Sanctions against Iraq
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The sanctions against Iraq were a near-total financial and trade embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council on the nation of Iraq. They began August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, stayed largely in force until May 2003 (after Saddam Hussein's being forced from power),1 and persisted in part, including reparations to Kuwait, through the present.23
The original stated purposes of the sanctions were to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, to pay reparations, and to disclose and eliminate any weapons of mass destruction.
Initially the UN Security Council imposed stringent economic sanctions on Iraq by adopting and enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 661.4 After the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, those sanctions were extended and elaborated on, including linkage to removal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), by Resolution 687.56 The sanctions banned all trade and financial resources except for medicine and "in humanitarian circumstances" foodstuffs, whose import into Iraq was tightly regulated.4
Resolutions 661 and 687 expressed the goals of eliminating weapons of mass destruction and extended-range ballistic missiles, prohibiting any support for terrorism, and forcing Iraq to pay war reparations and all foreign debt.45
Some have argued that a non-expressed goal of the sanctions was the removal of Saddam Hussein. For example, the Iraq Liberation Act of 19989 stated that U.S. policy was to "replace that regime",10 an outcome that was not referenced in the U.N. resolutions but frequently mentioned by its supporters. In 1991, Paul H. Lewis wrote in the New York Times: "Ever since the trade embargo was imposed on Aug. 6, after the invasion of Kuwait, the United States has argued against any premature relaxation in the belief that by making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people it will eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power."11
As described by the United Nations Office of the Iraq Programme,12 the United Nations Security Council Resolution 661 imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iraq following that country’s invasion of Kuwait. These sanctions included strict limits both on the items that could be imported into Iraq and on those that could be exported.13
The UN Sanctions Committee issued no complete list of items that could not be imported into Iraq. Instead, it evaluated applications for importing items to Iraq on a case-by-case basis, in theory allowing foodstuffs, medicines and products for essential civilian needs and barring everything else.14
Persons wishing to deliver items to Iraq, whether in trade or for charitable donation, were required to apply for export licenses to the authorities of one or more UN member state, who then sent the application to the Sanctions Committee. The Committee made its decision in secret; any Committee member could veto a permission without giving any reason. As a rule, anything that could have a conceivable military use was banned, such as computers, tractors, and trousers, although Committee asserted its sole discretion in determining what is essential for every Iraqi and either permitting or denying any thing to the Iraqi population. If the Committee granted approval, it notified the country where the application came from; that country then informed the applicant; the applicant then shipped the items, but the items remained subject to inspection and risk of impoundment.citation needed
Limitations on Iraqi exports (chiefly oil) made it difficult to fund the import of goods into Iraq. Following the 1991 Gulf War, a United Nations inter-agency mission assessed that "the Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met."15 The Government of Iraq declined offers (in UNSRC resolutions 706 and 712) to enable Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to meet its people's needs. Acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council established the Oil for Food Programme via resolution 986 on 14 April 1995 as intended a "temporary measure to provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, until the fulfillment by Iraq of the relevant Security Council resolutions...". Implementation of the Programme started in December 1996; its first shipment of supplies arrived in March 1997. The Programme was funded exclusively with the proceeds from Iraqi oil exports. At first, Iraq was permitted to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months, with two-thirds of that amount to be used to meet Iraq’s humanitarian needs. In 1998, the limit was raised to $5.26 billion every six months. In December 1999, Security Council resolution 1284 removed the limit on the amount of oil exported.
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Iraqi oil export proceeds were allocated as follows:
- 72% was allocated to the humanitarian Programme
- 25% was allocated to the Compensation Fund for war reparation payments
- 2.2% for United Nations administrative and operational costs
- 0.8% for the weapons inspection programme.
Of the 72% allocated to humanitarian purposes:
- 59% was earmarked for the contracting of supplies and equipment by the Government of Iraq for the 15 central and southern governorates.
- 13% for the three northern governorates, where the United Nations implemented the Programme on behalf of the Government of Iraq.
