The Middle East Channel

Lessons we should have learned from the Iraqi sanctions

As the U.S. drives the UN Security Council to tighten sanctions on Iran and the world’s attention momentarily focuses on the Gaza blockade, decision makers could benefit from hearing an untold story about the role played by the U.S. in the almost forgotten Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq for over a decade. Coming on ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As the U.S. drives the UN Security Council to tighten sanctions on Iran and the world’s attention momentarily focuses on the Gaza blockade, decision makers could benefit from hearing an untold story about the role played by the U.S. in the almost forgotten Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq for over a decade. Coming on the heels of the massive bombing strikes of the 1991 Gulf War, the sanctions had a catastrophic humanitarian impact, preventing Iraq from rebuilding or even maintaining its infrastructure. Electricity production, agriculture, water treatment, telecommunications, transportation, health care, and education were all crippled. A UN envoy described the situation in 1991 as "near apocalyptic." The best estimate of "excess child mortality" — the number of children under five who died during the sanctions who would not have under Iraq’s economy and policies before sanctions — is between 670,000 and 880,000.

Very few people have been aware of exactly how the U.S. worked to maintain these sanctions over more than a decade. The Iraq sanctions regime was managed by a committee of the Security Council known as the "661 Committee." Created by Resolution 661, it mirrored the Security Council itself, containing representatives from each state on the Council. The committee met behind closed doors. For years, the minutes were not even available to the committee’s own members. But in the course of my research, I obtained access to thousands of pages of the committee’s documents, including their minutes and internal reports. Consequently, it was possible to document what went on, in a setting where none of the participants thought there would ever be a public record of what they said and did.

The documents reveal that the U.S. wielded extraordinary power, determining the crucial policies that would affect the entire population of Iraq. Within the closed meetings of the 661 Committee, the U.S., often acting unilaterally, determined the nature and severity of the sanctions, in the face of almost constant opposition from the majority of the Security Council, the UN’s humanitarian agencies, the UN Human Rights Commission, and international NGOs. And there is no sign that the sanctions contributed to Saddam Hussein’s downfall. To the contrary, in many regards they strengthened the regime. As food shortages set in, for instance, most of the population became dependent on state rations, further consolidating state control. The unemployment and impoverishment brought about not only malnourishment and disease, but crime and a deterioration of the social fabric. In the midst of the sanctions regime, one UN official observed that "the survivors will be the black marketeers and the thieves." The impact of those sanctions — and the long-term effects of American policy — continues to be felt today.

In principle, the sanctions should not have caused this damage. There were provisions for "humanitarian exemptions," such that Iraq or UN agencies could ask the 661 committee to permit them to import goods or equipment for humanitarian purposes.  However, because the 661 Committee operated by consensus, any member of the Security Council could deny permission. The U.S. did just that, and on a massive scale. In the early 1990s, a few other countries occasionally joined the U.S. in blocking humanitarian goods going into Iraq. After 1995, only the UK joined the U.S. in this regard, and then only rarely. Of the goods that were blocked, the U.S. acted unilaterally about 90 percent of the time, the UK was unilaterally responsible for about 5 percent of the blocked contracts, and the UK and U.S. jointly blocked the remainder.

And there were a lot of goods that were denied. As of November,1998, holds on humanitarian contracts totaled $147.5 million; by August, 1999 that figure had grown to about $500 million, by April, 2000 to $1.7 billion, by December, 2000 to $2.5 billion, by July, 2001 to $3.3 billion, and by May, 2002 to over $5 billion. So many of Iraq’s contracts were blocked that, from the time the program began operating in 1996 until March, 2003, a total of only $27 billion in humanitarian goods were actually delivered to Iraq. That amounted to about $204 per person, per year for all goods; this includes food, medicine, and the reconstruction of the infrastructure, since the program began operation — or about one-half the per capita income of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

U.S. practices went well beyond the mandate of the Security Council’s resolutions, and well beyond the will of the rest of the Council members. The Security Council resolutions required the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, the goal of the United States was the elimination of Iraq’s capacity to produce WMD. While the production of nuclear weapons requires a large and sophisticated production facility, the production of biological and chemical weapons, or at least some of their components, can take place in nothing more than a college chemistry lab or in manufacturing facilities for things like fertilizers and pesticides. To eliminate a nation’s capacity to produce biological and chemical weapons means eliminating all science education above the secondary school level, eliminating the capacity to produce yogurt and cheese, or, as one U.S. official would have it, eliminating eggs, because egg yolks could possibly be used as a medium in which to grow viruses, which in turn could possibly be used for biological weapons.

Any industrialized nation relies continually on manufacturing processes that could possibly be converted to produce some aspect of a biological or chemical weapon. To eliminate this capacity, as opposed to the weapons themselves, would literally require reducing a nation to the most primitive possible condition and keeping it in those circumstances in perpetuity. That was not at all the policy adopted by the Security Council, which required only that Iraq be subject to partial disarmament and monitoring, but it was the policy of the United States. The U.S. positions were so extreme they conflicted even with the judgment of international weapons inspectors. At the same time, when it was politically convenient, the United States allowed goods that had long been decried as "WMD" or dual use, such as the occasion when the United States lifted its objections to China’s sale of fiber-optic cables, which had a clear military use, to secure China’s vote. This further undermined the credibility of the U.S. claim that its very extreme practices were grounded in a principled commitment to security and international law.

The catastrophic damage from U.S. policy came about in part because of the redundancy. The water treatment system was compromised first when the U.S. blocked equipment and chemicals for water purification; but if Iraq had somehow been able to produce or smuggle those, the water system would then have been compromised by the lack of electrical power, because electrical generators and related equipment had been bombed by the U.S., and because the replacement equipment was blocked by the United States. If Iraq had been somehow able to generate sufficient electricity, then the clean water could not have been distributed because the bombings had caused so much breakage in the water pipes, and the United States then blocked the importation of water pipes, on the grounds that they could be used for weapons of mass destruction. If Iraq had somehow been able to smuggle or manufacture water pipes, it did not have the bulldozers or cranes necessary to install them because those were blocked by the U.S. as well. The same was true in every area: agricultural production, manufacturing of basic goods, transportation, communication systems, education, and medical care. It was this terrible redundancy that ensured that nothing the Iraqi government did, that no amount of ingenuity or adaptation or targeting of resources, could have restored conditions fit to sustain human life.

It is hard to look at the current sanctions on Gaza and Iran without recalling the Iraq sanctions regime — both the structural damage and pettiness. It seems that what the U.S. has learned from Iraq was to claim that it now employs "smart sanctions," which will never do the kind of broad damage as we saw in Iraq. Yet the "smart sanctions" on Iran target Iran’s oil and gas industries, the national shipping lines, and Iran’s banking system.  If the U.S. or UN sanctions are successful, the damage to Iran’s economy, and its population as a whole, will be enormous, and indiscriminate. As we hear that Israel will now allow potato chips and juice into Gaza, it is hard to fathom how anyone could rationalize that these ever presented a threat to Israel’s security. But above all what we should know from Iraq is this: that causing destitution in distant lands does not make the world a better place, or make the United States, or anyone else, more secure.

Joy Gordon is the author of "Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions." This piece contains text that is adapted from Joy Gordon’s Invisible War. Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from "Invisible War" by Joy Gordon, Copyright 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

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