Effects of Iraq Sanctions

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

When asked on US television if she [Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State] thought that the death of half a million Iraqi children [from sanctions in Iraq] was a price worth paying, Albright replied: This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.

John Pilger, Squeezed to Death, Guardian, March 4, 2000
  1. Amy Goodman:

    ... many say that, although president Bush led this invasion, that president Clinton laid the groundwork with the sanctions and with the previous bombing of Iraq. You were president Clinton’s U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.... the U.N. sanctions, for example ... led to the deaths of more than a half a million children, not to mention more than a million Iraqis.

  2. Governor Richardson:

    Well, I stand behind the sanctions. I believe that they successfully contained Saddam Hussein. I believe that the sanctions were an instrument of our policy. [Emphasis Added]

  3. Amy Goodman:

    To ask a question that was asked of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright, do you think the price was worth it, 500,000 children dead?

  4. Governor Richardson:

    Well, I believe our policy was correct, yes

Governor Richardson Calls for an Exit Strategy in Iraq and Stands by the Clinton-Era Sanctions, Democracy Now, September 22, 2005

On this page:

  1. Changing role of sanctions?
  2. United Nations reports on massive death toll — from sanctions
  3. Smart Sanctions
  4. Oil for Food Scandal
    1. Blaming entire UN for Policies of the UN Security Council
    2. Blaming Oil for Food Program for most of the billions stolen
    3. Blaming Kofi Annan
    4. Blaming UN Oil for Food’s Supposed Lack of Transparency
    5. US Actually Accounted for more than the rest of the world combined in Illegal Oil Sales by Iraq

Changing role of sanctions?

Iraq Map
Courtesy of ITA’s Quick Maps.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, economic sanctions were applied, until March 1991, to pressure them to leave. After that, the sanctions took on a new purpose: to get Iraq to comply with the cease fire terms embodied in the UN Resolution 687, which included the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction and recognizing the sovereignty of Kuwait. However, at various stages throughout the sanctions, it was often said by U.S. officials that the sanctions would not be lifted until the Saddam Hussein regime had gone. For years, people from grassroots activists to top United Nations officials had strongly opposed the sanctions because of their effects on ordinary Iraqi citizens, but to no avail.

On May 22, 2003, the United Nations (U.N) Security Council voted to lift the sanctions, Saddam’s regime having been toppled. The vote was 14 to 1 (Syria refusing to vote). But the passing of this resolution was also controversial:

  • In the past, the U.S. and U.K., primarily, had been most vocal in maintaining sanctions, though now, they were the main drivers to lift them, showing the political power the two nations have in the international arena.
  • While the political issues in this resolution were hardly presented in the British media, for example, some 150 peace organizations and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) from around the world protested the resolution for virtually legitimizing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and endorsing the foreign occupation of a U.N. member state.
  • As the previous link details, the resolution was passed by what the 150 groups described as bribes and threats by the U.S. on other members of the Council.
  • It also provides political legitimacy to U.S. rule (for now) in Iraq.
  • One additional effect is that it did not specify the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in declaring Iraq free of weapons of mass destruction; it did not end the U.N. arms embargo against the country and it did not clarify the U.N.’s role in a future Iraq.

While the sanctions appear to be lifted then, the future of Iraq is still under a lot of questions. But the history of the sanctions regime and its toll on the Iraqi people have been very devastating which is what the rest of this page looks at.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, a combination of the effects of war, sanctions, deteriorating health care provisions, contaminated water, military actions, etc. have contributed to a humanitarian disaster in Iraq, further exacerbated by military strikes, such as those in 1998. Even the Secretary General of the UN, Koffi Annan had politely expressed his disappointment.