Enforcement of the sanctions was primarily by means of military force and legal sanctions. Following the passage of Security Council Resolution 665, a Multinational Interception Force was organized and led by the United States to intercept, inspect and possibly impound vessels, cargoes and crews suspected of carrying freight to or from Iraq.16 While the UN Sanctions Committee did not issue a complete list of items banned from import to Iraq,14 among the imports intercepted by the MIF were shipments of pencils, hubcaps and brassieres.17
The legal side of sanctions were enforcement through actions brought by individual governments. In the United States, legal enforcement was handled by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).13 For example, in 2005 OFAC fined Voices in the Wilderness $20,000 for gifting medicine and other humanitarian supplies to Iraqis.18 In a similar case, OFAC is still attempting to collect (as of 2011) a $10,000 fine, plus interest, against Bert Sacks for bringing medicine to residents of Basra.19
There is a general consensus that the sanctions achieved the express goals of limiting Iraqi arms. For example, American war architect Douglas J. Feith says that the sanctions diminished Iraq militarily20 and scholars George A. Lopez and David Cortright say sanctions compelled Iraq to accept inspections and monitoring; winning concessions from Baghdad on political issue such as the border dispute with Kuwait; preventing the rebuilding of Iraqi defenses after the Persian Gulf War; and blocking the import of materials and technologies for producing weapons of mass destruction".212223 Hussein told his FBI interrogator 24 that Iraq's armaments "had been eliminated by the UN sanctions."25
High rates of malnutrition, lack of medical supplies, and diseases from lack of clean water were reported during sanctions.26
The modern Iraqi economy had been highly dependent on oil exports; in 1989, the oil sector comprised 61% of the GNP. A drawback of this dependence was the narrowing of the economic base, with the agricultural sector rapidly declining in the 1970s. Some claim that, as a result, the post-1990 sanctions had a particularly devastating effect on Iraq’s economy and food security levels of the population.27
Shortly after the sanctions were imposed, the Iraqi government developed a system of free food rations consisting of 1000 calories per person/day or 40% of the daily requirements, on which an estimated 60% of the population relied for a vital part of their sustenance. With the introduction of the Oil-for-Food Programme in 1997, this situation gradually improved. In May 2000 a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) survey noted that almost half the children under 5 years suffered from diarrhoea, in a country where the population is marked by its youth, with 45% being under 14 years of age in 2000. Power shortages, lack of spare parts and insufficient technical know-how lead to the breakdown of many modern facilities.27
The overall literacy rate in Iraq had been 78% in 1977 and 87% for adult women by 1985, but declined rapidly since then.citation needed Between 1990 and 1998, over one fifth of Iraqi children stopped enrolling in school, consequently increasing the number of non-literates and losing all the gains made in the previous decade. The 1990s also saw a dramatic increase in child labor, from a virtually non-existent level in the 1980s.citation needed The per capita income in Iraq dropped from $3510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996, heavily influenced by the rapid devaluation of the Iraqi dinar.27
Iraq had been one of the few countries in the Middle East that invested in women’s education. But this situation changed from the late eighties on with increasing militarisation and a declining economic situation. Consequently the economic hardships and war casualties in the last decades have increased the number of women-headed households and working women.27
Researcher Richard Garfield estimated that "a minimum of 100,000 and a more likely estimate of 227,000 excess deaths among young children from August 1991 through March 1998" from all causes including sanctions.7 Other estimates have put the number at 170,000 children.222829 UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said 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. As a partial explanation, 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." 30
Chlorine is commonly used to purify water, but because it can also be used to make poisonous chlorine gas, the sanctions regime included banning its manufacture under any conditions throughout Iraq and its import severely restricted.3132 After inspecting Baghdad's facilities, David Sole, President of the Sanitary Chemists & Technicians Association, noting a high rates of diseases from lack of clean water followed the Gulf War and sanctions, recommended that liquid chlorine be sent to Iraq to disinfect water supplies.33
