The US Congress is incensed about a scandal. From 1996 to 2003 the UN's oil-for-food program allegedly enabled Saddam Hussein to misappropriate hundreds of millions of dollars. Certain UN officials - particularly Benon Sevan, the man in charge of the program - are alleged to have pocketed large kickbacks. It is also claimed that foreign politicians took similar advantage of the system. These are serious accusations that warrant detailed investigation.
But one thing needs to be said at the outset: there is a wealth of documentation on the oil-for-food program since 1996. It contains all the relevant information, including lists of all items supplied to Iraq. Those lists, like all details of Iraqi transactions, were drawn up meticulously by the UN security council's sanctions committee, which consisted of security council representatives and operated by consensus.
No decision could be taken without endorsement by the US, which, with the UK, vetoed contracts worth millions of dollars on the grounds that certain products might be used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction - weapons we now know were a figment of US strategists' imagination. The program was subject to strict monitoring; if there were breaches, the US bears at least as much responsibility for them as the UN.
Nor should we forget the tens of millions of dollars misappropriated by the international community via the UN compensation committee in Geneva, which was largely manipulated by Washington. On the pretext of compensating those who suffered as a result of the Iraqi invasion, the committee creamed off up to 30% of Iraq's oil revenue to "reimburse" impoverished victims, such as the Kuwaiti Oil Company. A payment of $200m was made as late as April this year, two years after the fall of Saddam, when Iraq was begging for loans.
But no committee of inquiry has been set up to investigate the most glaring scandal of all: the imposition of sanctions on Iraq in August 1990 and above all their maintenance after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. These have had devastating consequences on the country and will be a burden on it for a very long time to come. While the media frequently drew attention to Iraq's difficulties in obtaining food and medical supplies - even after the start of the oil-for-food program in 1996 - they neglected the effect sanctions had on Iraqi society.
Despite the inventiveness of Iraqi engineers, the state's infrastructure crumbled. Basic services, ministries, power stations and drinking water all became precarious. Corruption spread throughout society. Crime exploded. The inhabitants of Baghdad, who had never bothered to lock their doors, now barricaded their homes. When the US invaded, Iraq needed only a little push for the worm-eaten state to collapse.
Sanctions also affected the structure of the population. Middle-class emigration, which had begun before 1991 as people fled the dictatorship, accelerated. Iraq was emptied of its managers and administrators. The education system, which had catered for all the country's young, was abandoned. Children left school to work and help their families, resulting in a generation of quasi-illiterates. Academic links with other countries were severed. Iraq fell 15 years behind and is not about to catch up.
And for what? Everyone realizes sanctions did not penalize the regime's leaders. Nor did they weaken its grip on the population: the introduction of rationing enabled the Ba'ath party to keep tabs on everybody, and the regime could have survived for years. But sanctions do explain the problems now encountered in rebuilding the country. Those problems are due not only to a rise in armed resistance, but also to the dilapidated state of infrastructure.
Another factor, which should not be underestimated, is the determination of the US to monopolize reconstruction contracts. Getting the electricity supply working again would have meant involving Siemens and ABB, the German and Swedish firms that built Iraq's modern electricity grid. In the case of the telephone system, help was needed from Alcatel (France), which had installed the network and knew the terrain. But Washington was out to punish Old Europe - and secure juicy contracts for a number of companies that fund the Republican party.
Sanctions caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. What is more, they destabilized one of the key states in the region. Who will be tried for these crimes? What committee will report on these errors? And who will guarantee that the US and the UN will not again choose to impose sanctions on a country and punish all of its people for the crimes of its leaders?
Alain Gresh is the editor of Le Monde diplomatique. This article will appear in full in the September issue of Le Monde diplomatique's English edition, available on subscription at www.mondediplo.com
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.