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End the catastrophe of sanctions against Iraq

Friday, February 12, 1999

By Denis Halliday

Why does the United States insist the United Nations maintain economic sanctions on Iraq? They will not produce a democracy in Iraq. Nor will they make the world safe from Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. And they most certainly will not promote stability -- for the people of Iraq, of the Middle East, anywhere.

What will continuing economic sanctions do?

They will further entrench the regime's hold on the population and strengthen its commitment to internal security. They will not stimulate the regional disarmament process that is the Middle East's only hope for genuine peace. And they will continue to destroy the lives and hopes of some 23 million Iraqi men, women and children.

On this last point there can be no doubt.

Even the most conservative, independent estimates hold economic sanctions responsible for a public health catastrophe of epic proportions. The World Health Organization believes at least 5,000 children under the age of 5 die each month from lack of access to food, medicine and clean water.

Malnutrition, disease, poverty and premature death now ravage a once relatively prosperous society whose public health system was the envy of the Middle East.

I went to Iraq in September 1997 to oversee the U.N.'s "oil for food" program. I quickly realized that this humanitarian program was a Band-Aid for a U.N. sanctions regime that was quite literally killing people. Feeling the moral credibility of the U.N. was being undermined, and not wishing to be complicit in what I felt was a criminal violation of human rights, I resigned after 13 months.

A groundswell of revulsion at American involvement in the Vietnam War helped pressure Washington's leadership to bring that war to an end. I speak out now in the hopes that Americans might bring similar pressure to bear upon their elected representatives.

To understand the gravity of the situation in Iraq, one must understand the damage inflicted by the 1991 Gulf War. The allied forces destroyed sewerage systems, water purification plants, electrical grids, hospitals, schools, grain silos -- in short, the entire civilian infrastructure.

The consequences for Iraq have been disastrous. Raw sewage flows in the streets, contaminating the water, causing an upsurge in diarrhea, typhoid and cholera is the result. Electric power runs at less than 40 percent of pre-1990 levels. A major health problem is the sharp increase in cancers, leukemia and birth defects. This is most likely due to the use of depleted uranium weapons by allied forces during the Gulf War.

Sanctions have wreaked havoc on the economy. To survive, families are forced to sell their belongings and to resort to begging and crime. School drop-out rates and childhood illiteracy have soared. Archeological sites, many of them bombed in the Gulf War, have been looted and their treasures sold overseas.

We are destroying an entire society. It is as simple and as terrifying as that.

Many believe the bombing and sanctions against Iraq constitute a criminal activity, in violation of international law as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions and the Genocide Convention. What makes the sanctions especially shocking is that the member states of the Security Council have all along been fully aware of their devastating effects.

Supporters of sanctions seem not to have thought out their long-term consequences. The sanctions have alienated Iraqis by isolating them from the outside world. More than 40 percent of the Iraqi population are under the age of 15, and know of the United States and Europe only through the Gulf War and the sanctions. With all their expectations for a normal life shattered, this generation is becoming dangerously introverted and defensive.

That is already visible in the Ba'ath Party where the younger members are losing patience with the leadership's willingness to work with the U.N. The regime's belligerent rhetoric and defiance over the U.S./U.K.-imposed "no-fly zones" may reflect that.

The impression that Saddam runs the country as a one-man show is, I believe, incorrect. He has his own more radical wing to placate. The continued humiliation of the Iraqi people may produce an Iraqi version of the Taliban.

So what should we do?

First, lift all non-military sanctions. Lifting the ceiling on food and medicine alone, as the United States now proposes, will not reduce death or disease. For that, Iraq must rebuild its civilian infrastructure, which will take billions of dollars.

Maintain the ban on arms sales for Iraq. Indeed, disarmament should be required of all the countries in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. As the U.S. has helped arm those countries to the teeth, that will not be an easy task. But it is a crucial one.

The United States must be consistent in its diplomacy. Israel's known stockpile of nuclear weapons contradicts Security Council Resolution 687 -- the same resolution to justify the recent bombing of Iraq.

Regarding Iraq's overhyped military threat to its neighbors, we must be realistic. Iraq's capacity to militarily threaten its neighbors is minimal. Even Iran, which waged a long and deadly war with Iraq in the 1980s, has called for an end to sanctions and bombing. And after nearly eight years and thousands of inspections, we have to recognize that we are not going to find absolutely everything. At this point we are down to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

We need to bring Iraq back into the family of nations.

The Iraqi people have been remarkably resilient in the face of tremendous adversity. Their dignity and hospitality is palpable to any visitor. End their exile.

The United States and Britain are thwarting the will of the international community. The vast majority of U.N. member states want to see economic sanctions lifted. We simply cannot let two member states continue to pervert the United Nations into a weapon of mass destruction.

In dropping the deadly embargo on Iraq we can begin to return the U.N. to the moral and legal high ground where it belongs. Then Americans might find the world a safer and more humane place.


Send comments to [email protected] (c) 1999 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. All rights reserved.

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