Visions Of Life
2004-02-23 20:23:10 (UTC)

Sanctions In Iraq

Cool War
Economic sanctions as a weapon of mass destruction
Originally from Harper's Magazine, November 2002. By Joy
SourcesIn searching for evidence of the potential danger
posed by Iraq, the Bush Administration need have looked no
further than the well-kept record of U.S. manipulation of
the sanctions program since 1991. If any international act
in the last decade is sure to generate enduring bitterness
toward the United States, it is the epidemic suffering
needlessly visited on Iraqis via U.S. fiat inside the
United Nations Security Council. Within that body, the
United States has consistently thwarted Iraq from
satisfying its most basic humanitarian needs, using
sanctions as nothing less than a deadly weapon, and,
despite recent reforms, continuing to do so. Invoking
security concerns—including those not corroborated by U.N.
weapons inspectors—U.S. policymakers have effectively
turned a program of international governance into a
legitimized act of mass slaughter.

Since the U.N. adopted economic sanctions in 1945, in its
charter, as a means of maintaining global order, it has
used them fourteen times (twelve times since 1990). But
only those sanctions imposed on Iraq have been
comprehensive, meaning that virtually every aspect of the
country's imports and exports is controlled, which is
particularly damaging to a country recovering from war.
Since the program began, an estimated 500,000 Iraqi
children under the age of five have died as a result of the
sanctions—almost three times as many as the number of
Japanese killed during the U.S. atomic bomb attacks.

News of such Iraqi fatalities has been well documented (by
the United Nations, among others), though underreported by
the media. What has remained invisible, however, is any
documentation of how and by whom such a death toll has been
justified for so long. How was the danger of goods entering
Iraq assessed, and how was it weighed, if at all, against
the mounting collateral damage? As an academic who studies
the ethics of international relations, I was curious. It
was easy to discover that for the last ten years a vast
number of lengthy holds had been placed on billions of
dollars' worth of what seemed unobjectionable—and very much
needed—imports to Iraq. But I soon learned that all U.N.
records that could answer my questions were kept from
public scrutiny. This is not to say that the U.N. is
lacking in public documents related to the Iraq program.
What is unavailable are the documents that show how the
U.S. policy agenda has determined the outcome of
humanitarian and security judgments.

The operation of Iraq sanctions involves numerous agencies
within the United Nations. The Security Council's 661
Committee is generally responsible for both enforcing the
sanctions and granting humanitarian exemptions. The Office
of Iraq Programme (OIP), within the U.N. Secretariat,
operates the Oil for Food Programme. Humanitarian agencies
such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization work in
Iraq to monitor and improve the population's welfare,
periodically reporting their findings to the 661 Committee.
These agencies have been careful not to publicly discuss
their ongoing frustration with the manner in which the
program is operated.

Over the last three years, through research and interviews
with diplomats, U.N. staff, scholars, and journalists, I
have acquired many of the key confidential U.N. documents
concerning the administration of Iraq sanctions. I obtained
these documents on the condition that my sources remain
anonymous. What they show is that the United States has
fought aggressively throughout the last decade to
purposefully minimize the humanitarian goods that enter the
country. And it has done so in the face of enormous human
suffering, including massive increases in child mortality
and widespread epidemics. It has sometimes given a reason
for its refusal to approve humanitarian goods, sometimes
given no reason at all, and sometimes changed its reason
three or four times, in each instance causing a delay of
months. Since August 1991 the United States has blocked
most purchases of materials necessary for Iraq to generate
electricity, as well as equipment for radio, telephone, and
other communications. Often restrictions have hinged on the
withholding of a single essential element, rendering many
approved items useless. For example, Iraq was allowed to
purchase a sewage-treatment plant but was blocked from
buying the generator necessary to run it; this in a country
that has been pouring 300,000 tons of raw sewage daily into
its rivers.

* * *

Saddam Hussein's government is well known for its human-
rights abuses against the Kurds and Shi'ites, and for its
invasion of Kuwait. What is less well known is that this
same government had also invested heavily in health,
education, and social programs for two decades prior to the
Persian Gulf War. While the treatment of ethnic minorities
and political enemies has been abominable under Hussein, it
is also the case that the well-being of the society at
large improved dramatically. The social programs and
economic development continued, and expanded, even during
Iraq's grueling and costly war with Iran from 1980 to 1988,
a war that Saddam Hussein might not have survived without
substantial U.S. backing. Before the Persian Gulf War, Iraq
was a rapidly developing country, with free education,
ample electricity, modernized agriculture, and a robust
middle class. According to the World Health Organization,
93 percent of the population had access to health care.

