Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq


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Guide to Sanctions

[Guide contents & introduction]

9. Will 'smart sanctions' alleviate the humanitarian problem in Iraq?

The term "smart sanctions" is used to refer to targeted instead of comprehensive sanctions, designed to put pressure directly on those who are deemed to pose a threat to international peace or to human rights. Because they are formulated in such a way as to minimise their impact upon the well-being of the civilian population, the concept of "smart sanctions" has in the past won favour with development organisations and international agencies.

In May 2002 the Security Council passed resolution 1409 (SCR 1409) introducing new procedures by which Iraq could import goods under the 'oil for food' programme. This marked the culmination of efforts made from May 2001 onwards by the UK and US to introduce a package of proposals for revising the current sanctions regime on Iraq; a package they sought to label as "smart sanctions".

The desire to revise the sanctions regime stemmed from the erosion of support for sanctions that occurred throughout 2000 and early 2001 amid increasing criticism of US and UK policies towards Iraq and increasing concern for the humanitarian welfare of the people of Iraq. In August 2000 French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine called sanctions "cruel because the punishment falls solely on the Iraqi people and the weakest among them" and "ineffective since they don't hit the regime".

The UK submitted a number of draft resolutions proposing alterations to the sanctions regime to the Security Council in mid-2001. At that time no agreement was reached, but in November 2001 the Security Council passed resolution 1382 wherein it pledges to make the changes which were finally implemented in SCR 1409. Introducing a UK draft resolution of 20 June 2001 Jeremy Greenstock, the UK's Permanent Representative to the UN, told the Security Council that these proposals were intended "to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people and take whatever steps we can from outside to ensure that their needs are met ... the status quo is not acceptable."

Initially the UK and US proposed to change the sanctions in two main ways. Firstly, they would change the procedures by which Iraq could import commodities. These were the changes implemented in SCR 1409.

Secondly, they would create further mechanisms to prevent the Iraqi government from obtaining direct access to funds, primarily through stopping the smuggling of products into Iraq outside the framework of the 'oil for food' programme. These proposals were later dropped, partly due to the opposition of states bordering Iraq which currently benefit from unofficial trade with Iraq outside of the 'oil for food' programme. Many of these countries - primarily Turkey and Jordan - have suffered a considerable loss of trade due to sanctions, and smuggling has been tolerated as a way of preventing these countries from becoming more explicit in their opposition to the whole sanctions regime.

At no stage was it proposed to alter the structures within which the sanctions regime exists or the conditions required for their lifting or suspension. Imports and the Goods Review List

Prior to the adoption of SCR 1409 any contract which contained goods not on one of the "green lists" set up under resolution 1284 and in subsequent resolutions had to be submitted to the Sanctions Committee (the "661 Committee") for approval. This committee consists of representatives from all the members of the Security Council. Any member of the committee could put a contract on hold indefinitely, and the US in particular had attracted much criticism for its extensive use of such holds.

SCR 1409 alters this system by creating different procedures for three categories of goods. The UN Office of the Iraq Programme (OIP), in consultation with Unmovic and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), determines into which category a contract falls and decides whether or not to approve the contract as follows:

(a) Contracts containing arms and munitions - including all material and facilities related to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and ballistic missiles of range greater than 150km -- will be automatically refused.

(b) Contracts containing potential 'dual-use' items, as set out in the Goods Review List (GRL), will be reviewed by the 661 Committee. Non-GRL items in the contract will be approved and the Committee has 10 working days to decide whether to permit the sale of GRL items. No holds are allowed under this system so the Committee may either: (i) approve the sale; (ii) approve the sale with conditions; (iii) deny the sale; (iv) request further information from the suppliers.The GRL includes the goods specified as 'dual-use' under the earlier resolution 1051, but also incorporates other items, many of which are related to communications and technology.

(c) If Unmovic and the IAEA are satisfied that the contract does not contain any items in either of the preceding two categories, then the contract is automatically approved. What 'smart sanctions' do not change

The UK told the Security Council that the aim of changing the procedures for the import of goods in its draft resolution was "to allow Iraq to import the full range of civilian goods without restriction." However there is no reason to believe that any of these proposals will result in a significant improvement in the humanitarian situation in Iraq or allow the Iraqi economy to re-inflate, as they do not address the underlying problems with sanctions.

SCR 1409 maintains the framework of the 'oil for food' programme, with the proceeds of oil sales continuing to be paid into a UN-administered escrow account. Many of the limitations of the 'oil for food' programme are also retained:

  • There is still a prohibition on foreign investment into Iraq, necessary to rebuild the shattered infrastructure of the country. The Security Council's humanitarian panel reported in March 1999 that, for Iraq to recover, "the oil for food system alone would not suffice and massive investment would be required in a number of key sectors, including oil, energy, agriculture and sanitation".
  • "Smart sanctions" contain no new provision for a cash component to the 'oil for food' programme. Because Iraq's oil revenue can at present only be spent on the purchasing of goods, Iraq's major source of earnings cannot be used to pay public sector wages. A cash component to the 'oil for food' programme was allowed by resolution 1284, but it has never been implemented due to a failure to agree terms with the Iraqi government. The Secretary General reported in September 2001 that "the absence of an agreement on the implementation of a cash component as envisaged in resolution 1284 (1999) continues to hamper severely the implementation of the programme."
  • 25% of oil revenue continues to be paid in compensation for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
  • The central purchasing and distribution of goods by the Iraqi government remains, with the population receiving primary commodities through a rationing system. This system leaves the population in a highly vulnerable position if the distribution of the ration is interrupted, through war or other national emergencies. It is also highly inefficient, creates high levels of dependency on the central authorities and destroys normal economic life for the vast majority of the Iraqi people.
  • Iraq is not allowed to export any goods other than oil.

Whilst 'oil for food' may have reduced the widespread nature of severe malnutrition in Iraq, it cannot be a long-term solution. As the UN Secretary-General said in his report of 2 March 2001, the 'oil for food' programme "was never meant to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people and cannot be a substitute for normal economic activity in Iraq."

The adoption of SCR 1409 reduces the number of items that are subject to the approval of the 661 Committee. Placing decision-making power in the hands of UN experts instead of politically motivated members of the Sanctions Committee may have a beneficial effect. However, since the UK and US claim that the GRL is an exhaustive list of all 'dual-use' goods, they would have had no reason to place holds on other goods under the previous system: therefore, the activation of the GRL should not allow more goods into Iraq than should have been the case if the US and UK had used their own criteria for evaluating contracts prior to the passing of SCR 1409. The smart sanctions proposals offer no more in this regard than a more honest application of the restriction on dual-use imports that was decided upon in 1991.

In summary, smart sanctions fail to address those fundamental problems of the Iraqi economy that are a major cause for the impoverishment of the Iraqi people; the degradation of Iraq's infrastructure. They tinker with procedures, but fail to deal with the underlying problems inherent in the sanctions. As the UK representative said at the Security Council in June 2001, "the status quo is not acceptable". Smart sanctions reinforce that status quo.


Further reading:

Please see CASI's separate index of writings on "smart sanctions".
CASI's press release on Security Council Resolution 1382.

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