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Iraq - Sanctions Take Their Toll

By Killian Forde

Under article 41 of the United Nations Charter, the UN Security Council (UNSC) may call upon member states to apply measures not involving the use of armed force, in order to maintain or restore international peace and security. Sanctions have been used in twelve cases, Southern Rhodesia in 1966, South Africa in 1977 and against Somalia, Libya, Liberia, Haiti, Angola, former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone and most devastatingly Iraq - all in the 1990s.

When in August 1990 the government of Iraq ordered its army to invade the Kingdom of Kuwait, the world cried foul, and the UNSC passed resolution 661 imposing a full trade embargo on Iraq. The Gulf War of 1991 led to UNSC Resolution 687, which stated that until Iraq could prove that it had halted its nuclear weapons program and given up its chemical weapons arsenal and other 'weapons of mass destruction', the sanctions would remain.

Health conditions inside the country are deteriorating at an alarming rate

Eight years later Iraq still faces international sanctions. The UN effectively administers the three northern provinces of the country. 'No-fly zones' designed to protect the southern Shiite population and northern Kurd population are enforced by UN military planes, and all imports and exports must obtain a licence from the United Nations. In 1996 pencils designated for schoolchildren in the country sat in a UN warehouse in Baghdad for months. The reason: pencils contain graphite, a useful mineral for nuclear weapons. In 1995 a pest attack on southern Iraq's cereal and date palm crops destroyed millions of pounds worth of badly needed food stuffs. The Iraqi authorities were unable to spray the fields because of the 'no-fly zone'. FAO eventually carried out the spraying in May and June 1996. They were obliged by the Security Council to use non-Iraqi pilots, obtain permission to access helicopter spare parts held in storage and import pesticides.

Human cost of sanctions

The health and nutritional conditions of the Iraqi population has steadily deteriorated since the imposition of the sanctions. The Gulf War in 1991 resulted in the destruction of vital public utilities - including electrical generating and water purification plants and sewage treatment networks. UNICEF figures suggest, that more than half the rural population do not have access to potable water, and that about 30% of the country's sewage is being disposed of into the rivers and streams untreated. An FAO report in 1995 described Iraq's second city of Basra as containing huge areas of sewage water, sometimes green with algae and sometimes showing visible faecal material. An FAO/WFP country report (October 1993) said that much of the supplied water was contaminated or below acceptable standards. It continued such lack of water and sanitation services has a direct link with the prevalence of infantile malnutrition. As a result of the poor water and sanitation systems, the incidence of cholera and typhoid have risen phenomenally - from 1819 cases in 1989 to 24,436 in 1994, and from 0 cases in 1989 to 1,345 cases in 1994 respectively.

The Iraqi Ministry of Health claims that 109,720 people have died annually between August 1990 and March 1994 as a direct consequence of the sanctions. A Harvard university medical team study estimated that 500,000 children have died or been made ill as a result of the sanctions. A UNICEF survey carried out in 15 of Iraq's eighteen provinces in August/September 1996 estimated that almost one million children under 5 in Iraq were malnourished. The prevalence of wasting and stunting were 11%, and 32% respectively, which compares with 3% and 18% in a comparable study carried out in 1991. The UNICEF report stated that, Iraq has moved from a country in 1991 having a low prevalence of all three indicators (wasting, stunting and underweight) with malnutrition not an important problem, to high prevalence rates in 1996 matching the serious extent encountered in the very needy countries of the world. The most recent nutritional survey was conducted jointly by UNICEF and the Iraqi Ministry of Health in October 1997. The survey measured infants aged 0-11 months and found that general malnutrition occurs in 14.6% of infants, chronic malnutrition in 12.6% and acute malnutrition in 7.5%. Comparable results were found for the same age-group in a survey conducted in 1996. In a report of March 1996, WHO found that health conditions inside the country are deteriorating at an alarming rate under the sanctions regime.

WHO supporting Ministry of Health data stated, that mortality in under fives had risen 600% between 1990 -94, while there has been a 500% rise in low birth weight infants, and a doubling of the infant mortality rate of Baghdad over the same period. The prices of basic food stuffs has risen astronomically since the imposition of the sanctions - wheat flour was 11,667 times more expensive in August 1995 than July 1990. FAO reported in December 1997 that production of main cereals in 1997 was estimated at 2.2 million tons, the lowest since 1991. Crop yields remain low due to poor land preparation resulting from a lack of machinery, low use of inputs, deteriorating soil quality and irrigation facilities, and increased crop infestation.

