Iraq sanctions: A Crime Against Humanity


By Susan Wareham


[Dr Susan Wareham is president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) and regional vice-president, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.]


WALID spends most of his time on the streets of Baghdad. He is 14 years old and shines shoes each day to earn a meagre existence for his mother and brothers. If he had been born 10 years earlier, Walid would have attended school until at least age 15, but times have changed. Since 1990 the people of Iraq have lived, and died, under economic sanctions. Walid and the rest of his generation are the major victims.

I recently took part in a humanitarian mission, sponsored by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, which travelled to Iraq to deliver pharmaceutical and medical supplies and to make contact with a people whose suffering has been largely forgotten by the world community. We met with UN and Red Cross and Red Crescent officials, church and government officials, doctors, teachers, taxi drivers and street children, and we witnessed a human tragedy which continues to unfold daily.

We did not go primarily to collect data on the effects of the sanctions, for the plight of the people of Iraq has been repeatedly documented. In 1995 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported: “

The situation throughout the country is increasingly disastrous with economic decline spreading across almost all sectors of Iraqi society … Malnutrition is widespread, affecting nearly all social groups throughout the country.”

In October 1996 UNICEF stated that more than 4500 children under the age of five were dying each month from hunger and disease. In total over 1 million Iraqis have died from the sanctions, and at least half of these are children. And the situation is not improving.

Health care

Iraq, with its vast reserves of oil, is potentially a very wealthy country. Until August 1990,the health care system was one of the best in the region, with all services and supplies readily available. Education was free and compulsory, and literacy rates were very high. Health care now is equal to the worst of Third World standards, and, as in other such situations, it is particularly young children who are affected. The major killers are treatable or preventable infectious diseases such as pneumonia and gastrointestinal infections.

At Al Mansour Paediatric Teaching Hospital and Saddam Paediatric Hospital, basic supplies such as antibiotics and intravenous fluids are severely deficient. Even bedsheets are rare. The smell of sewerage is frequent.

At Ibn Al Baladi Hospital, paediatrician Dr Alhan al Rashid says that many of the babies born there are of low birth weight (less than 2.5 kg). The rates of major congenital anomalies, such as anencephaly and hydrocephaly, and of childhood leukaemia, have risen sharply; this is thought to be due to depleted uranium weapons which were used against Iraq in 1991 (and later against Serbia).

The poor state of sewerage and water treatment works, partly a result of the 1991 bombing, is a major public health concern. Spare parts, plumbing equipment and chemicals needed for purification are all classified as “dual use” under the sanctions (able to be used by the civilian or military sectors) and are delayed or prohibited by the Security Council Sanctions Committee. The refusal to allow chlorine to disinfect water supplies is, at best, contrary to basic principles of preventive medicine and, at worst, negligent to the point of being criminal.

Distribution of food and medicines is also obstructed by the Sanctions Committee. Forklifts, trucks, truck tyres and mechanical spare parts are “dual use” and subject to lengthy delays. In addition, the money to buy these things, and to pay the workers, is lacking.

The memories of health care in Iraq are many: children lying on dirty blankets, two or more to a bed; wasted babies, their mothers’ eyes and hands lifted to Allah for mercy; the coronary care unit at Baghdad University Teaching Hospital with two out of its five cardiac monitors broken down; the nauseating stench from blocked and broken pipes; and the tireless efforts of the hospital staff, who work long hours with so little, watching their patients die needlessly and knowing that they die because they are Iraqi.

However, the most haunting image is the silent tears of the parents as they watch their children die. They wait desperately for each breath as a four-month-old girl struggles with pneumonia. They hold a limp hand as a malnourished child is overcome by gastro-enteritis and dehydration. To them, these children are not statistics to be weighed up by important heads of state; they are precious and irreplaceable lives.


Education has fared no better than health care. Text books and even pens, paper and school desks are in short supply. Education is still free, including at university level, but school drop-out rates are now high. Many children are too hungry to concentrate, or need to work so that the family can eat properly, or have simply lost hope in a decaying society.

Michel Nahal, the Middle East Council of Churches’ representative in Baghdad, described the fascination with learning which has characterised the 7000 years of civilisation in the region, and the desperation which is felt now as the education system crumbles.