UNICEF had published an independent report by a consultant, Eric Hoskins, on the impact of sanctions and UNICEF’s perspective, in 1998. It included the following table, that details the multitude of impacts that sanctions have had:

Direct Effects (immediate)Short Term Effects (intermediate)Long Term Effects (chronic)
Source: The Impact of Sanctions: A Study of UNICEF’s Perspective, Table 3, Eric Hoskins, MD Consultant, UNICEF New York February 1998
1. Decreased Imports
Food Imports
Agricultural Inputs - fertilizer, pesticides, spare parts
Industrial/Commercial inputs/parts
Other spare parts
Educational materials
Water Purification/supply inputs
2. Decreased Exports
Impact on export earnings, access to foreign currency, etc.
3. Decrease in Communications
Including telecommunications, media
4. Impact on Diplomatic Efforts
1. Health
Deterioration in health status;
Increased: Morbidity and mortality (esp. child),Maternal and perinatal [sic] mortality,
Low-birth-weight babies, Infectious diseases, Epidemics, Malnutrition;
Deterioration in water quantity and quality;
Deterioration in health services;
Decrease in available medicines, vaccines laboratory and diagnostic tests;
Breakdown of medical, Xray, lab equipments.
2. Food Security
Higher market prices for basic foodstuffs;
"Entitlement" problems in obtaining food;
Shortages of basic food items;
Decrease in household diet and caloric intake;
Decreased agricultural and production;
Decrease in livestock production;
Black market purchases
3. Economics
Decreased export earnings;
Decreased trade leading to closure of business and industry;
Emergence of black (paralles [sic]) market;
Decrease wages, purchasing power;
Increase in personal/household loans;
Decreased economic activity ( industry, commerce, agriculture, etc) due to lack of trading partners, resources, funds, inputs.
1. Health
Reduction in the overall (general) health status of the population
Deterioration in health services and diminshed [sic] national capacity to provide care;
Loss of previous gains in preventive and curative care services;
Resurgence of illness and disease associated with poverty (e.g. epidemics, infectious disease)
2. Economic
Chronically decreased economic activity;
Decline in revenue from all sources;
Decline in GDP, GNP, per capital income;
Loss of trade partners, regional/international trade interests;
Chronically high unemployment
Collapse of public and private infrastructure
Decline in public education.
3. Social
Increase poverty
Increase in social inequality (Income gap between rich and poor);
Social upheaval, violence distress
Decrease in social cohesion
Psychosocial impact difficult to measure
4. Political
Impact on democracy
Impact on human rights, previously-observed democratic freedoms
Change in regional balance of power, security

As Christian Aid also reported back in 1998,

The policy of sanctions has also been used to pursue political goals — for example, the removal of the Iraqi regime — beyond the overt scope of Resolution 687, which contained no prescriptions regarding Iraq’s form of government or the conduct of domestic policy. The Iraqi population’s economic and social rights have been seriously infringed by the impact of a prolonged embargo. In an authoritarian state which continued to hold most of the levers of control, much of the burden caused by the embargo fell on the civilian population.

The immediate consequence of eight years of sanctions has been a dramatic fall in living standards, the collapse of the infrastructure, and a serious decline in the availability of public services. The longer-term damage to the fabric of society has yet to be assessed but economic disruption has already led to heightened levels of crime, corruption and violence. Competition for increasingly scarce resources has allowed the Iraqi state to use clan and sectarian rivalries to maintain its control, further fragmenting Iraqi society.

The Iraqi government also withdrew funding and services from the three northern governorates and imposed its own economic blockade on the region in October 1991, leading to the creation of a de facto Kurdish-controlled region (Iraqi Kurdistan). However, the international community did not alter the scope of sanctions, which remained in force over the whole of Iraq.

This 'double embargo' imposed by the international community and by the Government of Iraq encouraged the development of a non-productive economy based on revenues derived from customs duties, and smuggling to Turkey, Iran, and government-controlled areas of Iraq. This anomalous economic situation fuelled the conflict between rival political factions, resulting in four years of internal fighting from 1993-1997. By 1995 this conflict resulted in the virtual collapse of the Kurdish Regional Administration established after the May 1992 elections in the northern Iraq.