Economic cost of sanctions

The current 'emergency' in Iraq exists against the backdrop of the country's position as having the second biggest oil reserves in the world. UN organisations, such as WFP, UNICEF and WHO, NGOs and other international bodies are obliged to spend money on a country that had the capacity to feed its people and provide the necessary social services. UN organisations are implementing programmes to counteract the effects of the UN sanctions. The UN spent some $1 billion on Iraqi humanitarian needs. ECHO has spent another 230 million ECU and there has been countless more millions spent by NGOs. Even the large amounts of money spent on Iraq falls far short of that requested by UN appeals. UNICEF's annual report claims that contributions to UN agencies are down during 1992-96. The request for aid to Iraq had the greatest shortfall of almost 60%.

UNSC resolution 661

UN sanctions take on very different forms. Only on three occasions has a full trade embargo, in conjunction with other embargoes, been applied. Haiti was subject to a trade embargo, excluding medical supplies and foodstuffs, from May to September 1994. The former Yugoslavian republics of Serbia & Montenegro suffered a full trade embargo from May 1992 until November 1995. The only other occasion that a full trade embargo has been used is against Iraq, since August 1990. Sanctions are, however an extremely crude weapon and mostly affect the weakest and most innocent members of a society - the poor.
The wisdom and ethics of imposing a lengthy full trade embargo against Iraq might well have been questioned from the outset. Although the original UNSC resolution, 661 omitted medicines and humanitarian foodstuffs, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 they had only just ended a costly eight year war against neighbour Iran. The country had borrowed billions of dollars to fund the war and was heavily in debt. Iraq's foreign debt was estimated by the CIA to be $50 billion in 1989. Oil Exports are estimated to have earned Iraq between $12 - $15 billion dollars in 1989. This accounts for some 95% of its total foreign exchange earnings. Although self sufficient in agricultural production in the late 1950s, by 1990 Iraq was importing some 70% of its foodstuffs. Agriculture, although only contributing some 7% of Iraq's total GDP employed approximately 30% of the total labour force in the mid 1980s. Iraq's annual food imports bill was in the region of $2 billion before the sanctions. In June 1996 FAO estimated that Iraq's food imports bill for one year would be $3.1 billion. Unlike the former Yugoslavian republics of Serbia & Montenegro, Iraq did not have much agricultural land; it imported massive amounts of basic foods and so when the sanctions started to bite food security was immediately affected.

UNSC resolution 986 Oil for Food - $2 billion per 180 days

By 1994 it became increasingly apparent that the humanitarian situation in Iraq had deteriorated. The dilemma for the permanent members of the Security council was that Iraq had still not complied with the cease-fire agreement - namely the surrender of its 'weapons of mass destruction'. To have lifted the sanctions because of the plight of the Iraqi people would, in the eyes of the rest of the world, have been a victory for Saddam Hussein's regime - a regime that had already used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population and waged a brutal campaign against the Marsh Arabs in the south. The United Nations Security Council had, as early as 1991, through UNSC Resolutions 706 and 712 been trying to encourage/force Iraq to sell a limited amount of its oil for humanitarian purposes. Monies raised from the sale would have been controlled and administered by the UNSC as a safeguard against misdirection of the funds. The Iraqi government strongly rejected the proposal claiming that it would, according to Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, ensure hegemony over Iraq's oil wealth, fragment the country and control its density.

From 1991 the Iraqi government has purchased and distributed all locally grown staple foods for a basic ration. Under this public rationing system they had anticipated providing a basic ration of 2000 kcals per caput/day. In the first year of the system beneficiaries were receiving only 1,372 kcal, by 1993 it had risen to 1,705, but by 1995 had reduced dramatically to 1,093 kcal, less than half of the minimum requirements of the Iraqi population, estimated at 2100 kcal/cap/day . UNSC Resolution 986 passed in April 1995 proposed allowing Iraq to sell $2 billion of oil every 180 days, in exchange for food and medicine. The plan was that the monies raised from this ÔOil for FoodÕ deal would be administered and controlled by the United Nations. Of the monies raised from the 'Oil for Food' deal only 66% would be going to the Iraqi people. The balance would be earmarked for UNSCOM program, the UN agency with the responsibility for Iraqi weapons decommissioning, and the United Nations Compensation Committee fund (UNCC), responsible for assessing and awarding damages to victims of the Gulf War.

In May 1996 the Iraqi government concluded a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the UN on the implementation of the resolution 986. Under the MOU Iraq drew up a distribution plan for the goods bought from the 'Oil for Food' deal. The Government of Iraq is responsible for the distribution in 15 of the countrys 18 provinces. The remaining three are the northern Kurdish provinces for which the UN takes responsibility. The complicated and bureaucratic nature of the MOU, designed to ensure Iraqi accountability and UN monitoring delayed the program and it wasn't until August 1997 that the first full monthly distribution to households could take place. Each household was to receive a monthly ration basket that would provide 2030kcal/caput/day.

