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UN: Debate Over Iraqi Sanctions Intensifies

  • Robert McMahon



Critics of the comprehensive sanctions regime against Iraq say it has had a devastating impact on civilians and must be revised. But defenders of the sanctions say that after 10 years they have fulfilled their prime purpose -- preventing the regime of Saddam Hussein from threatening its neighbors. UN correspondent Robert McMahon examines the issue.

United Nations, 10 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The initiators of the sanctions regime against Iraq never imagined it turning into a 10-year saga.

The UN Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions on August 6, 1990, was a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. A further council resolution the following spring set the terms for a ceasefire and mandated the removal of Iraq's capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction.

But the elimination of such a capacity has never been verified, requiring the sanctions to remain in place. Iraq insists it no longer has the ability to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and a standoff has now blocked inspections.

Meanwhile, vital goods are allowed into Iraq under a three and one-half year-old UN humanitarian program funded by revenues from Iraq's sale of oil. The rise in world oil prices has greatly increased these revenues, with $2.5 billion earned in the past two months alone.

But the Iraqi government strongly objects to the program as a violation of its sovereignty and international humanitarian groups say it is inadequate. UN officials say recent improvements have made the oil-for-food program sufficient for the basic needs of the Iraqi people. But they also say it is no substitute for the goods that can be generated by normal economic activity.

Directors of UN agencies in Iraq have been outspoken in their concern about the impact of sanctions on civilians, especially women and children. A detailed study released last year by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recorded a rise in the deaths of children under five of 500,000 from the years 1991 to 1998.

The deputy director of UNICEF's program division, Philip O'Brien, told RFE/RL that a number of factors contributed to this child mortality rise, including sanctions. And despite improvements in the humanitarian program, he said, the situation will not improve meaningfully until they are lifted.

"We have an overall sense of frustration about the whole question of the sanctions regime in Iraq. We're very clear on this, that we would like to see the Security Council and the government of Iraq come to a very early agreement so that the sanctions could be lifted. We make that case simply because, clearly, sanctions is one of the factors that is responsible for the condition of children in Iraq."

O'Brien, like many other relief officials working with Iraq, also assigns blame to the government in Baghdad. He says, for example, that UNICEF has stressed the need for the government to promote breast feeding and additional food for pregnant and lactating women. But he says this has not happened.

In the three autonomous Kurdish provinces in the north, by contrast, this message has been observed and the situation for children as a whole is much better than in south-central Iraq. The United Nations directly administers the oil-for-food program in the provinces of Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah.

Acute child mortality, to use one measuring stick, is far below the rate in south-central Iraq. But O'Brien says people in the northern provinces have access to more resources than those in the south. He says this includes goods brought across the border with Turkey and sizeable remittances from Kurds living abroad.

But it is the plight of the majority of Iraqis who live under Baghdad's control that alarms human rights and religious groups. In connection with the 10th anniversary of sanctions, a number of them appealed to the UN Security Council to give more priority to easing the suffering of Iraqi citizens.

A Middle East specialist for the group Human Rights Watch, Joe Stork, says the Security Council needs to consider more ways to minimize the impact of sanctions on civilians.

"From the (Iraqi) government's point of view it has no interest in seeing something like oil-for-food work particularly well. But I think this is something the Security Council has to take into account when it comes up with a regime like this comprehensive sanctions regime."

Stork said more funds from the oil-for-food program should be made available to civilians without passing through the hands of the Iraqi government. He acknowledges the difficulty in bringing this about but believes it can be worked out if the Security Council gives it more priority.

"Employing these kind of broad-based sanctions over a protracted period is bound to have these kinds of consequences and it's hard to see any way of really addressing the extent of the crisis there if you don't allow the economy to sort of get started again."

The Security Council itself has differences about the severity of the sanctions, with France, Russia, and China repeatedly calling for them to be eased.

The strongest supporters of the sanctions regime -- Britain and the United States -- say that if Iraq complies with weapons inspections, relief from sanctions can come very soon.

Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock of Britain told RFE/RL this week that the disarmament concern is shared widely in the Council.

"There's complete understanding by everybody on the Security Council that Iraq is not going to get relief from sanctions unless there are inspectors working instructively to monitor and verify on the ground. That's an absolute minimum. To get to that point there has to be some progress on disarmament in the remaining areas."

Even Iraq's strongest supporter on the council, Russia, has made this point publicly on repeated occasions. Greenstock and U.S. officials say Baghdad has exploited the suffering of its people to try to get the sanctions lifted. This, he says, makes it doubtful it would agree to any measure providing for direct aid to citizens under its control.

"If the Iraqis allow direct aid to come to the Iraqi people we would all be delighted. But the fact is that the Iraqis are making capital out of the distress of their own people to strengthen the regime. It's a deliberate move by Baghdad not to allow aid to go direct for the relief to go to the Iraqi people."

British and U.S. officials also say that one key aspect is missing from the sanctions: they have succeeded in containing the Iraqi threat to its neighbors.

UN officials say the oil-for-food program was never set up to meet all the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. The council has tried this year through increasing oil revenues allowed and expediting contracts to make the program more effective.

In June, it asked the Secretary-General's Office to make a comprehensive assessment of the humanitarian situation by the end of November. Human rights groups are hopeful this will lead to better conditions for normal Iraqis.

Meanwhile, staff of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, known as UNMOVIC, are undergoing training for a possible mission to Iraq this year. But diplomats are doubtful about whether this will happen. Iraqi officials refuse to recognize the resolution which established UNMOVIC.

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