Analysis and Perspectives on the Humanitarian Disaster in Iraq: 1990-2000

Tasneem Jamal

Inter-Church Action for Development, Relief and Justice

The Ploughshares Monitor March 2000 Volume 21 Issue 1

The UN sanctions on Iraq are the most draconian in modern history. Will they help to end the human rights abuses of the Iraqi government or only further punish the Iraqi people already burdened by an oppressive state? It seems obvious that sanctions have been a colossal failure on nearly every count, and a gross violation of the rights of the Iraqi people.

Inter-Church Action is a coalition of the Canadian Lutheran World Relief, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Mennonite Central Committee, Presbyterian World Service & Development, Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (Anglican), and the United Church of Canada (Division of World Outreach). Its aim is to seek partnership and support organizations in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean which are engaged in the work of sustainable human development and global transformation. This article is excerpted from a report which can be found on the ICA website.

Canadian government policy on Iraq over the past decade has rarely strayed from US positions. During the intense military phase of the Gulf War in 1991, Canadian military forces played an active role in providing air protection for bombing raids. Nevertheless, the situation in Iraq has posed a dilemma for Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy whose criticism of the Canadian role in the Gulf War while in opposition and current initiative to promote the new concept of “human security” do not mesh well with the sanctions-induced humanitarian disaster in Iraq. Consequently, there have been some small initiatives from Canada to investigate and alleviate the effects of the sanctions, especially after Canada’s appointment to the UN Security Council in 1999.

Although the strict sanctions have been responsible for the vast majority of the suffering of the Iraqi people, it must be noted that the military campaign against Iraq did not end with the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and surrender of Saddam Hussein to the western alliance. In 1992, the US, UK, and France established “no-fly” zones over large portions of northern and southern Iraq. Routine bombings by US and UK warplanes occurred every few days in 1999.

UN sanctions, humanitarian disaster

On August 6, 1990 United Nations Resolution 661 was adopted, beginning the most draconian sanctions in modern history. Although food and medicine imports are theoretically permitted, the application, importation, inspection, and distribution process – all supervised by the UN – is horrendously slow and inefficient with the result that some goods can take up to two years to reach their intended destination. Furthermore, the sanctions outrightly ban “dual use” goods, defined as items that have civilian uses but could potentially be used by the Iraqi military. The UN has no criteria to delineate such goods and a sample list compiled by one researcher revealed hundreds of items, including baking soda, combs, light bulbs, medical journals, fertilizer, water purification tablets, and toothbrushes. Pencils were banned on the pretext that the graphite they contained could be used for military purposes.

The humanitarian impact of the sanctions on the population has been devastating. In 1989, the World Health Organization noted that Iraq had 92 per cent access to clean water, and 93 per cent access to high quality health care. Iraqis boasted of one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East, thanks largely to its rich oil reserves. After eight years of sanctions, mortality rates, nutrition sufficiency, and most other social development indicators have tumbled precipitously.

Precise appraisals of the human damage resulting from the sanctions vary but all sources, including the US government, UN agencies, humanitarian organizations, and the Iraqi government agree that it is severe. The following statistics are mainly from UN and other international agencies:

• UNICEF estimated that from 1990 to 1997, 1.2 million people had died due to food and medicine scarcity resulting from the sanctions including 750,000 children under 5. The figures are arrived at through comparisons of statistics before and after the sanctions. Estimates to October 1999 are approximately 1.5 million deaths.

• the under-5 child mortality rate more than tripled from 1989 to 1997 (UN humanitarian panel report, March 1999)

• underweight births have gone from 4 per cent in 1990 to 25 per cent in 1998 (International Red Cross)

• 32 per cent of children under age 5 are chronically malnourished, a rise of 72 per cent since 1991 (UNICEF November 1997 report)

• women have been affected disproportionately by the sanctions with 16 per cent of adult women under 26 malnourished and 70 per cent anemic (1997 statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organization). Maternal mortality rates have climbed from 50/100,000 live births in 1989 to 117/100,000 in 1997.

