Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq


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Guide to Sanctions

[Guide contents & introduction]

4. Didn't the Security Council offer an 'oil for food' arrangement in 1991?

In 1991, the UN Security Council passed resolutions 706 (15 August) and 712 (19 September). These resolutions constituted an early 'oil for food' arrangement, permitting Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil in order to purchase humanitarian supplies. After negotiations with the Government of Iraq failed, plans for 'oil for food' were abandoned until April 1995. The UK and US governments have repeatedly claimed that Iraq's rejection of the 706/712 arrangement allowed the humanitarian crisis to deepen; and that therefore the Iraqi government, not sanctions, are to blame for the suffering of the civilian population.

Did SCRs 706 and 712 offer a viable 'oil for food' programme based on humanitarian principles, and would this arrangement have alleviated the suffering of the people of Iraq? To answer these questions, it is necessary to look at what the alternatives were, and what SCRs 706 and 712 offered.

The origins of the 706/712 proposal came from the report of a UN mission headed by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan to investigate the impact of sanctions. The report dated 17 July 1991 stated:

"it is evident that for large numbers of the people of Iraq, every passing month brings them closer to the brink of calamity. As usual, it is the poor, the children, the widowed and the elderly, the most vulnerable amongst the population, who are the first to suffer."
[Foreword by the Executive Delegate]

The report concentrated on the requirements for alleviating the immediate humanitarian crisis, and particularly "averting a crisis in the next 6 to 12 months". It estimated the cost of restoring a "reduced level of service", including making arrangements for the functioning of health services, "two fifths of the pre-war per capita levels of clean drinking water", 40% of "sewage-treatment capacity back in operation", food amounting to "the ration level that [the UN World Food Programme] provides to sustain disaster-stricken populations", power generation to "one half of the pre-war capacity of the country", and limited repairs to northern oil infrastructure. To accomplish this, Aga Khan calculated that "the total for an initial four month period would be US $2.63 billion" [§29]. This was not a proposal for a full and sustainable recovery; for the electricity sector alone, that required an estimated sum of $12 billion [§26]. Instead, this calculation was for a minimum emergency measure.

The Security Council responded with SCRs 706 and 712, which permitted Iraq to make emergency oil sales of only $1.6 billion over a six-month period. Furthermore, this was not only to pay for humanitarian supplies, but also to fund compensation claims (at a rate of 30%), weapons inspections, demarcating the boundary with Kuwait and UN administrative expenses. In total, the amount made available for humanitarian needs would have been an estimated $930 million over six months. The UN Secretary General suggested on 4 September 1991 that Iraq should be permitted to sell $2.4 billion of oil over a six-month period, but the Security Council rejected this suggestion. Due to the Security Council's intransigence, Iraq could not have purchased even a quarter of the supplies that Aga Khan's report said it needed to avert a humanitarian crisis.

The SCR 706/712 arrangement was nothing near an adequate humanitarian solution. It was a programme which, according to the estimates and reports upon which SCRs 706 and 712 were based, would leave the Iraqi people in serious deprivation, including widespread famine and disease. It is true that "inadequate amounts of relief" would have been better than "no relief". But this does not disguise the deliberate choice by the Security Council to prevent Iraqis from helping themselves to cover their own basic humanitarian needs.

In addition, under the resolutions, there were a number of unnecessary features that seem to have created disincentives for the Iraqi government in accepting the arrangement; their purpose seems to be more to humiliate the Iraqi government than to create a legitimate programme of humanitarian assistance. These include:

  • All revenue from Iraq's oil sales was to be deposited into an escrow account under the auspices of the UN. That is, Iraqi revenues would be transferred to an external body. Aga Khan's report indicates that this provision may have been unnecessary: "the [Iraqi] Government ... noted that all revenues accruing from oil sales were normally held in United States banks and that a suitable device for monitoring such credit balances could be established" [§34].
  • Humanitarian purchases were to be screened and approved by the Sanctions Committee and subject to UN "monitoring and supervision" inside Iraq. Again, these words of SCR706 indicate a much more intrusive system than that proposed by Aga Khan's report for "periodic assessments" [§34], and eventually accepted Iraq in SCR986 (1995) for "observation" [§11].
  • As all money was to be under UN control and all goods monitored, it is hard to understand the ceiling on oil exports as anything but politically motivated. Within the context of coercion by economic sanctions, this makes sense: if coercion is to have any effect, sanctions need to sting. In the case of Iraq, this sort of reasoning has led to eleven years of widespread starvation and suffering.
  • By linking revenues for humanitarian purposes and those intended for compensation payments and weapons inspections, the humanitarian crisis was politicised. Despite their acknowledged deprivation, the Iraqi people would not receive the assistance it needed without its government agreeing to the precise methods and amounts for paying for weapon inspections and compensation to Kuwait. The association of these entirely separate issues is an example of the logic of economic sanctions as used in Iraq: suffering was deliberately and knowingly inflicted, and then used as a bargaining counter.

In the end, this programme did not get off the ground. After almost a year of negotiations, the Iraqi government finally said on 12 July 1992 that it could not accept the resolutions as they constituted a level of intrusion that was not compatible with Iraq's national sovereignty. Whilst no legitimate government should use such an excuse for preventing humanitarian assistance from reaching its people, the stance of the UK and US provided ample reasons for the Iraqi government to justify its rejection of the proposed programme. Had the 706/712 arrangement been adequate in scope, had it dealt with humanitarian concerns separately from political ones, and had it been willing to meet some of the concerns regarding Iraqi national sovereignty, the Iraqi rejection might more credibly be construed as a clear indication of the government's indifference to civilian suffering. As it stands, the comments by one aid agency staff observer do not seem improbable:

"UN officials were convinced... that the US intention was to present Saddam Hussein with so unattractive a package that Iraq would reject it and thus take on the blame, at least in Western eyes, for continued civilian suffering".
[quoted in Sarah Graham-Brown, Sanctioning Saddam - The politics of intervention in Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999), p. 75]

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