Working In Iraq; Christian Aid’s experience 1990-98

The sanctions had also been pointed out as being illegal. The previous link is to a paper presented to the International Law Association, in February 2000. It concluded that The blockade/sanctions regime is by its nature inherently illegal under the Geneva Protocol, for three reasons. First, it targets civilians in breach of Articles 48 and 51(2). Secondly, it constitutes indiscriminate attack, in breach of Article 51(3). Thirdly and most flagrantly, it employs starvation as a method of warfare, in breach of Article 54.

However, the sanctions regime was not lifted due to such concerns, but only when the Saddam Hussein regime was eventually toppled.

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United Nations reports on massive death toll — from sanctions

In 1991, George Bush (jr.) had said that the Aggression is ended, the war is over. Since the 1998 bombing has been over, Iraq had been constantly bombed, with the killing of civilians as well. However, this was rarely reported in the US mainstream media apart from the larger bombing campaigns.

In addition, As UNICEF and other United Nations bodies and officials have reported, the sanctions (which the U.S. and U.K., primarily, refused to have lifted), added to the death toll since 1991 and was estimated to be close to 1 million deaths up to 1998 with mass starvations and disease (while Saddam Hussein had remained unaffected, and he himself sometimes used that for political advantage). Up to half of these are said to have been be children, but the 500,000 number has been controversial based on the methods of data collection and estimation. Other estimates suggest 227,000. In any case, the sanctions have been crticized for targeting Iraqi people and not Saddam Hussein’s regime.

U.S. officials have stated that sanctions would remain even if Iraq complied with United Nations inspectors, giving the Iraqi regime virtually no incentive to comply. For sanctions to work, there needs to be a promise of relief to counterbalance the suffering; that is, a carrot as well as a stick. Indeed, it was the failure of both the United States and the United Nations to explicitly spell out what was needed in order for sanctions to be lifted that led to Iraq suspending its cooperation with UN inspectors in December 1998.

Stephen Zunes, Continuing Storm: The U.S. Role in the Middle East, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 2000

A UNICEF study in 1999 also showed that the child mortality rate in Iraq has increased in government controlled areas of Iraq (and decreased in autonomous, mainly Kurdish controlled regions). The report also says that child deaths have actually doubled in the last ten years.

As the above link also highlighted, Unicef Executive Director, Carol Bellamy noted that if the substantial reduction in child mortality throughout Iraq during the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole during the eight year period 1991 to 1998. Recognizing a multitude of reasons, she pointed to a March statement of the Security Council Panel on Humanitarian Issues which states: 'Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war.'

The change in 10 years is unparalleled, in my experience, Anupama Rao Singh, Unicef’s senior representative in Iraq, told me. In 1989, the literacy rate was 95%; and 93% of the population had free access to modern health facilities. Parents were fined for failing to send their children to school. The phenomenon of street children or children begging was unheard of. Iraq had reached a stage where the basic indicators we use to measure the overall well-being of human beings, including children, were some of the best in the world. Now it is among the bottom 20%. In 10 years, child mortality has gone from one of the lowest in the world, to the highest.

John Pilger, Squeezed to Death, Guardian, March 4 2000

According to an article from the Progressive magazine, citing declassified documents from the U.S. the sanctions have also been used to destroy Iraq’s water supply.

The US/UK/Turkey-enforced no-fly-zone had been criticized for not protecting the people it is meant to. (Note that this is not a UN-authorized no-fly-zone as the media keeps saying. Check out this link for more information.)

While Sadam Hussain no doubt bears some responsibilities, as outlined by The Nation Magazine, the impacts of the UN policies largely pressured by the U.S. and U.K. too have a considerable portion of the blame. Consider for example, Denis Halliday. He was co-ordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, one of the top most officials. He resigned in 1998, after 34 years with the UN. As John Pilger comments,

His was the first public expression of an unprecedented rebellion within the UN bureaucracy. I am resigning, [as Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations] he [Denis Halliday] wrote, because the policy of economic sanctions is totally bankrupt. We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that ... Five thousand children are dying every month ... I don’t want to administer a programme that results in figures like these.