However, the amounts raised by the 'Oil for Food' deal were clearly insufficient. The energy and nutrient content of the ration basket was inadequate for an already weakened population. FAO in December 1997 claimed that although there has been some improvement in the overall food supply situation following the implementation of UNSC Resolution 986, malnutrition remains a serious problem. Other UN organisations, NGOs and Bilateral agencies all had the same message: the allocated money wasn't enough.

Why resolution 1153 won't work - Oil for Food-$5.2 billion per 180 days

On February 20th of this year the Security Council decided not to lift the sanctions, but to increase the amount of oil Iraq could sell for humanitarian needs. UNSC Resolution 1153 increased the amount of oil Iraq could export over a 180 day period from $2 billion to $5.2 billion. Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote that the expanded amount is needed to meet the priority humanitarian requirements of the Iraqi people. The food basket was to be increased to provide 2,463 kcal/caput/day. The Secretary General report also recommended a review of the procedures of the 'Oil for Food' deal so as to improve the efficiency of the purchase, delivery and distribution of goods.

However, there is a major flaw in the new 'Oil for Food' deal. Iraq had said upon the passing of Resolution 1153, that their oil infrastructure's operational capacity could only provide oil revenue of $4 billion per 180 days. Also, a UN led team of experts sent to Iraq in March 1998 to evaluate the oil infrastructure concluded that, even with an immediate input of $300 million worth of essential spare parts,the Iraqi oil export capacity would generate revenues of only $3 billion during a 180 day period.

Assuming that Iraq can meet the targets that the oil industry experts forecast this would raise $6 billion per year, of which, only $4 billion would be allocated to humanitarian spending. Of that $4 billion a minimum of $300 million would have been spent on spare parts for the oil industry infrastructure. That leaves $3.7 billion to be spent on food imports, medicines, health and, agricultural infrastructure, electrical generating overhaul and water and sanitation refurbishment. If we look at FAO's food import estimatation of $3.1, this leaves very little for the other essential requirements.

Why sanctions?

One of the rationales behind imposing sanctions is that political change can be 'encouraged' by inducing economic hardship. The 'public pain = political gain' theory. In a democracy where political leaders are reliant on public support this may hold true, unfortunately UN sanctions have never been applied to countries where the citizens have had the power to effect political change through the democratic proccess. These nations do not require the support of their people. In Iraq the majority Shiite population is repressed, marginalised and isolated from positions of power, they are the people who suffered the worst at the hands of Hussein regime, the Allied guns and bombs - and now in a cruel irony - the sanctions. The experience of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic, Libyan leader Col. Gaddafi and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, suggests that the population of a country under a sanctions program doesn't equate their suffering with their political leaders. On the contrary sanctions would appear to strengthen the political leaders of a country. A wave of nationalism will engulf the country as an 'us versus the rest of the world' philosophy takes over, and political leaders can blame their country's woes and misery on the sanction administrators. Emma Bonino, from the European Commission responsible for Humanitarian affairs, recognised in a speech in April of this year that the main targets of sanctions, in this case the Baghdad regime, too rarely end up being decisively weakened by such general measures - and may even be strengthened by the appeal they can make to popular solidarity and patriotic sentiment.


It seems obvious that the conflict between the Iraqi government and the United Nations Security Council is a having a detrimental effect on the Iraqi people. The past eight years has reduced a country which boasted a proud health service, a manageable nutrition problem and a growing economy, into a country whose indicators of health, nutritional, social and economic welfare now rank with some of the poorest in the world. Sanctions presumably, are intended to exact pressure and extract concessions from governments rather than impoverish the population over which it governs. In Iraq it is unclear whether sanctions have led to concessions from the government, while it is clear that the human cost of the sanctions on the civilian population has been considerable. Furthermore, UN agencies such as WHO, FAO, WFP and UNICEF and NGOs have had to allocate scarce resources to counteract some of the effects of the sanctions. The Government of Iraq has behaved appallingly in the past, and in their leader Saddam Hussein they have an unpredictable future. It must be remembered that the current Iraqi government was armed with US, French, British and Russian military equipment legally sold to them on the world market. One wonders if, in their efforts to extract concessions from the Iraqi government, the international community has truly exhausted all alternatives to the current sanctions. In view of the damning evidence of the human impact of sanctions, should we not now be taking stock and asking whether it is time to review the gains and costs of this strategy, while at the same time re-examining the alternatives?

Security Council concerns regarding the lifting of the sanctions, which entail the fear of a redevelopment of Iraq's biological, chemical, nuclear and conventional weapons programs are understandable and justifiable. However, can the UN Security Council continue to justify punishing some 20 million Iraqis for the decision that a handful of their leaders, of whom they have no control over, made eight years ago?

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Reference this page

Killian Forde (). Iraq - Sanctions Take Their Toll. Field Exchange 4, June 1998. p10.



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