Professionals, many of whom have studied and worked in other countries, are now deprived by the sanctions even of journals. Unemployment rates are very high, and the salaries of doctors, engineers, civil servants and others amount to a few dollars a month. Bookstalls in Iraq are full of old university textbooks, sold by their owners to buy a little food. They lie in the dust of the Baghdad markets, awaiting a buyer, but few can afford to buy them.

Hans Von Sponeck, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, considers this destruction of education, skilled trades and professions as one of the most serious aspects of the sanctions. He refers to the “intellectual genocide” of the youth of Iraq who, when the sanctions are lifted, will be expected to interact constructively with a world they hardly know.

Agriculture also has suffered severe setbacks. The assessment mission in October 1997 of the FAO and World Food Program (WFP) reported:

“Crop yields … remain low due to poor land preparation as a result of lack of machinery, low use of inputs, deteriorating soil quality and irrigation facilities …”. The FAO and WFP also reported, “The animal population has declined steeply due to severe shortages of feed and vaccines during the embargo years”.

The UN secretary-general’s report on Iraq to the Security Council of March this year confirms that a recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease has affected approximately 1 million cattle and sheep.

Escalating demands

One cannot escape the conclusion that the plight of the people of Iraq attests to one of the worst ever abuses of power by the UN Security Council. Ramsey Clark, former US attorney-general, refers to the sanctions as

“a crime against humanity”


“genocide by Security Council-imposed starvation and illness”.

On August 6, 1990, the day after Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Security Council passed Resolution 661, which banned all trade with Iraq, the aim being to

“restore the authority of the legitimate government of Kuwait”.

The government of Kuwait was restored early the following year. On April 3, 1991, at the completion of the Gulf War, the Security Council passed Resolution 687, which set further conditions to be fulfilled before the sanctions would be lifted. Foremost was the requirement that Iraq get rid of all its weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to produce them.

However, Resolution 687 also refers to

“the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction …”

The implications for Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal are obvious, but ignored.

Resolution 661 stated explicitly that food and medicines would be exempt from the embargo “in humanitarian circumstances”. But there’s a catch. No oil sales means no money to buy food and medicines. Since 1990, Iraq’s GDP (three-quarters of which came from oil) has fallen from around US$60 billion to $5.7 billion.

In late 1996 the Security Council began the Oil-for-Food Program, whereby Iraq is allowed to sell extremely limited amounts of oil under strict UN control. This program is currently administered by Hans Von Sponeck, who says that of the $5.26 billion of oil sales currently permitted every six months, only about $2 billion is available to the Iraqi government. (The rest goes to war reparations and the cost of administering the UN program — including UNSCOM when it was operating.) It is hopelessly inadequate.

From time to time the Security Council debates increasing the ceiling on Iraq’s permitted oil exports. However, as an article in the Economist of February 6 noted,

“With Iraq’s dilapidated wells able to pump only $3.1 billion in the most recent six-month period, and their capacity declining 6% a year, the gesture is meaningless”.

To add insult to injury, on February 28 the US bombed an oil pipeline communication station in northern Iraq which controlled half of Iraq’s oil exports.

Worse than Hiroshima

Denis Halliday was Hans Von Sponeck’s predecessor in Baghdad. Last September he resigned in protest at the effects of the sanctions, stating that they “undermine the moral credibility of the UN” and contradict the human rights provisions in the UN’s own charter.

No matter what one thinks of the government of Iraq, two things are clear. Firstly, the sanctions are harming not the powerful and the elite in Iraq, but rather the powerless, particularly infants and children. Secondly, they serve hidden agendas, agendas reeking with hypocrisy.

By what justification does the UN Security Council, with its responsibility to ensure peace and security for all people, violate the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? How can the Security Council regard with almost supreme indifference the reports of the UN’s own humanitarian agencies, whose reports all but beg for the lifting of the sanctions? When is a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone to be implemented, as called for in Security Council Resolution 687 of 1991?

And for the Australian government, which recently sent the HMAS Melbourne to the Gulf to help enforce the sanctions: Would you support a policy which killed over a half a million Australian children? Does the nationality of the children matter?

In 1996 US secretary of state Madeline Albright was asked by a reporter

, “We have heard that half a million children have died in Iraq … that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. Is the price worth it?”

Albright answered, “

I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”

When the sanctions are finally lifted, we will see and hear the full horror of a nation starved, ill educated and, barring miracles, seeking revenge. History will tell whether those responsible will be held accountable for their crimes.

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