When I first met Halliday, I was struck by the care with which he chose uncompromising words. I had been instructed, he said, to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults. We all know that the regime, Saddam Hussein, is not paying the price for economic sanctions; on the contrary, he has been strengthened by them. It is the little people who are losing their children or their parents for lack of untreated water. What is clear is that the Security Council is now out of control, for its actions here undermine its own Charter, and the Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. History will slaughter those responsible.

John Pilger, Squeezed to Death, Guardian, March 4 2000

For such a top UN official to have resigned with such harsh accusations, gives an idea of the amount of impact the U.S/British-pressured UN policies have had.

As well as Denis Halliday resigning from the UN, so too have others because of the way the United States and United Kingdom have continued with sanctions in Iraq.

Another such person was UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Hans von Sponeck. At the end of 2000, he wrote a letter to Britain’s minister with responsibility for Iraq, Peter Hain, arguing the various points that the UK and US often make when trying to justify the continuing sanctions. That letter was published, amongst other places, in the Guardian newspaper in U.K. Amongst other things, Sponeck said to the minister, it is an outrage that against your better knowledge you repeat again and again truly fabricated and self-serving disinformation. You can read that letter, published by the Guardian newspaper, January 4, 2001.

Peter Hain, even former President Clinton and others have pointed out how Iraq had billions of dollars of relief and aid available to spend on its people. However, that glosses over a number of points best summarized by John Pilger who, in an article, quotes the above-mentioned von Sponeck: You get a sense of the scale of lying from Hain’s latest letter to the NS [New Statesman] (15 January), in which he claimed that about $16bn of humanitarian relief was available to the Iraqi people last year. Quoting UN documents, Hans von Sponeck replies in this issue (page 37) that the figure was actually for four years and that, after reparations are paid to Kuwait and the oil companies, Iraq is left with just $100 a year with which to keep one human being alive.

(The above about $100 per year per person by John Pilger, was written in January 2001. In July 2002, Von Sponeck wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail (July 2, 2002) that Until May of 2002, the total value of all food, medicines, education, sanitation, agricultural and infrastructure supplies that have arrived in Iraq has amounted to $175 per person a year, or less than 49 cents a day.)

One of the additional major concerns with the sanctions regime was that it has exacerbated poverty and prevented the shattered civilian economy from being rebuilt. In this way, it had not targeted the Saddam Hussen regime or the miltiary. Smart sanctions which were attempted later, were also criticized for being a smarter way to prevent rebuilding of the civilian economy.

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Smart Sanctions

At the beginning of 2001, Britain hinted towards some smart sanctions to reduce the impact sanctions were having. However, as a critique from the National Network to End the War Against Iraq says, smart sanctions are still sanctions. They point out that the purpose of sanctions would not be to redirect funds to rebuild the economy and that the civilians would still remain affected by sanctions policies. Their list of concerns, summarized here (see the link for far more detail on these and other points) included:

  • There were still too many banned items in the new proposal under the concern of dual use items.
  • The British proposal would allow more commodities into Iraq, but would not address the fundamental problem of low purchasing power of the vast majority of Iraqis
  • More commodities would not address the need to rebuild the country
  • Smart sanctions do not lift the almost complete ban on foreign investment, necessary because Iraq’s infrastructural and reconstruction needs are so severe
  • The Oil for Food program imposed on Iraq an externally-controlled centrally-planned economy
  • Under these "new" sanctions, Iraq still would not have control over its own major source of income — oil

On this last point about money from oil, the Network continues that The UK proposal requires that money Iraq earns from oil sales continue to be deposited into an escrow account controlled by the UN Security Council. Thus the US and the UK would retain the power to make decisions about when, where and most importantly, whether resources could be purchased to restore the health of Iraq’s people and economy. At the present time, the US and UK have $3.71 billion in goods on "hold," preventing them from reaching the Iraqi people.