Denis Halliday was appointed United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq as of 1 September 1997, at the Assistant Secretary-General level. In October 1998 he resigned after a 34 year career with the UN in order to have the freedom to criticise the sanctions regime, saying "I don't want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide"34 However, Sophie Boukhari a UNESCO Courier journalist, reports that "some legal experts are skeptical about or even against using such terminology" and quotes Mario Bettati: "People who talk like that don’t know anything about law. The embargo has certainly affected the Iraqi people badly, but that’s not at all a crime against humanity or genocide."35
Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck, subsequently also resigned in protest, calling the effects of the sanctions a "true human tragedy".36 Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Program in Iraq, followed them.citation needed
- Mohamed M. Ali, John Blacker, and Gareth Jones estimate between 400,000 and 500,000 excess under-5 deaths.39
- UNICEF: 500,000 children (including sanctions, collateral effects of war). "[As of 1999] [c]hildren under 5 years of age are dying at more than twice the rate they were ten years ago." (As is customary, this report was based on a survey conducted in cooperation with the Iraqi government and by local authorities in the provinces not controlled by the Iraqi government)40
- Former U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday: "Two hundred thirty-nine thousand children 5 years old and under" as of 1998.41
- "Probably ... 170,000 children", Project on Defense Alternatives, "The Wages of War", 20 October 200342
- 350,000 excess deaths among children "even using conservative estimates", Slate Explainer, "Are 1 Million Children Dying in Iraq?", 9. October 2001.43
- Economist Michael Spagat: "very likely to be [less than] than half a million children" because estimation efforts are unable to isolate the effects of sanctions alone due to the lack of "anything resembling a controlled experiment",44 and "one potential explanation" for the statistics showing an increase in child mortality was that "they were not real, but rather results of manipulations by the Iraqi government."44
- "Richard Garfield, a Columbia University nursing professor ... cited the figures 345,000-530,000 for the entire 1990-2002 period"8 for sanctions-related excess deaths.45
- Zaidi, S. and Fawzi, M. C. S., (1995) The Lancet British medical journal: 567,000 children.46 A co-author (Zaidi) did a follow-up study in 1996, finding "much lower ... mortality rates ... for unknown reasons."47
- Amatzia Baram, Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa, reported almost no difference in the rate of Iraq’s population growth between 1977 and 1987 (35.8 percent) and between 1987 and 1997 (35.1 percent), suggesting that the sanctions-related death rate is lower than reported, while also stating "Every child who suffers from malnutrition as a result of the embargo is a tragedy".48
A May 25, 2000 BBC article49 reported that before Iraq sanctions were imposed by the UN in 1990, infant mortality had "fallen to 47 per 1,000 live births between 1984 and 1989. This compares to approximately 7 per 1,000 in the UK." The BBC article was reporting from a study of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, titled "Sanctions and childhood mortality in Iraq", that was published in the May 2000 Lancet medical journal.50 The study concluded that in southern and central Iraq, infant mortality rate between 1994 and 1999 had risen to 108 per 1,000. Child mortality rate, which refers to children between the age of one and five years, also drastically inclined from 56 to 131 per 1,000.49 In the autonomous northern region during the same period, infant mortality declined from 64 to 59 per 1000 and under-5 mortality fell from 80 to 72 per 1000, which was attributed to better food and resource allocation.
The Lancet publication50 was the result of two separate surveys by UNICEF30 between February and May 1999 in partnership with the local authorities and with technical support by the WHO. "The large sample sizes - nearly 24,000 households randomly selected from all governorates in the south and center of Iraq and 16,000 from the north - helped to ensure that the margin of error for child mortality in both surveys was low," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said.30
In the spring of 2000 a U.S. Congressional letter demanding the lifting of the sanctions garnered 71 signatures, while House Democratic Whip David Bonior called the economic sanctions against Iraq "infanticide masquerading as policy."51
As the sanctions faced mounting criticism of its humanitarian impacts, several UN resolutions were introduced that allowed Iraq to trade its oil for goods such as food and medicines. The earliest of these, Resolution 706 of 15 August 1991, allowed the sale of Iraqi oil in exchange for food. Resolution 712 of 19 September 1991 confirmed that Iraq could sell up to $1.6 billion USD in oil to fund an Oil For Food program.