Confronting the human rights record of the Iraqi government

One lesson to be learned from the Iraq experience is that NGOs need to be cautious in their call for sanctions. At a minimum they must provide more detailed policy recommendations regarding the type of sanctions to be invoked.

Although Saddam Hussein has been demonized by the US and its allies, there is incontrovertible evidence pointing to the abysmal human rights record of the Iraqi government. Successive human rights reports in the 1990s confirm the ongoing disregard for civil and political rights as the Iraqi government engages in arbitrary arrests, disappearances of suspected opponents, and ongoing campaigns against religious minorities in the country.

Although the sanctions have caused far more pain to Iraqi civilians than their leaders, they have without doubt pinched the regime of Saddam Hussein and it has strategized relentlessly to have the sanctions removed. Thus, groups which campaign for the ending of sanctions are often criticized by sanction proponents as being “soft” on Saddam Hussein and playing into his hands.

The abuses of the Iraqi government are deplorable and cannot be ignored by the rest of the world. However, the question remains: Will the sanctions help to end these violations or, on the contrary, do they exacerbate the plight of a people already burdened by an oppressive state?

Assessing the UN sanctions

1. The goals of the sanctions

The UN sanctions are contained in Resolutions 661 and 687. Resolution 661 was passed on August 6, 1990, four days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The resolution was meant to punish Iraq for the invasion of another sovereign territory and force it to end its military occupation of that country.

Resolution 687 was passed on April 3, 1991 after Iraq agreed to withdraw from Kuwait and respect other UN Security Council resolutions. It upheld the strict sanctions of Resolution 661 on the pretext that they were needed as a lever to assure the implementation of Resolution 687, the main purpose of which was to eliminate so-called “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, including biological and chemical weapons, all missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers, and to eliminate any capability for developing nuclear weapons. Ironically, although the technical definition of “weapons of mass destruction” includes only chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, the sanctions themselves have been described as the most lethal weapon of mass destruction ever unleashed in the Middle East region.

A serious question must be raised as to why such objectives would apply to Iraq and not to other countries, not only in the Middle East, but anywhere in the world. Many other member states of the UN are known to currently possess weapons of mass destruction.

Furthermore, one cannot ignore the role of the US and its western allies in saturating the Middle East with highly destructive weapons, including missiles, bombers, attack helicopters, and a wide range of other military instruments that have kept their military industries thriving. Consequently, many of the Iraqi weapons faced by the US and its Gulf War allies in 1991 were produced in US factories. Since 1990, the Middle East has become Canada’s second largest market for its military exports. Disarmament of this volatile region of the world is absolutely essential but the process of stripping one country of its military capability while arming its neighbours is illogical and counterproductive to long-term regional security plans.

The UN sanctions are to stay in place until inspectors are absolutely certain that Iraq has rid itself of all mass destruction weapons. However, the goal of the UN sanctions is ultimately unattainable, a fact the Canadian government acknowledged in May 1999 when it proposed that this precondition to the lifting of sanctions be eliminated.

More recently, it is clear that for the US and Britain, the political goal posts have been moved in Iraq. Although UN Resolution 687 explicitly states that the sanctions shall end once Iraq has complied with the weapons inspections process, the US has publicly stated that its larger goals involve the reshaping of the Iraqi political landscape, including the removal of Saddam Hussein as President. “Sanctions will be there until the end of time, or as long as he lasts,” stated Bill Clinton in November 1997.

2. The justification of the Iraq sanctions as an instrument

Several problems have already been identified with regard to the goals of the sanctions. Bracketing those for the moment, are sanctions justifiable as an instrument to achieve the military disarmament of Iraq? In answering this question, three areas require exploration: the disarmament of Iraq (the official reason for the sanctions), the deposition of President Saddam Hussein (the unofficial reason for the sanctions), and the legality of the sanctions.

i) disarming Iraq

There is wide agreement that the weapons inspections and sanctions have made significant progress towards the objective of eliminating Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons, its nuclear capability, and its long-range missiles. Scott Ritter, a former officer in the US Marines, was a senior official with the UNSCOM, the UN weapons inspection team in Iraq, until he resigned in 1998 in protest of the sanctions. In an interview in June 1999, he states emphatically that Iraq has no meaningful military capacity in weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles.

