The legality of sanctions pronounced against Iraq by the United Nations security council on August 2, 1990 cannot be disputed. The government of Saddam Hussein had illegally invaded Kuwait and had to pay for the consequences. Why this happened and whether it and the subsequent war of 1991 could have been avoided remains a subject of historic discourse. The following is a review of the impact of international sanctions policy on a nation and the options the UN security council had between 1991 and 2003 wars to avert one of the most serious human catastrophes of modern times.
On May 22, 2003, the UN security council passed resolution 1483,1
thereby ending the most comprehensive economic sanctions ever imposed on a country by the UN. These sanctions covered every aspect of individual and national life. They froze government and personal accounts abroad, forbade foreign direct investment and blocked the overhaul of industry, including the oil sector. During the first five years of sanctions, Iraq was not permitted to export oil and gas. Iraq, classified in the late 1980s by the World Bank as a threshold country with good prospects of joining the group of well-to-do nations, was relegated overnight to the status of a disabled welfare recipient. Its citizens had to pay the heavy price of destitution for the political dispute between the government of Saddam Hussein and the US/UK-led UN security council.
After years of confrontation between Iraq and the UN security council and disagreements on how to protect the Iraqi people against the worst effects of sanctions, the Iraqi government and UN in May 1995 finally signed a memorandum of understanding on a humanitarian exemption or, as it became known, the oil-for-food programme (offp).2
It took another eight months before the first humanitarian supplies began to arrive in Iraq under this programme. What were the causes for this long delay in agreeing upon a humanitarian programme? Was it Iraq's obstinacy, pride, the unfounded hubris of a dictator or a punitive approach on the part of the UN security council?
Was it the inclusion by the UN of heavy compensation payments for individuals, firms and governments with claims of losses resulting from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait? Did it have something to do with the limited revenue Iraq would be permitted to earn for the implementation of OFFP? The answer is that it involved all these factors.
Compounding the dilemma for the Iraqi people was the fact that sanctions were initially established to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. When this happened, the UN security council instead of lifting sanctions, changed the parameters and insisted that before sanctions would be lifted Iraq had to show evidence that it had fully disarmed its weapons of mass destruction.3
This linkage of disarmament with economic sanctions - as it turned out a non-negotiable element of power politics ? meant that the international community held the Iraqi people accountable for acts perpetrated by their government. The human cost of maintaining this linkage through the years of sanctions proved immensely high.
Even though 13 years of sanctions ended over two years ago, the UN has yet to carry out an assessment of this period. Such a review would seem to be not only an empirical necessity but also a moral obligation. It cannot be that this period in Iraq's history should be merely seen as the outcome of a conglomerate of factors, some involving the brutal policies of a dictator and others a flawed international policy. These two sets of factors have to be, and certainly can be, sorted out and analysed separately. This, of course, has something to do with political accountability but also with putting the UN in a position to learn from its handling of sanctions against Iraq.
This overdue assessment, when it eventually occurs, will once again bring to the fore the fundamental differences on Iraq which divided the UN security council throughout the years. There were those who wanted to amend or end economic sanctions when it became known that the wrong party ? the people ? were the main victims. There were others who supported the idea of incremental reduction of sanctions in response to Iraqi cooperation.
Finally, there were those who were adamant in maintaining an iron fist approach as long as the government of Saddam Hussein was in power. These were the hardliners, first and foremost the US, UK and, at various times, Spain and Italy. The fate of a people became collateral damage, a euphemism for death and destitution.
Important and final facts have become available for the period of the OFFP. This permits a thorough analysis of major causes of the desperate human conditions in Iraq during the period under review.
In the years from end-1996 to mid-2003, Iraq earned a total of $ 64 billion in licit oil revenue. Keeping in mind that the UN compensation commission in Geneva received initially 30 per cent, and as of 1999 25 per cent of this oil revenue for claims settlements and the UN deducted 3 per cent from the oil income for administrative overheads, an amount of $ 44 billion remained during this six-and-a-half-year period to finance humanitarian supplies under the OFFP.4
The value of the supplies which eventually arrived in Iraq and were distributed came to $ 28 billion.5
Taking a median average of 23 million people as the size of the Iraqi population during those years, the value of supplies per person/per day comes to 51 cents. This was the amount that had to cover the cost of food, health care, water, sanitation, electricity, agricultural inputs and education. At a later stage telecommunications and housing were added.
The inadequacy of such an amount is stark. This was known by all members of the UN security council. The rhetoric in the council throughout these years was sympathetic to the plight of the Iraqi people. The political will to introduce appropriate changes into the sanctions mechanism, however, was lacking. This translated into significant and avoidable delays in improvements.
Examples in this respect are the council agreements to increase allowable oil revenue and make improvements in the bureaucracy of procurement. The Iraq sanctions committee, instead of functioning as a policy oversight body, micro-managed the implementation of the OFFP. Confrontation within this committee among members of the security council was all pervasive, particularly among the five permanent members.
