On May 14, the United Nations Security Council passed a ninth revision of
its 1990 resolution on economic sanctions against Iraq. In the face of mounting
international concern and a "this or nothing" U.S. veto threat, the so-called
"smart sanctions" passed unanimously, with its U.S. and British proponents
suggesting that the resolution would expedite the import of civilian goods into
For the sake of the Iraqi people, one can only hope it will. But will increased
imports resolve the humanitarian crisis? Are smart sanctions "smart" enough?
As UN co-ordinator of the oil-for-food program from 1998 to 2000, I write from
privileged experience into humanitarian conditions in Iraq.
Six years of revisions to sanctions policy on Baghdad have repeatedly promised
"mitigation" of civilian suffering. Yet, in 1999, Unicef confirmed our
worst fears: that one child in seven dies before the age of 5 -- an estimated
5,000 excess child deaths every month above the 1989 pre-sanctions rate. Four
months ago, Unicef reported that more than 22 per cent of the country's young
children remain chronically malnourished, confirming yet again how limited this
"mitigation" has been.
The failure is not one of internal distribution. During my tenure, more than
90 per cent of oil-for-food goods distributed by the government reached their
intended destinations. UN reports have consistently confirmed this success rate
-- one beyond expectation, given the chaotic constraints of disintegrating infrastructure,
erratic communications and electrical power, and arbitrary U.S. "holds"
on $5-billion worth of contracts.
Rather, the failure has been a problem of woefully inadequate amounts and range
of goods received. Until May of 2002, the total value of all food, medicines,
education, sanitation, agricultural and infrastructure supplies that have arrived
in Iraq has amounted to $175 per person a year, or less than 49 cents a day.
This has made postwar reconstruction impossible, and ensured mass unemployment
and continuing deterioration of schools, health centers and transportation. "Smuggled"
oil revenues represent only a small fraction of oil-for-food funds. Even here,
an estimated three-quarters of these funds have been directed to social services.
Above all, it is a problem of livelihood. What Iraqis need is employment. What
Resolution 1409 offers, instead, is allegedly less paperwork.
Without massive investment to rebuild the war- and embargo-shattered infrastructure,
most Iraqi families cannot earn income to purchase the civilian goods promised.
Like all previous revisions, "smart sanctions" leave the root cause of
their troubles -- strangulation of the civilian economy -- unaddressed.
Oil revenues continue to be channeled out of the country into a UN escrow account,
unavailable to pay teachers, doctors, garbage collectors or agricultural services.
No foreign loans, no foreign investment, no access to foreign exchange are permitted.
Import of much of the equipment and tools needed for rebuilding the shattered
civilian infrastructure remains subject to U.S. veto.
In 1999, an expert panel of the Security Council warned that the humanitarian
crisis in Iraq would continue without "sustained revival of the Iraqi economy."
Three years on, several Security Council members still haggle over import restrictions
while the Iraqi people continue to suffer, and die, for lack of work. Last month,
The Economist predicted even further decline in Iraq's GDP in the coming year
under "smart sanctions."
Reports of stores full of new merchandise only serve to mask the continuing
poverty that is the plight of most Iraqis. "No matter how much you modify
the UN humanitarian program," said Tun Myat, my successor as UN co-ordinator,
"it is not designed for -- and it will never be -- a substitute for normal
economic activity. . . . The markets are quite full of things; the problem is
whether or not there are people who have the purchasing power to buy them."
Smart sanctions policy ignores these realities. Worse, it serves to distract
from the critical disarmament issues at hand.
Arms inspectors must return to Iraq. The international community must be satisfied
that weapons of mass destruction no longer exist. But as long as an ambiguous
framework for inspections remains in place, any incentive for compliance is undermined.
The refusal of individual Security Council members to recognize incremental
progress in disarmament by Iraq in the pre-1998 period constituted a fundamental
mistake of historic proportions. Scott Ritter, a former U.S. inspector known for
his thoroughness, has said that Iraq was already qualitatively disarmed when UN
weapons inspectors were withdrawn at the request of the U.S. in 1998.
An unambiguous framework for inspections, arms monitoring and definition of
compliance is needed, as an indication that sanctions will not continue in perpetuity.
Dishonesty has not been limited to the Iraqi government. Some U.S. inspectors
doubled as spies; this was not conducive to creating the kind of trust essential
to resolving the current weapons inspection impasse. The Secretary- General must
be in a position to guarantee no further misuse of UN weapons inspections.
Can the West ever trust Saddam Hussein again? Unquestionably, Iraq needs a
government that will lead the country back to normal relations with the world.
But the people of Iraq will suffer more if this change is violent and uncontrolled.
CIA or military intervention is unlikely to bring democracy, and will only increase
fear and suspicion within the Iraqi government -- and trigger further internal
A much more constructive solution would be to lift the economic sanctions that
have impoverished society, decimated the Iraqi middle class and eliminated any
possibility for the emergence of alternative leadership. Political change would
not happen overnight. But then again, 12 years of sanctions have only strengthened
the current regime.
Credible opposition groups outside Iraq have called for delinking economic
and military sanctions.
At the March Arab summit in Beirut, all 22 Arab governments (including Kuwait)
called for the same. If the economic embargo on Iraq is not in their interest,
then in whose interest is it?
"Smart sanctions" only reaffirm the position of Iraqi women and children
as bargaining tools in the continuing dispute between Washington and Baghdad.
It is time to dispense with the mirage of mitigation and allow Iraq to again become
a better place for the men, women and children who have suffered so grievously
under sanctions. The Security Council and the Iraqi government bear the obligation
to create the conditions that make this possible.
Hans von Sponeck is a former UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq.
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc