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Middle East Team Dispatch

OK, That Didn't Work…Now What? Rethinking Economic Sanctions Against Iraq

March 29, 2000

After the Gulf War, The United Nations voted to place an economic blockade on Iraq - isolating the country by limiting the goods that it can buy and sell. The goal of these sanctions was to weaken Iraq and cause Saddam Hussein, the leader, to stop his military practices - purchasing and building weapons, bombing parts of his own country and being generally aggressive. In this article, originally a informative report submitted to Congress, Erik Gustafson, the Executive Director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, argues that the economic sanctions not only don't work - they are counter productive - hurting the Iraqi people - and making Saddam Hussein stronger. This story may be tough to follow sometimes - but we suggest you stick with it - it's got some important things to say.


About the author

Erik Gustafson is a veteran of the Gulf War and the Executive Director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC). Gustafson served eight months in the Gulf War before returning to the US in 1992 to pursue a degree at the University of Wisconsin. Upon returning to Iraq in 1997 on a humanitarian mission, Gustafson was moved by the intolerable suffering he witnessed. He has since become a tireless opponent of the economic sanctions and is currently working with members of Congress on a legislative initiative to lift the sanctions.


Seeking a New Sanctions Paradigm:
Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) Statement

Congressional Briefing on Iraq Sanctions & U.S. Policy
Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick of Michigan

February 8th, 2000

"As a UN official, I should not be expected to be silent about a true human tragedy that needs to be ended"

- Hans von Sponeck, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (Reuters, Feb. 8, 2000)

"More than nine years of the most comprehensive economic embargo imposed in modern history has failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power or even ensured his compliance with his international obligations, while the economy and people of Iraq continue to suffer."

- Letter sent to President Clinton...signed by 70 Representatives.

"Sanctions are a blunt and failed instrument."

- Richard Butler, ex-director of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM)

The United Nations economic blockade on Iraq represents the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed on a nation in modern history. Since the Gulf War and the imposition of the sanctions, Iraq's economy has collapsed and the government has been unable to repair $30 billion in damage.1

In 1995, Iraq spent 22 times LESS on civilian imports than it did in 1989.2 The primary currency used in Iraq has become the 250ID note, worth $800 in 1990, now worth less than 50 cents. Unemployment runs at 50%, with those who are able to find work collecting an average salary of only $2 a month. Since 1989, per capita income has dropped from $250 per month to less than $100 per month.3 Even with an Oil-for-Food monthly supplement of food and other essential goods, the majority of the Iraqi people remain in desperate poverty.4

The impact of severe hardships and scarcity, compounded by the collapse of public services, has been disastrous. Since 1991, over half a million children are believed to have died in Iraq as a result of economic sanctions.5 In addition, the U.S. war on Iraq represents the longest continuous bombing campaign since the Vietnam War, killing 143 civilians last year.6 I would argue that the economic sanctions are targeting the civilian population, not Saddam Hussein. They are taking away from civil society, not Iraq's military state. No matter how comprehensive we make the sanctions, Iraq's military leaders could care less.

Something must change.

A New Sanctions Paradigm for Iraq: Targeting Saddam

Before the Gulf War, the U.S. actively sold weapons to Iraq - despite Saddam Hussein's 1980 illegal invasion of Iran, use of chemical agents and wide scale abuse of human rights. Between 1985 and 1990, the U.S. Department of Commerce approved $1.5 billion in military contracts, including-ironically enough-$48 million of commercial arms sales to protect Iraq's head of state.

While Iraq's military campaigns in the North caused refugee flight and wide scale human rights abuses, the arms shipments continued. According to one human rights observer "Pre-Gulf War Iraq provides a striking example of the insignificance of human rights questions in international relations." At a time when the U.S. had remarkable leverage over the Iraqi regime, little was done to pressure the Iraqi regime to cease its violations of human rights. The years of U.S. support of the Iraqi regime helped to entrench Saddam Hussein in power.

The U.S. policy of economic sanctions has made things worse - not better. By reducing the Iraqi people from relative prosperity to desperate poverty, we have undermined the moderating forces of the middle class and civil society. We have deprived the very institutions that could bring about democratic change. Public health care and education systems have collapsed, unemployment rates have soared and Iraq's educated middle class has virtually disappeared. Water facilities go un-repaired, resulting in epidemics of water-borne diseases. Electrical outages remain commonplace. Many professionals, including doctors and health workers, have fled Iraq or resorted to driving cabs-the main source of income in urban centers. In cities like Basra, where unemployment runs over 60 percent, it is believed that the Muharbat (the Iraqi secret police) has become a major employer.

It is estimated that the black market, which would not exist without sanctions, generates over $400 million per year.7 A significant portion of the money collected as transit taxes has gone toward weapons and funding factional wars. Economic sanctions, though intended to weaken Iraq's elite ruling class, only strengthen its political hegemony. Much of the money goes into the patronage system that allows Saddam to maintain the allegiance of factional leaders and remain in power. In addition, economic sanctions have led to the military's further consolidation of power over rural areas and much of Southern Iraq, where extreme scarcity has created a greater dependency on Iraq's rationing system of emergency goods. In addition, various forms of crime and corruption, from theft to prostitution, are on the rise in a society where such crimes were virtually unknown. Such changes to Iraqi society have already caused long-term damage.

As the death toll climbs, sanctions and repeated bombings have fostered resentment among the Iraqi people toward the United States, not toward Saddam Hussein. The continued war enables the regime to portray the United States as a powerful "outside enemy" that the Iraqi people must endure and remain unified against. In turn, Saddam Hussein is able to portray himself as an "embattled Arab leader standing up against the West." Such a portrayal has contributed to Saddam Hussein's prestige both in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, and the perception of U.S. indifference to abject suffering in Iraq throughout the Arab world. Under these circumstances, any dissent is viewed as treason. To make matters worse, by funding internal opposition groups, we have inadvertently made everyone inside Iraq a suspect and provided the regime the pretext to crack down against suspected "collaborators." This has included Iraqi aid workers and anyone else who talks to Westerners.

The regime conveniently scapegoats the United States for anything and everything that goes wrong. Lifting economic sanctions would shift the burden onto Saddam and eliminate a powerful propaganda weapon he has effectively used for nine years. The Iraqi people have not forgotten the prosperity before the war, and when economic sanctions are lifted, they expect that prosperity to return. Thus, after a brief declaration of victory,8 lifting sanctions will shift the burden onto the Iraqi regime. It will be difficult for the Iraqi government to meet expectations in a post-sanctions Iraq. In fact, public opinion will likely turn on the regime.

The Need for Regional Arms Control

The United Nations has recognized that, for there to be any long-term success, Iraqi disarmament needs to be viewed within the context of regional arms control. Despite an avowed international policy of controlling weapons of mass destruction throughout the Middle East, the U.S. has been a major contributor to the arms race. According to a 1997 report of the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. was the source of 43% of the arms sold to the Gulf. If, while Iraq's armaments program is blocked, or at least limited by a military embargo, its neighbors build up formidable arsenals, the temptation for any future Iraqi regime to try to "catch up" by evading residual import control mechanisms will be very great.

"No Fly Zones" No Work

Following the Gulf War, the Security Council adopted Resolution 688, demanding that Iraq immediately end its military activity in the North and "expressing hope that an open dialogue will take place to ensure that the human and political rights of all Iraqi citizens are respected".9 Resolution 688 was used to justify the establishment of an air exclusion "No Fly" zone in Northern Iraq in 1991 and one in the South in 1992. To date, there is no evidence that the U.S. enforcement of "no-fly zones," a pillar of the Clinton Administration's policy of containment, have curtailed human rights abuses or made the Iraqi regime more accountable on human rights issues. The "no-fly zones" afford no protection for Iraqi civilians and minorities in northern or southern Iraq. In the North, the inter-Kurdish conflict and outside interventions by Iraq, Turkey and Iran result in almost routine killings, displacements and human rights abuses.

Ironically, Turkey participates in Operation Northern Watch while the Turkish military routinely bombs and raids Kurdish communities in northern Iraq.10 In addition, the U.S. dropped 1,800 bombs on 450 targets last year, sometimes bombing sites in densely populated areas.11 According to international relief workers in Iraq, 143 civilians were killed last year during these operations - which, as the Economist magazine points out, is a rather peculiar way of protecting civilians.

