Sanctions on Iraq: background information

There is a logical breakdown here. No one with any credibility denies that Saddam Hussein is a menace - a mass murderer and a perpetual threat to peace and stability. But the punishment for his sins is being visited tragically and overwhelmingly on the innocent. ("Suffering for Saddam", Bob Herbert, New York Times, 19 Feb., 1998)

On 6 August, 1990, four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, UN Security Council Resolution (SCR) 661 imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iraq and, while Kuwait was occupied, Kuwait. SCR 661 allowed only the import of, "supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and, in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs". The sanctions regime was to be overseen by the Security Council sanctions committee, composed of the 15 Security Council members. Once Iraq was expelled from Kuwait the sanctions were extended by SCR 687. SCR 687 provides for them to continue until the Security Council is convinced that Iraq has no ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150km and no atomic, biological or chemical (ABC) weapons. The United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) was established to oversee this work with the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) in charge of nuclear programmes.

While the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has repeatedly claimed that foodstuffs have never been subject to sanctions it was not until eight months later that SCR 687 recognised for the first time that "humanitarian circumstances" had arisen. In fact, until after Iraq's expulsion from Kuwait, an effective embargo on all supplies, medicines as well as food, prevailed. As a result food prices increased some 1500 - 2000% in the year following the imposition of sanctions; damaged by the war and starved of imported inputs, Iraqi agricultural output fell some 70 - 75%. [1]

A few weeks after the imposition of sanctions the Iraqi government began to ration food. Foreign observers in Iraq in August/September 1991 report that this system functioned remarkably efficiently given the political brutality of the regime. They also found little regional difference in food prices, confirming that food was being equitably distributed (they were not able to enter Iraqi Kurdistan, now stripped from Baghdad's control). By August, 1991, prices of staples in Iraq were similar to those in Jordan, suggesting that the sanctions were not preventing their movement into Iraq. Nevertheless, the collapse in Iraqi purchasing power relative to the cost of food left Iraqis dependent on the government distribution system. This was able to provide about half their pre-sanctions caloric intake; the rations represented a subsidy greater than the monthly wage of, for example, an Iraqi soldier. [1]

In 1995 a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation led by Prof. Peter Pellett (chair of the University of Massassachesetts at Amherst's Nutrition Department; compared 1995 child and infant mortality levels in Baghdad to 1989 levels. On the basis of the data they collected two team members published a letter to the British medical journal, The Lancet, concluding that some 567,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of the sanctions to that date. [2]

These figures were debated at the time but accepted by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who, in May, 1996, claimed on the US television programme, 60 Minutes, that she felt that "the price is worth it". 1998 figures by the Iraqi Ministry of Health, whose data are usually approved by Unicef, apparently put child deaths at between 1.2 and 1.5 million. In April, 1998 Unicef claimed that some 90,000 children were dying annually as a result of the sanctions. [3]

By the time of the FAO mission, SCR 986 (14 April, 1995), "food-for-oil", had allowed Iraq to export a limited amount of oil; more recent expansions of the programme allow Iraq to sell up to $10.4 billion of oil annually. In fact, in the three and a half years to October, 1998 Iraq has only sold a total of $8.4 billion of oil, of which some $5.2 billion has been left for humanitarian purchases (after subtractions to a compensation fund and UN operations). This represents about $75 per capita annually for Iraq's 20 million people. By October, 1998, a total of $2.4 billion of food had been distributed throughout Iraq under the programme. [4]

To import humanitarian supplies the Iraqi government submits requests to the UN. The Sanctions Committee then decides on the request and, if it approves it, seeks to contract the bid out. The Iraqi government has no direct access to the money earned under food-for-oil.

Even under food-for-oil malnutrition in Iraq (except Iraqi Kurdistan) is a "grave concern", running at 25% for children under five and 15% for those under one. These levels have stabilised. Food prices in 1998 have risen, though, a sign of increasing scarcity. [4]


Colin Rowat, (0468 056984;, 6/1/99


[1] Dreze, Jean & Haris Gazdar (1992). "Hunger and Poverty in Iraq, 1991", World Development, 20(7) pp.921-45.
[2] Zaidi, Sarah & Mary C Smith Fawzi (1995). "Health of Baghdadís children", The Lancet, 346, 2 Dec., 1995. (Ms Zaidi can be reached at
[3] Unicef (30 April, 1998). Situation Analysis of Women and Children in Iraq. (copies available from
[4] Kofi Annan (19 November, 1998). Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant To Paragraph 10 of Security Council Resolution 1153 (1998). (available at

Security Council Resolutions available from
A summary of Oil for Food programme, by the UNís Office of the Iraq Programme, is available at
Another useful website is that of the Iraq Action Coalition at

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