Sabah Al-Mukhtar: Sanctions on Iraq - a fair penalty? (26 Nov. 1997)

Today's human rights violations are the causes of tomorrow's conflicts. (Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Romanes Lecture, Oxford; Armistice Day, 1997)
There is a dangerous tendency in industrialised nations to remember wars waged against poorer nations primarily as psychological conflicts for themselves. The American cinematic treatment of their war in Vietnam is perhaps the clearest example of this, transforming, for example, a war ravaged country into a stage on which Platoon's Dafoe can act out his internal struggle between good and evil.

In the case of the 1990-91 war against Iraq this danger may be more subtle. As one of the most important lessons of that war must be the age old one that truth is one of the first casualties of war (yes, even in liberal democracies it seems) concerned observers are presented with a difficult task by the war and its consequences. If they have seen that brief lifting of the veil, the Highway of Death, where Iraqi troops fleeing Basra were massacred in a well-coordinated US-British action, or if they have heard of former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark's attempts to prosecute his own government for violations of both US and international law in its conduct of the war (and especially if they knew that Clark had been part of the US delegation to the Nuremberg War Trials), or if they have heard estimates of the dead due to the sanctions - now over a million, and mostly children - then they may feel slightly clumsy in a country where life goes on as usual, where the Gulf War is now remembered for having been a rough time for Allied troops, some now suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. They may face genuinely difficult psychological questions: why do they worry and not others? Why do they not do more? Is their judgment faulty (after all, the US claims to be in the vanguard of humanitarian activity in Iraq sound genuine - and they are pronounced by informed people)? Are they losing their sense of proportion if they wonder whether history will add their card to those soiled examples already filed them under the heading of "Just Did Job During Genocide -- Various Reasons".

Real as these perceptions are, they seated themselves quietly in the last row at Sabah Al-Mukhtar's talk late last year on the case for the sanctions against Iraq. They don't ask whether his hosts, the Campaign Against Sanctions in Iraq (CASI; an offshoot of the Cambridge University Amnesty International Chapter), are unbiased. They listen to this Iraqi-born commercial lawyer talk about watching his people being slaughtered. They sit silently as, for an hour, he holds the audience with the story of the Iraqi people from his chair: no slides, no photos, just him, seated, a sheaf of papers and his message.

The headline of his message comes from a one page letter in 1995 to the medical journal, the Lancet. Its author, part of a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) mission sent that year to assess nutrition in Iraq calculates that, "since August, 1990, 567,000 children in Iraq have died as a consequence" of the sanctions (2 December, 1995). This is al-Mukhtar's message:

Now we're looking at the situation where we don't have a natural disaster. This is not a drought. This is not an earthquake. This is a willful, international decision by the world community in the name of each one of us - because the Charter of the UN says, "We, the people of the world".
Not politically interested before the war he claims, holding his heart, that the Allied bombs have killed a part of him.

Al-Mukhtar speaks three languages to us that evening. His first, and that of most of the evening, is the surprisingly calm clinical tongue of a lawyer presenting assembled evidence. That there exist a range of sanctions applicable to nations in times of disagreement, from a reduction of diplomatic presence to a complete economic blockade. That the people of Iraq, singularly dependent on trade (some 70% of its food was imported prior to 1990), have been excised from the international community, cut out even of the world's banking and postal systems. Money sent to the Iraqi Red Cross will be returned; an Agatha Christie novel mailed as a birthday present to a brother in Iraq is returned, stamped export license required.

That sanctions prior to the Second World War had only been applied in times of war. That the Security Council has exercised its power to sanction eleven times over 1945-95, twice in the first 45 years and nine times in the remaining five years. Four of the remaining nine are Arab nations; while Al-Mukhtar concedes that, "the Arabs may be bad, I do not think that they are that bad".

More evidence. That then-US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright, when challenged with the FAO-Lancet figures, defended the sanctions on the US television programme Sixty Minutes in 12 May, 1996, saying: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it. The sanctions are working.

Al-Mukhtar disagrees, claiming that there is a price that cannot be paid:

The sanctions are literally a political weapon which is being used by the United States of America. The whole Iraqi population has been taken hostage to achieve an aim - it doesn't matter: I'm not going to speculate. Anyone can have any aim: whether we want to protect the children of the future, as Mr Clinton said three days ago. Or whether we want to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction. Or whether we want to obliterate the Iraqi people or whether we want to obliterate the regime, or Saddam Hussein. It doesn't matter what the reason is. But I respectfully suggest to you that there is no single principle which justifies the killing of so many innocent people. There is no single principle: whether it's humanitarian, whether it's law or international law, whether it's Security Council Resolutions, or whatever. There is no action and no principle and no issue which justifies the killing of so many people.
In indiscriminately killing people, be they civilian or military, child, aged, Muslim, Christian, Kurd, in disproportionate numbers to any policy aim Al-Mukhtar calls the sanctions weapons of mass destruction, and therefore in violation of the whole stack of human rights conventions; he starts his list at the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, works through the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and keeps on until the 1990 World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children and the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action; perhaps to prove that even war does not make them acceptable he adds the 1949 Geneva Convention and the Nuremberg Principles.

Al-Mukhtar also cites Boutros Boutros-Ghali's statement in his 1995 Agenda for Peace supplement that sanctions are a "blunt weapon" (Boutros-Ghali goes on to ask the possibly rhetorical ethical question, "of whether suffering inflicted on vulnerable groups in the target country is a legitimate means of exerting pressure on political leaders whose behaviour is unlikely to be affected by the plight of their subjects"). The New York Center for Economic and Social Rights also weighs in, likening the sanctions to "shooting down a planeful of innocent people because there are hijackers aboard"; at the UNICEF estimated rate of 4,500 additional child deaths a month (19 October, 1996), that's a plane of 300 every other day.

Al-Mukhtar has no illusions about Saddam Hussein being anything more innocent than a hijacker:

Saddam Hussein is not to be trusted with any weapons. Saddam Hussein has proven himself - it's not a matter of speculation. He has proven himself... But there are twenty-two million people in Iraq who are not Saddam Hussein.
Al-Mukhtar's answer to whether Hussein's military capability can be underestimated is two-fold. On the one hand, he scorns the "weapons of mass destruction" concerns. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (6 August, 1997) assessed Hussein's arsenal in 1991:
Although cause for concern, if used during the Persian Gulf War, Iraq's biological warfare arsenal probably would have been militarily ineffective for 3 reasons: (1) it was small; (2) payload dispersal mechanisms were inefficient; and (3) coalition forces dominated the theater of war (ie, they had overwhelming air superiority and had crippled Iraq's command and control capability).
If that was the case before the sanctions, Al-Mukhtar states,
If I were Richard Butler or the inspectors and somebody says that after seven years of working and Saddam still can wipe the whole human race off the face of the earth I would be very embarrassed. What the hell have they been doing? Going on a trip?
On the other hand, Al-Mukhtar does not understand the concern with weapons of mass destruction. After all, Iraq's army alone is larger than many of its neighbours' whole populations; with weapons no more sophisticated than clubs Iraq could be a threat to them. He rules out Iran and Turkey as being too large and too powerful to be threatened by Iraq (for Israel, which sells weapons to the US, he jokingly reserves a category of its own). Syria and Jordan he strikes from the list: they do not perceive themselves to be threatened by Iraq. Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbours, he argues, may be independent of its weapons programmes. But it doesn't take sophisticated weapons programmes to strike back at any city in the world, Al-Mukhtar warns, just malice and motivation.

But Al-Mukhtar is less interested in questions about how Hussein can be contained without sanctions. His main point is that, "We, the people of the world, are killing the people of Iraq. Full stop. That must stop...You can never penalise people for what you think they may do. You penalise them for what they do".

