The Truth Behind the Sanctions on Iraq

On August 2nd in 1990, the United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait. Under these sanctions, all imports into Iraq and exports from Iraq were prohibited, unless the Security Council permitted exceptions. A spokesman from the US State Department later referred to these sanctions as “the toughest, most comprehensive sanctions in history.”

These sanctions were introduced by the US as a means of retaliation against Iraq for the Gulf War and to punish the Iraqi people for the continued rule of Saddam Hussein. Throughout the targeted bombing campaign which severely destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq and their water systems, the victims have always been the Iraqi people, not the Iraqi ruling class.

Since 1990, there has been a severe and prolonged deterioration in the standard of living of the vast majority of Iraq’s inhabitants. The infant mortality rate in Iraq is among the highest in the world. Low infant birth weight affects at least 23% of all births, and chronic malnutrition affects every fourth child under the age of five. Only 41% of the population has regular access to clean water. 83% of all schools need substantial repairs, and the Iraqi health care system is in a decrepit state. Statistics have also shown the death toll of civilians due to the sanctions to be between 1-2 million.

A US Defense Intelligence Agency document from January 22, 1991, entitled Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities, callously states “Iraq will suffer increasing shortages of purified water because of the lack of required chemicals and desalination membranes … Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline.” It also notes that Iraq’s rivers “contain biological materials, pollutants, and are laden with bacteria. Unless the water is purified with chlorine, epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur.” The document also notes that the importation of chlorine “has been embargoed” by sanctions.

This prediction has chillingly come true. Recent reports indicate the chlorine supply is critically low. With access to food, medicine, and clean water being low, the prime killers of children under five years of age are diarrhea diseases. This has now reached epidemic proportions, striking four times more often than in 1990.

Holds on contracts for the water and sanitation sector are a prime reason for the increases in sickness and death. Of the 18 contracts written up, for purification chemicals, chlorinators, chemical dosing pumps, water tankers, and other equipment, the US government placed all but one on hold.

On May 14, 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution changing its economic sanctions against Iraq. More consumer goods will be allowed to enter Iraq, providing that they are items that could not be used for military purposes. However, this resolution does not address the key issues for the people of Iraq. This is similar to the “Oil for Food” program that commenced in December 1996, which allows Iraq to export oil and use part of the revenue, which is kept in a UN bank account in New York, to buy back goods from other countries. The Economist called this “Cosmetic Surgery.”

This program is not humanitarian aid, as some US and UK politicians have claimed. Some $53 billion in orders for goods have been frozen because of American and British fears that they might serve some military purpose. The $54 billion worth of oil sold under the “Oil for Food” program has translated into less than $20 billion worth of gods arriving in Iraq. This amounts to a pathetic 41 cents a day per person. This is an outrage!

These limited changes in sanctions are not motivated by any concern by the Bush administration for the Iraqi people, but are instead an attempt to maintain some sort of sanction system in place in the face of growing public pressure to abolish the sanctions.

Anti-war, anti-globalization, labor, and civil rights activists need to build pressure on the Bush Administration to end this brutal system of sanctions, which has caused such misery for the people of Iraq.

Justice #30, June 2002