By mid 2002, as Von Sponeck, mentioned above, has pointed out, the amount withheld was roughly $5 billion. He also adds that, The failure [in preventing chronic malnutrition in 22% of the Iraqi’s young children] is not one of internal distribution. During my tenure [at the United Nations as UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq], more than 90 per cent of oil-for-food goods by the government reached their intended destinations. UN reports have consistently confirmed this success rate — one beyond expectation, given the chaotic constraints of disintegrating infrastructure, erratic communications and electrical power, and arbitrary U.S. "holds" on $5-billion worth of contracts.

Hence, while it might present a simpler picture, and readily acceptable, that Saddam Hussein is solely to blame for the plight of his people (a claim made many times by various leading politicians all the way up to the 2003 war), the above highlights the reality being far more complicated, and in addition, the United Nations, the United States, and the United Kingdom also share in the destruction caused, and perhaps somewhat more so.

Smart sanctions were eventually passed unanimously in May 14, 2002 at the UN Security Council as the ninth revision to to the original economic sanctions passed against Iraq in 1990. Yet, as von Sponeck, mentioned above, commented, Like all previous revisions, smart sanctions leave the root cause of their troubles — strangulation of the civilian economy — unaddressed.

The sanctions were finally lifted it seemed, not because of the humanitarian urgency demanded for years by people from the United Nations to grassroots activists, but because the political objective of removing the Saddam Hussein regime had been met.

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Oil for Food Scandal

The Oil for Food program was started in 1996 (after being offered and rejected in 1991) as the effects of sanctions on the Iraqi people was getting worse. The idea was that Iraq would be allowed to sell oil and use some of that money (60%) for purchasing humanitarian goods. The remainder went to things like reparations to Kuwait, coalition operations in Iraq, etc. Some goods took a long time to be approved, and it appeared a lot of money was raised. However, Joy Gordon who had appeared in US Congressional hearings on the matter, wrote in November 2002 that per person, this Oil For Food program did not raise much:

The Oil for Food Programme, intended as a limited and temporary emergency measure, was first offered to Iraq in 1991, and was rejected. It was finally put into place in 1996. Under the programme, Iraq was permitted to sell a limited amount of oil (until 1999, when the limits were removed), and is allowed to use almost 60 percent of the proceeds to buy humanitarian goods. Since the programme began, Iraq has earned approximately $57 billion in oil revenues, of which it has spent about $23 billion on goods that actually arrived. This comes to about $170 per year per person, which is less than one half the annual per capita income of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Iraqi diplomats noted last year that this is well below what the U.N. spends on food for dogs used in Iraqi de-mining operations (about $400 per dog per year on imported food, according to the U.N.).

The severe limits on funds created a permanent humanitarian crisis, but the situation has been worsened considerably by chronic delays in approval for billions of dollars' worth of goods. As of last July more than $5 billion in goods was on hold.

Joy Gordon, Cool War, Harper’s Magazine, November 2002

In 2004 a series of reports in the mainstream media appeared to show the United Nations Oil for Food program was corrupt. Joy Gordon, this time writing in The Nation, summarizes some of this:

In January the Iraqi newspaper Al Mada published a list of people and organizations, including UN personnel, who supposedly received vouchers from the Iraqi government to purchase oil. In April the General Accounting Office (since renamed the Government Accountability Office) published a report claiming that the Oil for Food (OFF) program had been rife with corruption and that through smuggling and kickbacks, Saddam Hussein had managed to acquire more than $10 billion in illicit funds. A series of Congressional investigations followed, featuring conservative witnesses who pilloried the UN for incompetence, corruption and general unfitness. In the latest hearings chaired by Republican Norm Coleman, the committee staff claimed that Saddam’s access to illicit funds totalled over $21 billion — twice the sum claimed by the CIA — and that the money went to terrorists around the world, not to mention (rather astonishingly) the post-Saddam insurgency.