Here the cold language of law falters and Al-Mukhtar talks the language of humanity. Their persistent punishment bewilders Iraqis. They can understand, says Al-Mukhtar, the bombing that dropped more tonnage on them than was dropped during the Second World War: their government had, after all, invaded another country. But now, they ask, what have we done? They all know that it is Hussein's fault but he, unfortunately, is the only one not accused. Al-Mukhtar fears that Iraqis, like so many hostages, have sided with their captors and become alienated from all international systems: the United Nations, the United States, even Christianity. He tries to convince his friends that most British do not even go to church but many Iraqis are still concluding that the West must be engaged in a modern Crusade.

A generation ago, Iraq was known as the land of Babylon, of the Tigris and the Euphrates, of the Hammurabic legal code; a decade ago it had the highest level of medical care in the region. Now it is an international pariah. Now, when Babylon is even referred to it is more likely to be in reference to the Whore of Babylon than to the culture responsible for one of the world's first legal codes. Al-Mukhtar shouldn't even need to mention Versailles: what will be the consequences when a nation of 20 million human beings is treated this way? When its children, as young as those at Dunblane, are bombed for 40 days and then starved for seven years, to the point of being called the most psychologically traumatised children in the world by Norwegian child psychologist Magne Raundalen (Iraqi children, Raundalen notes, have given up playing games, as they remind them of dead playmates)? What is possible when we, "the decent people of the world, can accept killing so many innocent people"?

There is no employment now in Iraq:

Iraqi Airways employed 30,000; that's 30,000 families. So you have 30,000 families which that government has to decide what to do with them. Should they tell them to go home and come and collect your salary at the end of the month, or would you say, "No, you must come at the office and use electricity and etc. and do sweet all and get paid"? Or do so say, "Sorry, we have no work; you go home"? How do you deal with that?
As the Iraqi economy was - and here bitterness creeps into Al-Mukhtar's voice - "stupid enough" to be centralised this dilemma is multiplied at every node of society.

Now the women of Iraq give birth, the children have their teeth removed and patients are operated on without anaesthetics. Medicine, whose trade cannot legally be subject to sanctions, has been defined in the case of Iraq, as a chemical that cures, ruling out anaesthetics - they do not cure anything - and syringes, which are not chemicals. And what this definition does not exclude the "dual-use" concern may: isosorbide dinitrate is the drug of choice in anti-angina pills but its import to Iraq is prevented as its active ingredients may also be used as inputs into nuclear weapons. Never mind that the global annual production of the active ingredient is estimated to be about 3-4 micrograms. And the drugs that do get through may then go to treat children poisoned by drinking water from rivers into which untreated sewage is flowing because chlorine also has dual uses. Finally, the people of Iraq must pay for all of this themselves, out of the roughly $130 left annually to each of them after reparations have been deducted from the four billion dollars of oil that they have been allowed to sell annually since the end of 1996.

Now there is one growing medical industry in Iraq:

They've sold the chairs, and the furniture and the cooker, the carpets and everything else. Then they begin to sell their body. Prostitution in Iraq, child prostitution. Everything! Because there is nothing you can survive on. Now they've moved into the other area, and that is they are selling body organs.
Friaal, an Arts graduate, writes to a friend in Beirut for help and advice: she writes that she is healthy and that she knows that she only needs one kidney. As she needs the money can her friend help persuade her father to let her sell a kidney? The buyers are foreigners and they pay in US dollars.

The list of other items that are prohibited now rolls on; its monotony risks putting one to sleep unless one thinks of life without children's clothes, pencils (ah, the graphite in their lead), leather material for shoes, shoe laces, shroud material, school books (the schools are closed anyway), glue for textbooks, badminton rackets, pencil sharpeners, erasers, blankets, soap, toilet paper, swabs, gauze, cotton (none are chemicals), batteries and screws for glasses that the Iraqi people must live without. "How are the people of Iraq being killed?", asks Al-Mukhtar. "They are being killed by not having food, not having medicine, not having the requirements. They are not animals. Even animals have food and medicine! The Iraqi people need", and his voice drops, "a little bit of books and pencils and a television and a video and a cassette and - they're human beings."

