Precis of Sabah Al-Mukhtar's talk "Sanctions on Iraq - a fair penalty?"

(given on 26th November 1997 in Cambridge, England)

While the estimated Iraqi dead as a result of UN sanctions are no different when Sabah al-Mukhtar says them, there is something different about hearing the numbers spoken by an Iraqi man. Sabah al-Mukhtar is the president of the Arab Lawyers Association, a commercial law organisation designed to facilitate trade between Arab countries and the rest of the world. What does this have to do with human rights? Nothing; but he is human, and watching his people massacred in 1991 and subsequently has involved him.

So the numbers are the same: the figures published in the 2 December 1995 {Lancet}, based on the UN FAO report, {Evaluation of Food and Nutrition Situation in Iraq}, estimate 1 million excess (i.e. above usual mortality levels) dead in a population of 20-22 million, 567,000 of them children under the age of five. It is hearing al-Mukhtar say, ``there is no principle, ethical or legal, that justifies the killing of so many children'', that begins to convey something of the horror of what is happening in Iraq.

In his introduction al-Mukhtar presented a schematic overview of sanctions. Historically, sanctions, which range from reduction in diplomatic presence to compete severance of economic links, have been used in war time; Iraq is at the ``complete'' end of the spectrum, removed even from the international postal and banking systems. Article 41 of the UN Charter gives the Security Council the right to apply sanctions to member states in times of peace; from 1945-90 they were only applied to South Rhodesia and South Africa. Since then they have been applied to nine member states, four of whom are Arab.

He mentions the numbers and facts suggesting that Iraq is being strangled, the mortality figures, the 75% unemployment, the 90% of the population dependent on an inadequate food coupon, the pronouncement that Iraqi children are the most traumatised population in the world (and a comparison with the outpouring of national sympathy that took place here after the Dunblane shooting) and Madeleine Albright's famous remark that the price of the sanctions was worth paying; they are working. Al-Mukhtar argues that, in killing indiscriminately and out of all proportion to any stated policy objective, the sanctions are weapons of mass destruction. He cites Boutros Boutros-Ghali's 1995 {Agenda for Peace}, which calls sanctions ``blunt instruments'', in support.

Al-Mukhtar lists items banned by the UN sanctions, a list encompassing almost every imaginable amenity, from shoe-laces to pencils, books, badminton rackets, soap, toilet paper, gauze, cotton, etc. While food and medicine are officially excluded from the sanctions, Iraq is only allowed to sell $4 billion worth of oil a year, of which it keeps about a third of the revenue, leaving it with an annual figure of $70 per capita. From this it must buy all food and medicine. And to be allowed into Iraq, the latter must be the right sort of medicine: chemicals that cure. This rules out anaesthetics (which do not directly cure) and cotton, syringes and gauze, which are not chemicals. Certainly ventalin, for asthma treatment, which does not cure, stops at the border. Even some chemicals that cure are still prevented from entering as they are potentially ``dual-use'': pills for the treatment of angina apparently contain a small quantity of an ingredient used in nuclear weapons manufacturing; never mind that the annual global production of these pills will only supply some 3-4 micrograms of the active ingredient. Chlorine, without which sewage treatment cannot take place, has been denied on these grounds, creating further public health problems.

He explains that the sanctions have led people to sell everything, starting with their possessions, continuing through their bodies, to their body parts. The last industry is government regulated and requires that the buyers, foreigners, pay in $US. Women try to convince their fathers to let them sell a kidney; they only need one. Iraqis know that Hussein is to blame for the problems that they now face but al-Mukhtar explains that he is the only one not blamed. The US and the West, generally, are blamed and not understood: why are they treating us like this? There was an answer during the war: because our government has invaded another country. Now many Iraqis are concluding that this is a new form of Crusade by Christians against Muslims.

In reference to recent events surrounding weapons inspection access, al-Mukhtar believes that they were caused by Iraq's attempt to preserve its dignity: UN inspectors were demanding access to presidential palaces, which were unlikely to be biological or nuclear weapons facilities. Further, the Iraqi administration was concerned that these inspections were being undertaken at the behest of the US, rather than in pursuit of UNSCOM objectives. When these concerns were raised in the UN Security Council the response was to talk about further sanctions against Iraq and threaten to bombing. Al-Mukhtar fears that a far worse Treaty of Versailles than the original is being implemented against Iraq.

After his talk al-Mukhtar responded to questions about alternatives to sanctions. While affirming that ``Saddam Hussein is not to be trusted with any weapons'' he repeats that there are some twenty million people in the country who are not Saddam Hussein, over one million of whom have been killed as a result of the sanctions. This is his central point: ``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.''

Colin Rowat

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