanitarian Scenarios", 10 December 2002, para. 3-4,
5. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), "Portrait of the Current
Socio-Economic Developmental Situation and Implications in Iraq Based on
Specified Scenarios", 20 January 2003, pg. 6,

Nathaniel Hurd
Consultant on Iraq policy
Tel. (Mobile): 917-407-3389
Fax: 718-504-4224
777 1st Avenue
Suite 7A
New York, NY  10017

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