This touches me more than caloric intake figures (like 90% of the population being dependent on a food coupon system that only provides 50% of their requirements): someone who wants a quiet life sounds a little more like myself. Perhaps this is why Al-Mukhtar believes in the work of an Italian initiative, Un Ponte per Baghdad, a Bridge to Baghdad. While Un Ponte's literature highlight their educational and sanitary aid projects al-Mukhtar only mentions that its members play a bit of football when they go to Iraq, to try to remind a generation that they're still part of humanity. Without this hope, Al-Mukhtar warns, people will entrench. How much better it would be if even magazines like Time, Newsweek, the Lancet, the British Medical Journal were allowed in.

Discussing recent developments, Al-Mukhtar asks us to "try to refocus" what has happened over the past few months in the Security Council. He claims that Rolf Ekeus, the previous head of UNSCOM, had signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Iraq - which is still recognised by the UN as a sovereign nation rather than an occupied one. The memorandum set out the conditions under which the UNSCOM would work, where their teams would be permitted, etc. Among the areas ruled out by the memorandum, and accepted at the time by the UN, were the "presidential palaces"; in Al-Mukhtar's words, "Saddam Hussein's bedroom cannot contain a nuclear or a biological factory: it's a bedroom". Ekeus' successor Richard Butler, has chosen to ignore this aspect of the memorandum, arguing that it was not a document that he had signed, and ordered his inspectors into the palaces. This fuelled Iraqi concerns that the UNSCOM was taking its order from the US, not the UN, and that it sought to humiliate them as there was no reason for inspectors to be in the palaces.

While Al-Mukhtar does not defend the Iraqi position and Iraq's subsequent complaint to the Security Council he finds the response even harder to support. The US began to threaten further penalties and when Iraq, possibly left without hope, retaliated by expelling the American UNSCOM members, carrier fleets were moved into the Gulf and Congress began to talk about cruise missile strikes. It took no effort to cast Iraq as the chief troublemaker in the incident (even the 22 November Economist abbreviates Butler's decision to pull his team out as "expelled"). Even now that Iraq has backed down, accepting UN experts in presidential palaces (although possibly not UNSCOM members?), Al-Mukhtar believes that it is only a matter of time before a pretext will be found for another round of bombing.

The talk is over, followed by a question and answer period. One member of the audience asks, if the United Nations and western powers are so hypocritical, how one can appeal to them for justice. Al-Mukhtar's answer is that

Principles are something very important for human beings. But principles only come into play when there is decency in a human being. If you reduce a man's integrity to zero you can't thereafter begin to talk about principles. Now if, at the end of the day, you reduce somebody to the point where they're beginning to sell their kidneys and their honour and then send their children to prostitution and theft. If you get to that point, then it doesn't matter. You can beg from a prostitute and you can ask for charity from Hitler and you can ask the one who is doing all these things to have pity.
But the questioner is not convinced. Surely, the powers only listen to self-interest and that humanitarian appeals will make little difference. When Al-Mukhtar interrupts he speaks his final language of the evening:
I'm not talking about anybody. I'm talking about us, about you, about me, about all of us. We have no illusions. I'm not saying that if tomorrow we vote and fill in [the CASI petition] that sanctions are going to be lifted on Iraq. I have no illusions about that. However, my friend, the Prophet has asked people that, if they see something wrong, they must rectify it. If I see something wrong, I am obliged as a Muslim to rectify that mistake! Now the Prophet goes on, because it's a practical life - it's not nonsense, if I can't rectify it - you have a dictator there - you want me to rectify it? I can't rectify it. Then if you can't rectify it by your hand then you must rectify it by talking about it, by rejecting it, by bringing it to the attention, by shaming the guy, up to the point where you don't threaten your life. And then the Prophet goes on. That even if this one you can't, then the least you should do is to reject it within yourself... [Petitions, letters to Robin Cook], all these things count, all these things have an effect. If nothing else, we have our self-respect. If I denounced something wrong, even if I can't affect it, if nothing else, I have respected myself first, I have respected my principles. I have made an example for others... But silence, by any one of us, makes us an accomplice of that genocide. Because silence itself kills.

Colin Rowat

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