The continuing American bombing of Iraq has drawn attention away from the international debate over economic sanctions against Baghdad and their toll on the Iraqi people. Yet the crisis these policies have engendered in Iraq raises crucial questions about the United Nations’ growing reliance on sanctions as a device of international governance. Can this modern-day equivalent of siege warfare be justified in ethical or political terms? It is a question that goes to the very heart of the UN’s dual commitment to both peacekeeping and humanitarian principles.
The role of the UN in the Iraqi sanctions regime has been convoluted and contradictory from the start. Articles 41 and 42 of the UN Charter empower the Security Council to use economic tactics to keep international peace (although before sanctions were imposed on Iraq in 1990, the UN had imposed them only twice, against South Africa and Rhodesia). At the same time, the UN has an explicit commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the many other documents that espouse the right of every person to health, food, drinking water, education, shelter and safety. Indeed, the UN has a decades-long history of humanitarian work by its many agencies–the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, HABITAT and others. Thus the UN has found itself in the awkward position of authorizing a sanctions regime that is causing massive human suffering among those least responsible for Iraqi policy, while at the same time trying to meet humanitarian needs and protect those populations most harmed by sanctions–women, children, the poor, the elderly and the sick.
Although there is controversy over the precise extent of human damage, all sources agree that it is severe. Voices in the Wilderness, an antisanctions activist group based in Chicago, has used the figure of 1 million children dead from the sanctions; the Iraqi government claims 4,000-5,000 deaths per month of children under 5. Even US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright does not contest how great the human damage has been, but has said, “It’s worth the price.” Richard Garfield, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who analyzes the health consequences of economic embargoes, calculates that 225,000 Iraqi children under 5 have died since 1990 because of these policies–a figure based on the best data available from UN agencies and other international sources. The Red Cross World Disasters Report says underweight births have gone from 4 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 1998. While it is harder to calculate the impact of the economic devastation on adults, it is quite acute, particularly for women. In 1997 the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that chronic malnutrition in the general Iraqi population was as high as 27 percent, with 16 percent of adult women under 26 undernourished and 70 percent of women anemic.
The Iraqi crisis shows how peculiarly unsuited the UN is to managing a sanctions regime. This is partly because it had imposed sanctions so rarely before and partly because of its longstanding commitment to alleviating poverty rather than causing it. The fact that the sanctions against Iraq are so extensive and so novel has forced the UN to generate from scratch an extraordinarily elaborate set of mechanisms to manage them, through which it attempts to reconcile its conflicting commitments.
From the beginning, the UN both predicted an impending humanitarian disaster and made moves to alleviate it. The UN began assessing the human damage immediately after the Persian Gulf War, when it made an initial, ill-fated proposal to allow Iraq to sell oil for food. The Security Council formed the “661 committee,” consisting of representatives of each nation in the Security Council, to monitor the sanctions against Iraq established in SC Resolution 661. At the same time, the committee was also responsible for granting humanitarian exemptions to the sanctions. The result was that it put in place procedures that in fact functioned as obstacles to any smooth influx of food and medicine. A cumbersome sanctions bureaucracy scrutinized and approved or denied every contract, the proposed quantity of goods, their price and their intended use.