Joy Gordon, UN Oil for Food Scandal, The Nation, November 18, 2004

As Gordon noted, even if the allegations against UN staff were true, it did not show institutional corruption as many would have liked to portray, for the UN had clear policies on this.

Blaming entire UN for Policies of the UN Security Council

Furthermore, Rarely mentioned, either at the hearings or in the press coverage, was the fundamental distinction between the policies established by the Secretariat and the UN agencies and those that result from decisions of particular member states within the highly politicized Security Council.

Many failures were attributed to the UN, when it was the UN Security Council, and within that, key influential member countries, such as the US and UK, that commanded most of the power and made all the decisions on how the Oil for Food program would function.

The maritime smuggling that took place under the nose of the UN in fact took place under the nose of something called the Multinational Interception Force, a group of member nations that responded to the general invitation of the Security Council for nations to interdict Iraqi smuggling. The UN Multinational Interception Force turns out to have consisted almost entirely of the US Navy. The commander of the MIF was at every point, from 1991 to 2003, a rear admiral or vice admiral from the US Fifth Fleet. The United States contributed the overwhelming majority of ships — hundreds in fact. Britain provided the deputy commander and some naval forces and other countries contributed a few ships. The UN itself provided no forces or commanders. The UN failure to interdict Saddam’s tankers of illicit oil turns out, in nearly every regard, to have been a US naval operation.

Joy Gordon, UN Oil for Food Scandal, The Nation, November 18, 2004

Blaming Oil for Food Program for most of the billions stolen

The mainstream media often made the claim that the UN allowed Saddam Hussein to steal billions of dollars from oil sales. Numbers claimed by people, including George Bush, went to $21.5 billion. Yet, as Gordon noted (this time in an article for the media watchdog, Project Censored, Saddam didn’t steal billions with the complicity of the United Nations, Saddam Hussein stole billions under the watch of the United States Navy.

How did such an exaggeration come about? Oil for Food Facts, from the United Nations Foundation (not related to the UN directly, itself) explains:

This figure ($21.5 billion) was initially provided on November 15, 2004 at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations that is conducting one of the five congressional inquiries into the OFFP. The Subcommittee distributed a chart that showed that while Iraq was under UN Sanctions, between 1991 - 2003, the Saddam Hussein regime obtained illicit revenues of $21.3 billion. The chart clearly indicates that the OFFP was responsible for a small share of this total and that most of the illicit revenue came from other sources.

Since then, the $21.3 billion figure has been used inaccurately by Members of Congress, the media, and even President Bush. All have said at various times that it represents what the Hussein regime obtained by circumventing the OFFP. Most notably, Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations, has used the figure incorrectly multiple times, without being challenged. ... Yet Sen. Coleman has linked the entire $21 billion number to Oil-for-Food during various interviews with FOX News, CNN, and CNBC, [and in an Op-ed for the Wall Street Journal].

... Of particular note is the $13.6 billion the chart attributes to oil smuggling. There has been a wide misperception that the UN was in charge of policing for the regime's oil smuggling. This is incorrect. The responsibility for preventing smuggling into and from Iraq rested with Member States, specifically with the Multinational Interception Force, mandated by the Security Council in 1991 and led by and predominantly made up of the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy.

Myth: Saddam Hussein's regime raised over $21.3 billion in illicit revenue by subverting the Oil-for-Food Program (OFFP)., Oil for Food Myths and Facts, September 2005

A final definitive report was produced by the Volcker Committee. The total amount this committe claimed as being illicit from the Oil for Food program turned out to be just under $2 billion, as Gordon explains:

The Volcker Committee’s final report focuses a great deal on improprieties that had little impact on the Oil-for-Food program. Where it adds up the actual money involved, it finds that the amount of money that went into Iraq illicitly through the program totaled $1.8 billion over the seven-year history of the program. This is far less than had been claimed in earlier CIA and GAO reports, and by contrast it is much much less than the amount of Iraqi funds that were mismanaged by the U.S. or disappeared altogether during its occupation of Iraq — in just a 14-month period. Just one example, according to the audit reports that have been released, was that no information could be provided about what happened to $8.8 billion of Iraqi funds sent to ministries under U.S. control. The Volcker reports’ claims of financial improprieties are minor compared to the magnitude and the speed with which Iraq’s funds disappeared once they were in the hands of the U.S. occupation.