In 1996, Iraq was allowed under the UN Oil-for-Food Programme (under Security Council Resolution 986) to export $5.2 billion USD of oil every 6 months with which to purchase items needed to sustain the civilian population. After an initial refusal, Iraq signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in May 1996 for implementation of that resolution. The Oil-for-Food Programme started in October 1997, and the first shipments of food arrived in March 1998. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds were redirected to a Persian Gulf War reparations account, and three percent into United Nations programs related to Iraq. While the programme is credited with improving the conditions of the population somewhat, it was not free from controversy itself. Denis Halliday who oversaw the Programme believed it inadequate to compensate for the adverse humanitarian impacts of the sanctions. The U.S. State Department criticized the Iraqi government for inadequately spending the money, exporting food, and refusing to accept the program for several years after it was offered in 1991.52 In 2004/5 the Programme became the subject of major media attention over corruption, as allegations surfaced such as that Iraq had systematically sold allocations of oil at below-market prices in return for some of the proceeds from the resale outside the scope of the Programme; investigations implicated individuals and companies from dozens of countries. See Oil For Food Programme - Investigations.
Following the 2003 Iraq War, the sanctions regime was largely ended on May 22, 2003 (with certain exceptions related to arms and to oil revenue) by paragraph 10 of UN Security Council Resolution 1483.53
Sanctions which gave the US and UK control over Iraq's oil revenue were not removed until December 2010.2 Sanctions which require 5% of Iraq's oil and natural gas revenue to be paid to Kuwait as reparations for Saddam Hussain's invasion are still in effect.254
Scholar Ramon Das, in the Human Rights Research Journal of the New Zealand Center for Public Law, examined each of the "most widely accepted ethical frameworks" in the context of violations of Iraqi human rights under the sanctions, finding that "primary responsibility rests with the UNSC [United Nations Security Council]" under these frameworks, including rights-utilitarianism, moral Kantianism, and consequentialism.55
The Lancet50 and UNICEF studies observed that child mortality decreased in the north and increased in the south/center between 1994 and 1999 but did not attempt to explain the disparity, or to apportion culpability; instead it recommended that "[b]oth the Government of Iraq and the U.N. Sanctions Committee should give priority to contracts for supplies that will have a direct impact on the well-being of children," UNICEF said.30
Some commentators blame Saddam Hussein for the excess deaths during this period. For example, Michael Rubin argued that the Kurdish and the Iraqi governments handled Oil For Food aid differently, and that therefore the Iraqi government policy, rather than the sanctions themselves, should be held responsible for any negative effects.5657 Likewise, David Cortright claimed: "The tens of thousands of excess deaths in the south-center, compared to the similarly sanctioned but UN-administered north, are the result of Baghdad's failure to accept and properly manage the UN humanitarian relief effort."22 In the run-up to the Iraq War, some4458 disputed the idea that excess mortality exceeded 500,000, because the Iraqi government had interfered with objective collection of statistics (independent experts were barred).59
Other Western observers, such as Matt Welch and Anthony Arnove, argue that the differences in results noted by authors such as Rubin (above) may have been because the sanctions were not the same in the two parts of Iraq, due to several regional differences: in the per capita money,28 in war damage to infrastructure and in the relative ease of with which smugglers evaded sanctions through the porous Northern borders.60
Some persons, such as Walter Russell Mead, accepted a large estimate of casualties due to sanctions,61 but argued that invading Iraq was better than continuing the sanctions regime, since "Each year of containment is a new Gulf War."626364 Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, also argued that ending sanctions was one benefit of the war.44
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who called the sanctions "the most intrusive system of arms control in history",65 cited the breakdown of the sanctions as one cause or rationale for the Iraq war.66 While UN resolutions subsequent to the cessation of hostilities during the Persian Gulf War imposed several requisite responsibilities on Iraq for the removal of sanctions, the largest focus remained on the regime's development of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and in particular its laggard participation in the UNSCOM-led disarmament process required of it.citation needed