The two key issues that are likely to delay a lifting of the sanctions indefinitely are verification and the condition of absolute disarmament in the UN specified areas. Not surprisingly, the Iraqi military leadership has been uncooperative and inconsistent in assisting in the dismantling of military hardware which it spent decades assembling. Furthermore, the process of verification of disarmament is a complex quagmire, as even a cursory review of the UN Panel on Disarmament report (January 1999) reveals. The report admits, for example, that even if present biological weapons agents are destroyed, Iraq has the industrial capacity and knowledge to produce them again. A country’s capacity to produce civilian goods and military hardware are not easily delineated as technology to produce an agent for a biological weapon may be the same one that helps to produce a vaccine. Does verification of elimination of these weapons then also include the assurance that Iraq’s industrial capacity and knowledge base are destroyed? The conundrums involved indicate the difficulty of absolute verification without essentially destroying most of a country’s scientific and industrial capacity, something many say the sanctions are actually doing.

ii) deposing Saddam Hussein

There is no indication that the sanctions have had any effect on removing Saddam Hussein from office, even if this were a legitimate UN sanctioned objective. If anything, they have consolidated his grip on power and hardened his resolve to continue governing Iraq, regardless of the cost to Iraqi citizens.

iii) legality of the sanctions

The humanitarian effects of the sanctions have already been outlined above in some detail. From a legal point of view, the sanctions themselves violate international law and UN resolutions. Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions (1977) states:

(1) Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.

(2) It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies such as irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population…whatever the motive.

Many analysts point to sanctions as simply another form of ancient siege warfare. Indeed, it appears as though sanctions have become a preferred instrument by the UN and the US to police the globe. Between 1945 and 1990, the UN imposed sanctions only twice but has done so eleven times in the past decade. The US has done so twenty times in the 1990s and was instrumental in many of the UN sanctions. Although sanctions against apartheid era South Africa are often held up as positive evidence of their efficacy, one careful analysis has revealed that sanctions are successful in terms of their political goals less than five per cent of the time (Gordon 1999). Perhaps most crucial is the need to heed the voices of civil society in countries where sanctions are being considered. In South Africa, there was overwhelming support for sanctions against the apartheid regime. In Iraq, there is overwhelming consensus among civilians that the sanctions must end.

3. Alternatives to sanctions

The Iraq sanctions experience of the past nine years has made clear that broad sanctions intended to break the backbone of a country are, in fact, themselves a form of warfare and therefore other solutions must be sought.

The suggestions here relate specifically to the context of Iraq after nine years of sanctions. Those who oppose the removal of sanctions in Iraq frequently ask what the alternatives are. But as the ostensible objectives of the sanctions relating to the disarmament of Iraq have largely been fulfilled, one must ask whether any alternative to sanctions is now necessary and for what objective. At this point, it is difficult for anyone to argue that Iraq remains a threat to its neighbours with most of its military power stripped, its infrastructure in shambles, and its economy in ruins.

Some would point out that Saddam Hussein remains a dictator who indiscriminately represses the human rights of the population in order maintain his grip on power. Aside from the fact that sanctions and international isolation appear to have fomented this tendency, the same accusation could be made about leadership in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Indonesia, China, and dozens of other countries around the world. Thus, any “alternatives” being proposed for Iraq should also be applied in a consistent fashion to any country that flouts international law and systematically abuses human rights. Countries in the West are by no means immune from such violations and, as this paper has asserted, the sanctions against Iraq and the unilateral actions of the US and its close allies are themselves violations of international law. The special treatment of Iraq and other selected “rogue” states speaks more to the geopolitical interests of the US and its western allies, including their vital oil interests, than any particular outstanding characteristic of the Iraqi regime nine years after its invasion of Kuwait.

