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
5 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 disappointment6.
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 Sanctions7: A Study of UNICEF’s Perspective, Table 38, Eric Hoskins, MD Consultant, UNICEF New York February 1998
1. Decreased Imports
Agricultural Inputs - fertilizer, pesticides, spare parts
Other spare parts
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
Deterioration in health status;
Increased: Morbidity and mortality (esp. child),Maternal and perinatal [sic] mortality,
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
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.
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)
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.
Increase in social inequality (Income gap between rich and poor);
Social upheaval, violence distress
Decrease in social cohesion
Psychosocial impact difficult to measure
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 sanctions had also been pointed out as being illegal10. 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.
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 controversial11 based on the methods of data collection and estimation. Other estimates suggest 227,000
12. In any case, the sanctions have been crticized for targeting Iraqi people and not Saddam Hussein’s regime.
A UNICEF study14 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.'
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
17 for more information.)
While Sadam Hussain no doubt bears some responsibilities, as
18 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,
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, 200120.
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 article21, 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)22 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.
At the beginning of 2001, Britain hinted towards some smart sanctions to reduce the impact sanctions were having. However, as a critique23 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 out24, 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, commented25, 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.