Continuing air operations on the present scale is politically costly and counterproductive. Civilian casualties are the result of reckless attacks of suspected sites in heavily populated areas and the loose rules governing what pilots can and cannot target. With the exception of the demilitarized and neutral zones along the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the "no-fly zones" should be dropped altogether.

The Failure of the Oil for Food Program

The Oil-for-Food program, while averting a famine, has failed to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Many humanitarian observers viewed the program as a token public relations effort to maintain sanctions indefinitely.

The Oil-for-Food program has been mischaracterized as a solution to Iraq's humanitarian crisis. However, the import control restrictions of economic sanctions undermine the effectiveness of the program, and in many cases, run counter to the program's primary objective of humanitarian relief. The UN decides what Iraq can and cannot buy. Many supplies desperately needed to repair the infrastructure are banned or restricted as "dual-use" items, capable of use as military supplies. This ban has included chlorine, needed for water purification. Consequently, a hundred tons of sewage is dumped untreated into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers each day, causing epidemics of cholera, typhoid fever, and gastroenteritis. This has impacted the most vulnerable sectors of the population, infants and toddlers.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution

Passed on 17 December, 1999, UNSC Resolution 1284 will partially suspend sanctions if Iraq cooperates with a new weapons inspection regime for 120 days. The suspension of sanctions will be for renewable terms of 120 days, meaning that when one term expires, sanctions will be re-imposed by default unless the Security Council votes unanimously to continue the suspension.


civilian - someone who is not in the military
compounded - added to
authoritarian - someone who is in charge and knows it
perpetrators - people who enter into something
divestment - to take away from
hegemony - like a superpower
residual - what's left over

If "the fundamental objective" of suspending sanctions is to "[improve] the humanitarian situation," as acknowledged by UNSC Resolution 1284, then it should not be conditioned to Iraq's cooperation with weapons inspections. By linking measures intended to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people to Iraq's international obligations, the UN Security Council is collectively punishing the people of Iraq for Saddam Hussein. Steps should be taken to de-politicize the humanitarian crisis, de-linking it from issues of compliance and weapons inspections.

EPIC's Recommendations

The Administration must work to end the humanitarian crisis and restore international consensus needed to pursue meaningful disarmament in Iraq. Lifting economic sanctions would achieve both of these objectives, as well as help to moderate Iraqi society and weaken the Iraqi regime. As an important first step, the U.S. Congress should hold fair and objective hearings on the humanitarian impact of the economic blockade, hearings that would include firsthand witnesses and public health experts from respected agencies like the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). Members of Congress should also request a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation into the impact economic sanctions on Iraq have had on U.S. agriculture. And finally, Members of Congress should actively support legislation that ends the prohibitions on U.S. trade with Iraq to allow the export of food, medicine and civilian goods. This legislation will be the first step toward influencing the Administration to reformulate the UN sanctions on Iraq to secure national objectives without causing further widespread suffering and death.

Erik K. Gustafson, Executive Director
Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC)
747 Tenth Street, SE - Suite # 2, Washington, DC 20003
tel. (202) 543-6176 - fax (202) 543-0725


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1Damage caused by the Gulf War, according to a CIA estimate (New York Times, 3 June 1991).
2World Bank Development Indicators, 1998.
3 Interview with Richard Garfield of Columbia University
4 According to the United Nations, the Oil-for-food Program currently totals only $14.75 per person per month- or $149 per person per year. Due to holds placed on contracts and other delays in distribution, a more accurate estimate is $100 per person per year. In 1990, annual per capita income averaged $3,000 per person
5 An August 1999 UNICEF press release stated, "If pre-1990 trends in child mortality had continued through the 1990s, there would have been 500,000 fewer deaths of children under age 5 in Iraq during the period from 1991 and 1998; and, further, that sanctions have been an important contributor to this crisis."
6 According to internal reports by senior UN officials in Iraq.
7 According to Denis Halliday, former UN Coordinator of the Oil-for-Food Program. 1998 Congressional Briefing.
8 Saddam Hussein always declares victories. Following the Gulf War, a massive victory parade was held in the streets of Baghdad
9 United Nations (1996i), UNSC Resolution 688, para. 2, Document 37.
10 Graham-Brown, Sarah, p. 118.
11 Headline News, CNN, 12 December 1999