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Sanctions as Siege Warfare | The Nation

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Sanctions as Siege Warfare

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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.

About the Author

Joy Gordon
Joy Gordon, who teaches philosophy at Fairfield University, is at work on a book on the Iraq sanctions to be published...

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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.

To sell humanitarian goods to Iraq, a company would submit an application to its national mission at the UN, which would then turn it over to the 661 committee. But the 661 committee did not publish any criteria for approval, and its meetings were closed sessions at which neither Iraq nor the vendors were allowed to have representatives present to answer questions or offer information in support of the contract. The application process typically took months, sometimes as long as two years. And the committee's rulings were inconsistent--the same goods sold by the same company might on one occasion be deemed permissible humanitarian goods and on another be flatly denied without explanation.

In addition, during this period all fifteen members of the committee had to approve exemptions by consensus; thus any nation could effectively exercise veto power or cause repeated delays of weeks or months simply by asking for more information. As a result, it was expensive and exasperating even to apply to sell food and medicine to Iraq. One small British company that sold medical supplies described the process: First, to talk to an Iraqi buyer, public or private, a seller had to apply for a license to negotiate, which could take three to four weeks. Once buyer and seller came to an agreement, the seller had to apply for a supply license, which could take up to twenty weeks. In the meantime, Iraq's currency would have devalued substantially, so the buyer might not be able to afford the same quantity of goods or might need more time to raise the additional hard currency. But that would require a change in the terms of the application, and any change in the application meant the whole process began again. Thus the red tape undermined Iraq's ability to import even those urgent humanitarian goods permitted under the sanctions.

While food and medicine were theoretically permitted during this time, "dual use" goods were flatly prohibited. Under the terms of the sanctions, "dual use" items are those that have civilian uses but also may be used by the military or more generally to rebuild the Iraqi economy. Dual-use goods include pesticides and fertilizer, spare parts for crop-dusting helicopters, chlorine for water purification, computers, trucks, telecommunications equipment and equipment to rebuild the electrical grid. Anything that might go toward rebuilding the infrastructure, or toward economic productivity generally, is labeled "dual use." Yet Iraq's infrastructure had been devastated by massive bombing during the Gulf War, which destroyed or caused extensive damage to water treatment plants, dams, generators and power plants, pipes and electrical systems for irrigation and desalinization of agricultural land, textile factories, silos, flour mills, bakeries and countless other buildings and resources. While Iraq was in principle allowed to import food and medical supplies, it was prohibited from buying the "dual use" equipment needed to grow and distribute food, to treat and distribute potable water, and to generate and distribute electricity for irrigating crops, refrigerating food and operating hospital equipment. The damage to water treatment plants and water distribution networks caused, among other things, a cholera epidemic and increases in waterborne diseases, infant diarrhea, dehydration and infant mortality.

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