At the heart of resolving the Iraqi humanitarian crisis must be a lifting of the economic sanctions. The UN Iraq Programme humanitarian panel report of March 30, 1999 stated unequivocally that despite any humanitarian efforts, whether through the Oil for Food Programme or otherwise, “the humanitarian situation in Iraq will continue to be a dire one in the absence of a sustained revival of the Iraqi economy” (UN 1999). Humanitarian agencies agree that there can be no reversal of the dramatic declines of the past decade without a lifting of the economic sanctions.

Thus, the following policy suggestions for the current Iraqi context could be applied with some contextualizing to many other countries as well.

1. Maintain military sanctions against Iraq

Military sanctions prohibiting the importation of military equipment to Iraq should remain in place until international human rights organizations have documented an end to major human rights abuses in Iraq. Benchmarks for human rights improvements would include the repeal of repressive laws which allow for arbitrary arrests, an end to torture, summary executions, “disappearances,” forced relocations, and changes in policy towards the minority Kurds and the non-ruling Shi’ite majority.

These sanctions must be coupled with a commitment from Canada and other arms exporting countries to work towards the demilitarization of the Middle East region in general.

2. Only impose other sanctions targeted at the Iraqi leadership

The great tragedy and failure of the sanctions of the past nine years has been their inability to affect the Iraqi leadership responsible for violations of international law and domestic human rights abuses, and their indiscriminate impact upon people who have no culpability in those acts, including not only small children but the majority of Iraqi citizens. More precise instruments of pressure must be brought to bear on those who are the targets for policy change, what some refer to as “smart” sanctions.

These can include the freezing of assets, restrictions on travel, banishment from international bodies, the breaking off of diplomatic relations, and other measures which are likely to impact on the leadership but have little affect on the daily life of society. In using such targeted sanctions, it is not being suggested that the sanctions should focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power. Aside from the fact that such a change would not likely result in any significant differences in overall government policies vis-à-vis human rights, explicitly focusing on changing the leadership would be a violation of national sovereignty.

3. Strengthen civil society as a way of promoting democracy and accountability

Respect for democracy and human rights in Iraq will not come through changing a few positions in government. Experience demonstrates that democracy flourishes when people’s organizations are strengthened and they have the resources to engage in civic functions. As a result of the sanctions, the majority of Iraqis are entirely preoccupied with mere day to day survival. Consequently, it is clear that the sanctions have weakened prospects for democracy in Iraq. The assumption that the sanctions would increase the misery and deprivation of the Iraqi people to the point that they would rise up against the Iraqi leadership in a revolution is callous, immoral, and ultimately fallacious as nothing of the kind has occurred.


Nearly a decade after the imposition of sanctions on Iraq, it is abundantly clear that the Iraq policy of the UN, the US, Canada, and other enthusiastic supporters has been a colossal failure on nearly every count. Whether measured against the objective of bringing stability to the Middle East, promoting democratic change in Iraq, or most spectacularly, in helping the ordinary people of Iraq, the sanctions have been an unmitigated disaster.

It is evident, however, that the sanctions go beyond that of a policy failure. They are a gross violation of the political, cultural, social, and economic rights of the Iraqi people. Every day that the sanctions remain in place avoidable deaths are compounded to the tragic number who have already died. Lifting the economic sanctions is not an overnight panacea for peace, security, and justice in Iraq. But it is a first step in admitting the international community’s abysmal failure to achieve a just purpose in Iraq.



ICA recognizes the work of its partner in the Middle East region, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), which has issued several statements on Iraq, the war, and the sanctions and has personnel in Iraq.

Gordon, Joy 1999, “Sanctions as Siege Warfare,” The Nation, 22 March 22.

UN 1999, “Report of the second panel established pursuant to the note by the president of the Security Council concerning the humanitarian situation in Iraq,” article 58, 30 March.

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