Joy Gordon, Oil-for-Food: The Real Scandal, Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA), September 8, 2005

Blaming Kofi Annan

The mainstream press, especially in the US where hostility to the United Nations is common and mainstream, even blamed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for this. But as Gordon counters again:

For example, the United Nations is criticized for its failures, and the Secretary General is then blamed because these events happened on his watch. What was not mentioned at all for the first year of media coverage is that the UN is made up of several different parts, and that the part that designed and oversaw the Oil for Food Program was the Security Council, whose decisions cannot be overridden or modified in any way by the Secretary General. Not only that, while the most vitriolic accusations against the UN have come from the United States, the U.S. is in fact the most dominant member of the Security Council. The U.S. agreed to all the decisions and procedures of the Oil for Food Program that are now being so harshly criticized as failures of the United Nations.

Joy Gordon, The Real Oil for Food Scam, Project Censored, September 2005

Blaming UN Oil for Food’s Supposed Lack of Transparency

Another common theme in the criticism was that the UN Oil for Food program lacked accountability, transparency, or oversight. Yet, as Gordon also comments on that, the program was highly transparent. It was one of the most heavily detailed programs and the information was easily available to large media organizations, if they chose to look at it. But even the US Congress members in the investigations did not seem to know about these details. Joy Gordon recalls, I have testified twice before Congressional committees, where the members of Congress were incredulous to hear that in fact the program operated very differently than they had been told — even though the information I provided them was obvious, basic, publicly available, and easily accessible.

Far from giving Saddam a free hand, the OFF program involved extensive monitoring and oversight. The government of Iraq first had to submit a list of every single item it hoped to purchase in the coming six months, and the UN staff had to approve the list. Once Iraq had signed a contract with a vendor, the contract was circulated to UNSCOM (later UNMOVIC), to see if there was anything that could be used for military purposes. Every member of the Security Council had the opportunity to review every contract, and each member could block or delay any contract for imports. Every member of the Security Council also had to approve every contract for the sale of oil. If there was cash paid under the table, it did not happen for lack of oversight. It happened despite the most elaborate monitoring system imaginable. And if the members of the Security Council — including the United States — failed to do their job, that is not the fault of Kofi Annan.

Joy Gordon, UN Oil for Food Scandal, The Nation, November 18, 2004

US Actually Accounted for more than the rest of the world combined in Illegal Oil Sales by Iraq

Julian Borger and Jamie Wilson, reporting for the British newspaper The Guardian found that the US was the most corrupt of all countries dealing and benefitting from Iraq. Reporting on a US Senate investigation:

  • Documentary evidence was available that the Bush administration was made aware of illegal oil sales and kickbacks paid to the Saddam Hussein regime but did nothing to stop them;
  • US oil purchases accounted for 52% of the kickbacks paid to the regime in return for sales of cheap oil — more than the rest of the world put together;
  • On occasion, the United States actually facilitated the illicit oil sales;
  • The US Treasury apparently played delaying and avoiding tactics to repeated requests by staff from the UN and the US state department for information on transactions on a US oil company;
  • The US military allowed some oil to be smuggled out, even assuring a US oil company that the oil they had illegally purchased would not be confiscated.

For many years, the United States has been critical of the United Nations. It now seems that the Oil For Food program can be used to target the United Nations, which would conincide quite nicely with the UN World Summit, September 2005.

Some further sources of information about the Oil for Food program, in addition to the links above, include the following:

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

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Document revision history

Former US Ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson believed the sanctions against Iraq — which led to the death of many civilians — was worth it
Added information about the Oil for Food scandal and the exaggerations that accompanied it.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.