The devastation of the Gulf War and the sanctions that
preceded and sustained such devastation changed all that.
Often forgotten is the fact that sanctions were imposed
before the war-in August of 1990-in direct response to
Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. After the liberation of Kuwait,
sanctions were maintained, their focus shifted to
disarmament. In 1991, a few months after the end of the
war, the U.N. secretary general's envoy reported that Iraq
was facing a crisis in the areas of food, water,
sanitation, and health, as well as elsewhere in its entire
infrastructure, and predicted an “imminent catastrophe,
which could include epidemics and famine, if massive life-
supporting needs are not rapidly met.” U.S. intelligence
assessments took the same view. A Defense Department
evaluation noted that “Degraded medical conditions in Iraq
are primarily attributable to the breakdown of public
services (water purification and distribution, preventive
medicine, water disposal, health-care services,
electricity, and transportation). . . . Hospital care is
degraded by lack of running water and electricity.”

According to Pentagon officials, that was the intention. In
a June 23, 1991, Washington Post article, Pentagon
officials stated that Iraq's electrical grid had been
targeted by bombing strikes in order to undermine the
civilian economy. “People say, 'You didn't recognize that
it was going to have an effect on water or sewage,'” said
one planning officer at the Pentagon. “Well, what were we
trying to do with sanctions-help out the Iraqi people? No.
What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was
to accelerate the effect of the sanctions.”

Iraq cannot legally export or import any goods, including
oil, outside the U.N. sanctions system. 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.

The Office of Iraq Programme does not release information
on which countries are blocking contracts, nor does any
other body. Access to the minutes of the Security Council's
661 Committee is “restricted.” The committee operates by
consensus, effectively giving every member veto power.
Although support for the sanctions has eroded considerably,
the sanctions are maintained by “reverse veto” in the
Security Council. Because the sanctions did not have an
expiration date built in, ending them would require another
resolution by the council. The United States (and Britain)
would be in a position to veto any such resolution even
though the sanctions on Iraq have been openly opposed by
three permanent members—France, Russia, and China—for many
years, and by many of the elected members as well. The
sanctions, in effect, cannot be lifted until the United
States agrees.

Nearly everything for Iraq's entire infrastructure—
electricity, roads, telephones, water treatment—as well as
much of the equipment and supplies related to food and
medicine has been subject to Security Council review. In
practice, this has meant that the United States and Britain
subjected hundreds of contracts to elaborate scrutiny,
without the involvement of any other country on the
council; and after that scrutiny, the United States, only
occasionally seconded by Britain, consistently blocked or
delayed hundreds of humanitarian contracts.

In response to U.S. demands, the U.N. worked with suppliers
to provide the United States with detailed information
about the goods and how they would be used, and repeatedly
expanded its monitoring system, tracking each item from
contracting through delivery and installation, ensuring
that the imports are used for legitimate civilian purposes.
Despite all these measures, U.S. holds actually increased.
In September 2001 nearly one third of water and sanitation
and one quarter of electricity and educational—supply
contracts were on hold. Between the springs of 2000 and
2002, for example, holds on humanitarian goods tripled.

Among the goods that the United States blocked last winter:
dialysis, dental, and fire—fighting equipment, water
tankers, milk and yogurt production equipment, printing
equipment for schools. The United States even blocked a
contract for agricultural—bagging equipment, insisting that
the U.N. first obtain documentation to “confirm that
the 'manual' placement of bags around filling spouts is
indeed a person placing the bag on the spout.”

Although most contracts for food in the last few years
bypassed the Security Council altogether, political
interference with related contracts still occurred. In a
March 20, 2000, 661 Committee meeting—after considerable
debate and numerous U.S. and U.K. objections—a UNICEF
official, Anupama Rao Singh, made a presentation on the
deplorable humanitarian situation in Iraq. Her report
included the following: 25 percent of children in south and
central governorates suffered from chronic malnutrition,
which was often irreversible, 9 percent from acute
malnutrition, and child—mortality rates had more than
doubled since the imposition of sanctions.

