A serious legal argument can be made that sanctions imposed against Iraq in 1990 by the United Nations have come to constitute genocide.
Sanctions -- which will come up for renewal in Congress this month -- were originally instituted to compel Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq refused, and was forced out militarily in early 1991 through Operation Desert Storm. Sanctions against Iraq -- a country devastated by war, dependent on oil exports for 90 percent of its foreign revenue and one which imports 70 percent of its food -- were nonetheless re-imposed after the Gulf War.
The vanquished country was faced with a long list of demands, chief among them that it submit to extensive inspections and surrender its weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi government's overall failure to satisfy the demands of the United Nations are a matter of record and are not in dispute here. The same is true of the autocratic, even murderous character of the regime of Saddam Hussein.
What is less recognized, however, is that the main reason for Iraq's recalcitrance is the United States insistence on "regime change" as a condition for the lifting of sanctions. Ousting Saddam Hussein, however desirable that may be from the perspective of U.S. policymakers, has never been endorsed by the international community. Nor is it a condition that the Iraqi government will ever willingly meet.
Unilateral action by the United States to overthrow the government of another sovereign nation, moreover, would constitute a grave breach of international law.
The real problem with the sanctions is that they target the wrong people: the poor, young, elderly and otherwise infirm members of Iraqi society. In the past 12 years, as many as 1 million to 2 million Iraqis may have died as a result of the sanctions, many of them children under the age of 5. This is more than were massacred in Rwanda in 1994, and on a par with the Armenian Holocaust of 1915-1919. UNICEF officials estimated in 2000 that 5,000 to 6,000 Iraqi children were dying each month primarily due to sanctions. That is equivalent to a World Trade Towers-scale calamity -- in a nation of only 18 million -- every month for the past decade or more.
Yet these Iraqi victims of sanctions have no more control over their government's behavior than we do. U.S. officials have clearly known the lethal impact of sanctions for years and have actively campaigned to maintain them regardless.
Knowing pursuit of a policy that kills members of a group, causes serious bodily or mental harm to them or inflicts on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part constitutes genocide under international law. The crime of genocide is defined in the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a treaty we ratified in 1988.
It is not enough to say that Saddam is responsible for the plight of his people. That claim is legally and factually inaccurate. We are not free of all constraints in the way we respond to illegal acts by others. Police, for example, do not have the right to slaughter innocents on the way to apprehending criminals, even serious ones. Neither has Saddam's government misspent funds meant to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people, at least not in any degree likely to have altered their terrible fate.
Our officials have simply made a conscious calculation that the cost of Iraqi lives destroyed by sanctions are, to quote former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when questioned about the issue, "worth it."
Meanwhile, the American public, spared graphic images of more conventional warfare by a policy that operates by more insidious means, has been lulled into complacency. It is hard to imagine that Americans would tolerate a conventional military campaign that caused almost exclusively civilian deaths numbering a million or more, many of them children under the age of 5, no matter how worthy the ends sought. But 12 years of sanctions have accomplished just that, while evoking scarcely a ripple of public protest.
No benefit attained by sanctions can justify genocide. Sanctions themselves are indefensible. They also engender cynicism, even hatred, toward the United States among Muslims and peoples of the Middle East and elsewhere. They represent a failed, bankrupt policy. Sanctions should be finally abandoned, not just "smartened."
Past efforts to tailor sanctions to avoid humanitarian repercussions have never succeeded, and are not likely to succeed now. Alternatives to sanctions -- other than war -- do exist. They require patience, building consensus within the international community, a consistent plan for regional disarmament and, above all, respect for international law. There is always an alternative to genocide: no genocide.
George Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
©1999-2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer