Sanctions as Siege Warfare
Although bureaucratic obstacles effectively prevented much humanitarian material from reaching Iraq, the UN did grant humanitarian exemptions and heeded some criticisms based on humanitarian concerns. At the urging of the UN Secretary General, the 661 committee streamlined many of its procedures. But the basic policies remained intact--humanitarian goods required prior approval, and the ban on dual-use goods remained in place. And when the UN's interests in security and humanitarian concerns came into conflict, the interest in security still trumped.
In 1996 the Security Council and Iraq agreed to an Oil for Food program (OFF), which provides a mechanism for the purchase of goods except where the 661 committee has a specific objection, and then monitors their distribution and use. Under OFF, Iraq was initially authorized to sell $2 billion of oil in any six-month period (the limit was later increased to $5.3 billion). The extensive presence of UN humanitarian agencies in Iraq (as well as UNSCOM) is funded by the oil sales themselves. There are more than 400 international UN staff in Iraq and another 1,300 Iraqis on the UN staff. In the northern sector of the country the UN has taken over an entire range of governmental functions on behalf of (and with the agreement of) the Iraqi government--including food distribution, agriculture, nutrition programs, distribution of medical supplies, dam repair, renovation of schools, installation of water pumps and the provision of printing equipment for school textbooks.
In the central and southern governorates, the mandate of the UN agencies is only to assist and monitor the government in such functions. Even so, UN staff determine whether resources are adequate to meet "essential needs" in a given area, and they document and confirm the equitable distribution of food, distribution and storage of medical supplies, and the use of water and sanitation supplies. Iraq submits proposals for every purchase with oil funds--every gear, pipe, chemical, valve, piece of plywood, steel bar and rubber tube, for a country of 22 million people, on which it proposes to spend the $2.9 billion expected to come from the current phase of Oil for Food. For each of these items, Iraq is required to specify not only the exact use but the particular end user--which grain silo will be using each of the conveyor belts Iraq wishes to purchase. Although the UN bureaucracy now processes these contracts quickly, there are still substantial delays when the seller fails to provide enough details in the application or when its nation's UN mission is slow to submit the paperwork.
The intricacy of the process for obtaining purchase and contract approval pales in comparison to the thoroughness with which each item is observed and documented once it arrives in Iraq. At the border, inspection agents under contract to the UN document the arrival of every item, verify quantity and quality, and conduct lab tests to confirm that the goods conform to the contract. Once the goods have crossed the borders, UN observers then confirm the transit of all goods, their storage and equitable distribution, and they document the end use. Finally, UN staff review the documentation of the hundreds of UN observers. All this is paid for by 2.2 percent of the Iraqi oil sales--as of November 1998, $207 million. Precisely because the system of verification is so thorough, the Security Council has been willing to grant permission for some dual-use goods to enter the country. The 661 committee has allowed purchases, for example, of chlorine gas for water purification and spare parts for crop-dusting helicopters because UN personnel were in Iraq to verify the location and use of each canister of chlorine and the installation of each helicopter part and the destruction of the old parts.
Relative to other UN programs around the world, those in Iraq are highly elaborate and expensive. Yet they do not come close to meeting the country's needs, according to the Secretary General's report of last fall. Although the quantity of chlorinated water is greater now, the water distribution system has deteriorated so much that by the time it arrives in people's homes, the water is not consistently potable. The emergency parts for electrical generators that do arrive merely slow down the deterioration of the electrical system; the power cuts are expected to be worse next year than this year. There are 210 million square meters of minefields, and the UN's three mine-detector dog teams (a total of six dogs) can barely make a dent.
It does not seem that the structure of the UN sanctions on Iraq could be duplicated in other situations. The expense of an elaborate bureaucracy, which closely monitors virtually all the goods Iraq has been permitted to purchase, is possible only because Iraq is paying for it. And that, in turn, is possible only because Iraq's wealth is so vast, and so easily converted to cash. Were it not for Iraq's wealth and the Security Council's success in tapping it, monitoring the sanctions regime and its humanitarian exemptions would cost far more than the UN could ever afford. Since most sanctioned countries--Yugoslavia, for example--don't have resources that can be tapped in the way Iraqi oil has been, it is hard to imagine that there could be many more sanctions-and-exemptions regimes of this scale.
While the sanctions against Iraq are in many ways anomalous, they nevertheless provide a graphic demonstration of how such extreme sanctions are implemented and justified. Just as the Gulf War offered a testing ground for new alliances and new weapons in the post-cold war world, the sanctions against Iraq have been an experiment in nonmilitary devices of international governance. Both the United States and the UN are exhibiting a growing reliance on economic sanctions to achieve their aims around the world, even if in areas outside Iraq the sanctions regimes are somewhat less ambitious.