A couple of months later, a Syrian company asked the
committee to approve a contract to mill flour for Iraq.
Whereas Iraq ordinarily purchased food directly, in this
case it was growing wheat but did not have adequate
facilities to produce flour. The Russian delegate argued
that, in light of the report the committee had received
from the UNICEF official, and the fact that flour was an
essential element of the Iraqi diet, the committee had no
choice but to approve the request on humanitarian grounds.
The delegate from China agreed, as did those from France
and Argentina. But the U.S. representative, Eugene Young,
argued that “there should be no hurry” to move on this
request: the flour requirement under Security Council
Resolution 986 had been met, he said; the number of holds
on contracts for milling equipment was “relatively low”;
and the committee should wait for the results of a study
being conducted by the World Food Programme first.
Ironically, he also argued against the flour—milling
contract on the grounds that “the focus should be on
capacity—building within the country”—even though that
represented a stark reversal of U.S. policy, which
consistently opposed any form of economic development
within Iraq. The British delegate stalled as well, saying
that he would need to see “how the request would fit into
the Iraqi food programme,” and that there were still
questions about transport and insurance. In the end,
despite the extreme malnutrition of which the committee was
aware, the U.S. delegate insisted it would be “premature”
to grant the request for flour production, and the U.K.
representative joined him, blocking the project from going

Many members of the Security Council have been sharply
critical of these practices. In an April 20, 2000, meeting
of the 661 Committee, one member after another challenged
the legitimacy of the U.S. decisions to impede the
humanitarian contracts. The problem had reached “a critical
point,” said the Russian delegate; the number of holds
was “excessive,” said the Canadian representative; the
Tunisian delegate expressed concern over the scale of the
holds. The British and American delegates justified their
position on the grounds that the items on hold were dual—
use goods that should be monitored, and that they could not
approve them without getting detailed technical
information. But the French delegate challenged this
explanation: there was an elaborate monitoring mechanism
for telecommunications equipment, he pointed out, and the
International Telecommunication Union had been involved in
assessing projects. Yet, he said, there were holds on
almost 90 percent of telecommunications contracts.
Similarly, there was already an effective monitoring
mechanism for oil equipment that had existed for some time;
yet the holds on oil contracts remained high. Nor was it
the case, he suggested, that providing prompt, detailed
technical information was sufficient to get holds released:
a French contract for the supply of ventilators for
intensive—care units had been on hold for more than five
months, despite his government's prompt and detailed
response to a request for additional technical information
and the obvious humanitarian character of the goods.

Dual-use goods, of course, are the ostensible target of
sanctions, since they are capable of contributing to Iraq's
military capabilities. But the problem remains that many of
the tools necessary for a country simply to function could
easily be considered dual use. Truck tires, respirator
masks, bulldozers, and pipes have all been blocked or
delayed at different times for this reason. Also under
suspicion is much of the equipment needed to provide
electricity, telephone service, transportation, and clean

Yet goods presenting genuine security concerns have been
safely imported into Iraq for years and used for legitimate
purposes. Chlorine, for example—vital for water
purification, and feared as a possible source of the
chlorine gas used in chemical weapons—is aggressively
monitored, and deliveries have been regular. Every single
canister is tracked from the time of contracting through
arrival, installation, and disposal of the empty canister.
With many other goods, however, U.S. claims of concern over
weapons of mass destruction are a good deal shakier.

Last year the United States blocked contracts for water
tankers, on the grounds that they might be used to haul
chemical weapons instead. Yet the arms experts at UNMOVIC
had no objection to them: water tankers with that
particular type of lining, they maintained, were not on
the “1051 list”—the list of goods that require notice to
U.N. weapons inspectors. Still, the United States insisted
on blocking the water tankers—this during a time when the
major cause of child deaths was lack of access to clean
drinking water, and when the country was in the midst of a
drought. Thus, even though the United States justified
blocking humanitarian goods out of concern over security
and potential military use, it blocked contracts that the
U.N.'s own agency charged with weapons inspections did not
object to. And the quantities were large. As of September
2001, “1051 disagreements” involved nearly 200 humanitarian
contracts. As of last March, there were $25 million worth
of holds on contracts for hospital essentials—sterilizers,
oxygen plants, spare parts for basic utilities—that,
despite release by UNMOVIC, were still blocked by the
United States on the claim of “dual use.”

Beyond its consistent blocking of dual-use goods, the
United States found many ways to slow approval of
contracts. Although it insisted on reviewing every contract
carefully, for years it didn't assign enough staff to do
this without causing enormous delays. In April 2000 the
United States informed the 661 Committee that it had just
released $275 million in holds. This did not represent a
policy change, the delegate said; rather, the United States
had simply allocated more financial resources and personnel
to the task of reviewing the contracts. Thus millions in
humanitarian contracts had been delayed not because of
security concerns but simply because of U.S. disinterest in
spending the money necessary to review them. In other
cases, after all U.S. objections to a delayed contract were
addressed (a process that could take years), the United
States simply changed its reason for the hold, and the
review process began all over. After a half-million-dollar
contract for medical equipment was blocked in February
2000, and the company spent two years responding to U.S.
requests for information, the United States changed its
reason for the hold, and the contract remained blocked. A
tremendous number of other medical-equipment contracts
suffered the same fate. As of September 2001, nearly a
billion dollars' worth of medical-equipment contracts—for
which all the information sought had been provided—was
still on hold.