A major problem at all times was the existence of an initially hidden and later overt parallel agenda on the part of the US and UK governments to the policies they officially enunciated in the council. This parallel agenda implied that economic sanctions would not be lifted unless the government of Saddam Hussein was replaced. The US and UK governments, as members of the group of permanent five in the security council, used their continuous association with the Iraq issue from the very beginning in 1990 to their fullest political advantage. They thus had not only the knowledge but also the financial and human resources to ?lead? the discussion on Iraq in the council. None of the elected 10 members of the council could remotely match these advantages. They did not have the continuous Iraq experience nor the funds and, in some cases, not even full time staff to participate in the debate.US and UK Power
Much of the decision-making power on how to handle sanctions policy, therefore, rested with the US and the UK governments. UN records make it clear that agreements to improvements in the OFFP always came about only after protracted discussions in the council. However, ultimately, the status quo of the inadequacy of the humanitarian programme in Iraq was maintained. The benefits of the liberalisation of inflows of supplies from 1999 onwards was offset by increases in the number of temporarily or permanently blocked supplies by these two governments. The rationale at all times was the argument that dual-use items ? supplies which could also be used by the Iraqi military ? were involved. In mid-2002 the value of such items blocked at any one time reached a peak of $ 5 billion!6
The impact of temporarily witholding humanitarian supplies during the various phases of the OFFP were serious. There were significant delays in the arrival of much needed spare parts for electricity, water supply and sanitation plants, arrived items had to be stocked because complementary items had not arrived yet (e g, irrigation equipment without generators, syringes without vaccines, water pipes without purification chemicals, teaching aids without electricity, etc). This explains why many supplies did not arrive within the period agreed by the UN secretariat and government of Iraq, thereby exacerbating the plight of the population. Blocked supplies constituted a major reason why the OFFP over time became more and more disjointed in all areas with the exception of the food sector. The distribution plans secretary general Kofi Annan approved every six months increasingly lost their meaning since the procurement and release of goods reality developed totally erratically.
While the high volume of supplies put on hold by the US and UK ? no other member of the security council resorted to this practice ? worsened the human condition in Iraq, there was yet another unfortunate dimension. Blocking items in the UN sanctions committee on the argument that they might be used by the Iraqi military was tantamount to an expression of no-confidence in the ability of the UN in Iraq to monitor the deployment of items. Among the 300 plus UN observers were, as an example, highly trained specialists in such areas as electricity and water facilities. They could have verified, without difficulty, that spare parts and equipment had reached their intended locations.
There were other significant impediments. The deliberate absence of a continuous dialogue between the protagonists on conditions in Iraq deepened the political rift and misunderstanding. Contact between the Iraqi government and the UN security council became increasingly rare. In fact the US and UK authorities openly discouraged such contact. Secretary general Annan?s visit to Baghdad in February 1998, which did lead to an improved climate between Baghdad and New York and benefited the welfare of the Iraqi population, was not welcomed by US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. The submission of an Iraqi dossier outlining all the issues Iraqi foreign minister Mohammed al-Sahaf and his delegation wanted to discuss during a rare visit to New York with the UN secretary general in February 2001 was dismissed as ?containing nothing new? by US secretary of state Colin Powell.7
The UN security council was ?seized of the matter?, a phrase well known in UN circles, which indicated that the council did not want the secretary general to proactively engage in conflict resolution. Informal Meetings
A confidential paper which German ambassador Tono Eitel prepared at the request of the UN security council in 2001 on changes in the rules of procedure as far as council meetings on Iraq were concerned, shows that contrary to existing rules, meetings on Iraq in the council became overwhelmingly ?informal?.8 This meant that only the sitting group of 15 countries could participate. The customary, and preferred ?public? meetings to which all governments had access, became the exception. Thus Iraq, a party to the issue, was not allowed to participate in crucial debates involving the welfare of the nation.
During most of the years of the OFFP it was even difficult for Baghdad-based UN representatives to interact directly with the UN security council and the sanctions committee in New York. Only during the last years of the programme did face-to-face briefings of UN officials serving in Iraq become more frequent. On one occasion when several permanent and elected members of the security council requested that two former humanitarian coordinators testify in the council, the US and UK representatives wrote to the secretary general indicating that these two former UN officials had only limited sanctions experience and therefore constituted no value added to the debate.
Lack of dialogue, absence of visits to Iraq by members of the security council and restricted opportunities of UN officials with Iraq experience to interact with the council in New York made it impossible for the security council to carry out its oversight mandate in a consistent and continuous manner. A further limitation was the format adopted by the UN for reporting on the humanitarian exemption. The routine reports were little more than supply and distribution accounts. They omitted analysis of the impact of the OFFP on the human condition. They tended to avoid an in-depth consideration of such issues as the impact of withholding supplies, the resources constraints, the complicated procurement process and scores of other lesser constraints such as sectoral needs not covered by the programme. Attempts by the UN system in Iraq to restructure reporting and include a standard section on human conditions were ignored by the New York office of the Iraq programme.
A further indicator of the severe neglect by the UN security council of its oversight responsibilities was the fact that it took no action during the existence of the OFFP to put in place an integrated sanctions management facility and linked to it, a strategy of implementing such a sanctions programme. There were six major UN entities concerned with sanctions in Iraq: the UN special commission (UNSCOM/UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) responsible for disarmament; the UN office of the Iraq programme (UNOIP) and the UN office of the humanitarian coordinator (UNOHCI) responsible for the humanitarian exemption, the OFFP; the UN compensation commission (UNCC) in charge of claims processing by non-Iraqi parties and the UN human rights commission (UNHRC) with its human rights rapporteur. All of these units were subsidiary organs to the UN security council. The council, therefore, had the jurisdiction to include these in an integrated approach to Iraq sanctions.
Throughout the life of the OFFP there was not even one attempt by the UN security council to bring these units together. This omission had grave consequences. In 1998/99 the UN security council had decided to implement an OFFP worth only $ 2.6 billion per six months or $ 118 per capita.9 UNICEF estimates that during the same time, between 100 and 120 children under five for every 1,000 children were dying in Iraq as compared to 50/1,000 before sanctions began. This was an increase of over 100 per cent. During this period, the UNCC received $ 1.8 billion for payment of individuals, firms and governments outside of Iraq.