There is increasing concern all over the world regarding the increasing and widespread use of economic and related sanctions by some of the richest and most powerful countries, led by the USA and other NATO member countries, taking undue advantage of their extraordinary privileged position in financial matters. This concern is reflected in several resolutions passed by international bodies, including UN organizations, against sanction regimes.
This may be the right time to revisit one of the most controversial sanction regimes, one imposed by the United Nations Security Council and pushed most by the US-UK combine, during the period 1990-2003, although traces of this continued even after this.
One of the most controversial aspects of these wide-ranging sanctions related to the very heavy costs these imposed very unjustly on ordinary people, including women, children, the elderly, the already sick and disability affected at a time when the 1991 Gulf War and the massive bombing, including of civilian infrastructure, had already left people in great distress. This should have been a time of healing of war-ravaged people led by the United Nations whose own studies had confirmed widespread devastation; instead the UN Security Council imposed cruel sanctions which further aggravated the adverse impacts of the destruction of essential infrastructure caused by war-time bombing.
There is no better way of understanding the impact of these sanctions than to recall what two of the most senior and highly respected UN humanitarian officials have said about these. The first of these is Denis J. Halliday who had 34 years of distinguished service at the United Nations in the course of which he had risen to the rank equivalent of UN Assistant Secretary General. He became the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq in 1997 and resigned in 1998. The second is an equally distinguished UN official of similar rank Hans von Sponeck who became the UN Human Coordinator in Iraq in 1998 and resigned in 2000. (Along with him Jutta Burghardt, the head of the World Food Program in Iraq also resigned). What prompted these resignations was the undoubted fact that sanctions were leading to unbearably high costs for people of Iraq, including children.
Some time after his resignation Denis J. Halliday, who received the Gandhi International Peace Prize stated very clearly—I was driven to resignation because I refused to continue to take orders of the same Security Council that had imposed and sustained genocidal sanctions on the innocent of Iraq…my innate sense of justice was, and still is, outraged by the violence these sanctions had brought upon, and continue to bring upon, the lives of children, families—extended families, the loved ones of Iraq.
Hans von Sponeck, who received the Coventry Peace Prize and other honors, was also very critical about the adverse impact of sanctions. He along with Denis Halliday co-authored an article titled ‘The Hostage Nation’ which was published in The Guardian dated November 29, 2001. In this article the two former UN Humanitarian Coordinators stated that the economic sanctions had destroyed society in Iraq and caused the death of thousands, young and old. They wrote, “The UK and the US have deliberately pursued a policy of punishment since the Gulf War in 1991. The two governments have consistently opposed allowing the UN Secretary General to carry out the mandated responsibility to assess the impact of sanctions policies on civilians. We know about this first hand, because the governments repeatedly tried to prevent us from briefing the Security Council about it.”
Further they write, “The uncomfortable truth is that the west is holding the Iraqi people hostage, in order to secure Saddam Hussein’s compliance to ever-shifting demands. The UN Secretary General who would like to be a mediator has repeatedly been prevented from taking this role by the US and UK governments.”
Regarding the terrible impact on the people of Iraq and the responsibility for this, these former senior humanitarian officials with the most credible understanding of the reality they saw from very close up said, “The most recent report of the UN Secretary General in October 2001, says that the US and UK governments’ blocking of $4 billion of humanitarian supplies is by far the greatest constraint on the implementation of the oil for food program. The report says that in contrast the Iraqi government’s distribution of humanitarian supplies in fully satisfactory (as it was when we headed this program). The death of some 5-6000 children a month (five thousand to six thousand a month) is mostly due to contaminated water, lack of medicines and malnutrition. The US and UK governments’ delayed clearance of equipment and materials is responsible for the tragedy, not Baghdad.”
The two senior diplomats and humanitarian officials concluded on two notes. First, by stating—“ We are outraged that the Iraqi people continue to be made to pay the price for the lucrative arms trade and power politics. Secondly, they quote Martin Luther King’s famous words, “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time is now.”
These strong words of UN officials with the most intimate knowledge of the Iraqi sanctions makes it clear that the sanctions led to untold sufferings and avoidable deaths of many thousands of people , including children. This happened despite the fact that the Iraqi government, functioning in very adverse circumstances and facing pressures from the most powerful countries, had succeeded in increasing local food production, implementing a functional ration system and ensuring an efficient distribution of limited humanitarian supplies they could still access in the middle of crippling and cruel sanctions. Hence there is a strong case for reopening the issue and the Security Council of the United Nations making adequate compensation for the immense harm caused to the people of Iraq. This compensation fund can be administered by a group of persons, including representation of women and minorities, of impeccable reputation and honesty within Iraq, helped by experienced UN officials or former UN officials like Halliday and Sponeck, who will ensure that the fund is spent keeping in view the urgent and real priorities of the people of Iraq, with emphasis on the poor and the vulnerable people, women and children.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071 and Protecting Earth for Children.