* * *

Among the many deprivations Iraq has experienced, none is
so closely correlated with deaths as its damaged water
system. Prior to 1990, 95 percent of urban households in
Iraq had access to potable water, as did three quarters of
rural households. Soon after the Persian Gulf War, there
were widespread outbreaks of cholera and typhoid—diseases
that had been largely eradicated in Iraq—as well as massive
increases in child and infant dysentery, and skyrocketing
child and infant mortality rates. By 1996 all sewage-
treatment plants had broken down. As the state's economy
collapsed, salaries to state employees stopped, or were
paid in Iraqi currency rendered nearly worthless by
inflation. Between 1990 and 1996 more than half of the
employees involved in water and sanitation left their jobs.
By 2001, after five years of the Oil for Food Programme's
operating at full capacity, the situation had actually

In the late 1980s the mortality rate for Iraqi children
under five years old was about fifty per thousand. By 1994
it had nearly doubled, to just under ninety. By 1999 it had
increased again, this time to nearly 130; that is, 13
percent of all Iraqi children were dead before their fifth
birthday. For the most part, they die as a direct or
indirect result of contaminated water.

The United States anticipated the collapse of the Iraqi
water system early on. In January 1991, shortly before the
Persian Gulf War began and six months into the sanctions,
the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency projected that,
under the embargo, Iraq's ability to provide clean drinking
water would collapse within six months. Chemicals for water
treatment, the agency noted, “are depleted or nearing
depletion,” chlorine supplies were “critically low,” the
main chlorine-production plants had been shut down, and
industries such as pharmaceuticals and food processing were
already becoming incapacitated. “Unless the water is
purified with chlorine,” the agency concluded, “epidemics
of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could

All of this indeed came to pass. And got worse. Yet U.S.
policy on water-supply contracts remained as aggressive as
ever. For every such contract unblocked in August 2001, for
example, three new ones were put on hold. A 2001 UNICEF
report to the Security Council found that access to potable
water for the Iraqi population had not improved much under
the Oil for Food Programme, and specifically cited the half
a billion dollars of water- and sanitation-supply contracts
then blocked—one third of all submitted. UNICEF reported
that up to 40 percent of the purified water run through
pipes is contaminated or lost through leakage. Yet the
United States blocked or delayed contracts for water pipes,
and for the bulldozers and earth-moving equipment necessary
to install them. And despite approving the dangerous dual-
use chlorine, the United States blocked the safety
equipment necessary to handle the substance—not only for
Iraqis but for U.N. employees charged with chlorine
monitoring there.

* * *

It is no accident that the operation of the 661 Committee
is so obscured. Behind closed doors, ensconced in a U.N.
bureaucracy few citizens could parse, American policymakers
are in a good position to avoid criticism of their
practices; but they are also, rightly, fearful of public
scrutiny, as a fracas over a block on medical supplies last
year illustrates.

In early 2001, the United States had placed holds on $280
million in medical supplies, including vaccines to treat
infant hepatitis, tetanus, and diphtheria, as well as
incubators and cardiac equipment. The rationale was that
the vaccines contained live cultures, albeit highly
weakened ones. The Iraqi government, it was argued, could
conceivably extract these, and eventually grow a virulent
fatal strain, then develop a missile or other delivery
system that could effectively disseminate it. UNICEF and
U.N. health agencies, along with other Security Council
members, objected strenuously. European biological-weapons
experts maintained that such a feat was in fact flatly
impossible. At the same time, with massive epidemics
ravaging the country, and skyrocketing child mortality, it
was quite certain that preventing child vaccines from
entering Iraq would result in large numbers of child and
infant deaths. Despite pressure behind the scenes from the
U.N. and from members of the Security Council, the United
States refused to budge. But in March 2001, when the
Washington Post and Reuters reported on the holds—and their
impact—the United States abruptly announced it was lifting

A few months later, the United States began aggressively
and publicly pushing a proposal for “smart sanctions,”
sometimes known as “targeted sanctions.” The idea behind
smart sanctions is to “contour” sanctions so that they
affect the military and the political leadership instead of
the citizenry. Basic civilian necessities, the State
Department claimed, would be handled by the U.N.
Secretariat, bypassing the Security Council. Critics
pointed out that in fact the proposal would change very
little since everything related to infrastructure was
routinely classified as dual use, and so would be subject
again to the same kinds of interference. What the “smart
sanctions” would accomplish was to mask the U.S. role.
Under the new proposal, all the categories of goods the
United States ordinarily challenged would instead be placed
in a category that was, in effect, automatically placed on
hold. But this would now be in the name of the Security
Council—even though there was little interest on the part
of any of its other members (besides Britain) for
maintaining sanctions, and even less interest in blocking
humanitarian goods.