On May 12, 1996, Madeleine Albright (then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) appeared on a 60 Minutes segment in which Lesley Stahl asked her "We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" and Albright replied "we think the price is worth it." Albright wrote later that Saddam Hussein, not the sanctions, was to blame. She criticized Stahl's segment as "amount[ing] to Iraqi propaganda"; said that her question was a loaded question;6768 wrote "I had fallen into a trap and said something I did not mean";69 and regretted coming "across as cold-blooded and cruel".70 The segment won an Emmy Award.4471 Albright's "non-denial" was taken by sanctions opponents as confirmation of a high number of sanctions related casualties.2867
The US State Department has stated that Iraq was offered the Oil-for-Food Program designed to alleviate the humanitarian condition of Iraq in 1991 but that Iraq refused to accept it for years. It claimed:
In Northern Iraq, where the UN administers humanitarian assistance, child mortality rates have fallen below pre-Gulf War levels. Rates rose in the period before oil-for-food, but with the introduction of the program the trend reversed, and now those Iraqi children are better off than before the war. Child mortality figures have more than doubled in the south and center of the country, where the Iraqi government—rather than the UN—controls the program. If a turn-around on child mortality can be made in the north, which is under the same sanctions as the rest of the country, there is no reason it cannot be done in the south and center. The fact of the matter is, however, that the government of Iraq does not share the international community's concern about the welfare of its people. Baghdad's refusal to cooperate with the oil-for-food program and its deliberate misuse of resources are cynical efforts to sacrifice the Iraqi people's welfare in order to bring an end to UN sanctions without complying with its obligations."72
The State Department argued that non-Kurdish Iraq could order supplies "without limit" but was simply refusing to do so in adequate quantities.73 President Bill Clinton argued that Iraq actually had far more money to spend on humanitarian supplies under the sanctions regime than it would have had over the same period based on the trends that existed before the Persian Gulf War, adding that "we have worked like crazy" to avoid the unnecessary suffering of civilians.74
There is evidence that the Iraqi government did not fully cooperate with the sanctions. For example, Hussein's son-in-law is heard speaking of concealing information from UN inspectors on audiotapes released in 2006. "I go back to the question of whether we should reveal everything or continue to be silent. Sir, since the meeting has taken this direction, I would say it is in our interest not to reveal." 7576 Hussein may have considered the many governments' displeasure with him, but particularly that of two veto-wielding UNSC members, the United States and United Kingdom (both of which took the hardest lines on Iraq), as a no-win situation and disincentive to cooperation in the process.77
It has been alleged that UNSCOM had been infiltrated by British and American spies for purposes other than determining if Iraq possessed WMDs.7879 Former inspector Scott Ritter was a prominent source of these charges.citation needed Former UNSCOM chief inspector David Kay said "the longer it continued, the more the intelligence agencies would, often for very legitimate reasons, decide that they had to use the access they got through cooperation with UNSCOM to carry out their missions".8081
Saddam, who saw all this as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty,citation needed became less cooperative and more obstructive of UNSCOM activities over time, and ultimately refusing access beginning in August 1998. Saddam condemned the UScitation needed for enforcing the sanctions through the UN and demanded lifting all sanctions on its country, including the weapons sanctions. The UN refused to do so, stating concern that Saddam's regime would rebuild its once-powerful military and renew its WMD programs.
Renewed pressure in 2002 led to the entry of UNMOVIC, which eventually received some degree of cooperation; before it could complete its work, the United States required it to leave Iraq to avoid its impending 2003 invasion of Iraq.
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- U.S. Department of State, Released September 13, 1999 (updated 2/23/00), "Saddam Hussein's Iraq"
- Council on Foreign Relations, May 23, 2003, "Iraq: U.N. Sanctions"
- IRIN News, news agency of the UN OCHA agency, looks again at the figures (August 2005): IRAQ: Child mortality rates finally dropping
- Wright, Steven (2007). The United States and Persian Gulf Security: The Foundations of the War on Terror. Ithaca Press. ISBN 978-0-86372-321-6.
- Gordon, Joy (2010). Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions. Harvard. ISBN 978-0-674-06408-9.