After the embarrassing media coverage of the child-vaccine
debacle, the State Department was eager to see the new
system in place, and to see that none of the other
permanent members of the Security Council—Russia, Britain,
China, and France—vetoed the proposal. In the face of this
new political agenda, U.S. security concerns suddenly
disappeared. In early June of last year, when the “smart
sanctions” proposal was under negotiation, the United
States announced that it would lift holds on $800 million
of contracts, of which $200 million involved business with
key Security Council members. A few weeks later, the United
States lifted holds on $80 million of Chinese contracts
with Iraq, including some for radio equipment and other
goods that had been blocked because of dual-use concerns.

In the end, China and France agreed to support the U.S.
proposal. But Russia did not, and immediately after Russia
vetoed it, the United States placed holds on nearly every
contract that Iraq had with Russian companies. Then last
November, the United States began lobbying again for a
smart-sanctions proposal, now called the Goods Review List
(GRL). The proposal passed the Security Council in May
2002, this time with Russia's support. In what one
diplomat, anonymously quoted in the Financial Times of
April 3, 2002, called “the boldest move yet by the U.S. to
use the holds to buy political agreement,” the Goods Review
List had the effect of lifting $740 million of U.S. holds
on Russian contracts with Iraq, even though the State
Department had earlier insisted that those same holds were
necessary to prevent any military imports.

Under the new system, UNMOVIC and the International Atomic
Energy Agency make the initial determination about whether
an item appears on the GRL, which includes only those
materials questionable enough to be passed on to the
Security Council. The list is precise and public, but huge.
Cobbled together from existing U.N. and other international
lists and precedents, the GRL has been virtually customized
to accommodate the imaginative breadth of U.S.
policymakers' security concerns. Yet when U.N. weapons
experts began reviewing the $5 billion worth of existing
holds last July, they found that very few of them were for
goods that ended up on the GRL or warranted the security
concern that the United States had originally claimed. As a
result, hundreds of holds have been lifted in the last few

This mass release of old holds—expected to have been
completed in October—should have made a difference in Iraq.
But U.S. and British maneuvers on the council last year
makes genuine relief unlikely. In December 2000, the
Security Council passed a resolution allowing Iraq to spend
600 million euros (about $600 million) from its oil sales
on maintenance of its oil-production capabilities. Without
this, Iraq would still have to pay for these services, but
with no legal avenue to raise the funds. The United States,
unable in the end to agree with Iraq on how the funds would
be managed, blocked the measure's implementation. In the
spring of 2001, the United States accused Iraq of imposing
illegal surcharges on the middlemen who sell to refiners.
To counter this, the United States and Britain devised a
system that had the effect of undermining Iraq's basic
capacity to sell oil: “retroactive pricing.” Taking
advantage of the fact that the 661 Committee sets the price
Iraq receives from each oil buyer, the United States and
Britain began to systematically withhold their votes on
each price until the relevant buying period had passed. The
idea was that then the alleged surcharge could be
subtracted from the price after the sale had occurred, and
that price would then be imposed on the buyer. The effect
of this practice has been to torpedo the entire Oil for
Food Programme. Obviously, few buyers would want to commit
themselves to a purchase whose price they do not know until
after they agree to it. As a result of this system, Iraq's
oil income has dropped 40 percent since last year, and more
than $2 billion in humanitarian contracts—all of them fully
approved—are now stalled. Once again, invoking tenuous
security claims, the United States has put in place a
device that will systematically cause enormous human damage
in Iraq.

* * *

Some would say that the lesson to be learned from September
11 is that we must be even more aggressive in protecting
what we see as our security interests. But perhaps that's
the wrong lesson altogether. It is worth remembering that
the worst destruction done on U.S. soil by foreign enemies
was accomplished with little more than hatred, ingenuity,
and box cutters. Perhaps what we should learn from our own
reactions to September 11 is that the massive destruction
of innocents is something that is unlikely to be either
forgotten or forgiven. If this is so, then destroying Iraq,
whether with sanctions or with bombs, is unlikely to bring
the security we have gone to such lengths to preserve.