Sanctions against Iraq have failed; it's time United States ended them

Posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Ten years after the United States and its allies imposed economic sanctions following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the embargo remains largely in place. The embargo continues to exact a heavy toll on Iraqi society, even after the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 986 ("Oil for Food") that allows Iraq to export oil to pay for food and medicine (and reparations to Kuwait).

U.S. and British obstructionism on the committee that approves imports sharply limits Iraq's ability to repair its war-damaged electrical, sanitation, or health care infrastructure, also critical to health.

The draconian character of the sanctions system guarantees that it will have a devastating impact on civilians. Further, the highly centralized and anti-democratic character of the government exacerbates this devastating impact. Ironically, the deprivation caused by the sanctions makes Iraqis more dependent on government rations for survival.

During the early 1990s, average incomes in Iraq (GNP per capita) fell by more than 80 percent. This in itself indicates a catastrophic economic collapse, greater than even the 50 percent economic contraction suffered by Russia as a result of International Monetary Fund-World Bank "shock therapy" in the early 1990s. Greater also than the 30 percent contraction suffered by Cuba in the early 1990s, due to the loss of its Eastern European trading partners and the tightening of the U.S. embargo.

A demographic survey conducted by UNICEF in 1999 indicated that the rate of death of children under 5 years of age in central and southern Iraq more than doubled in the second half of the 1990s from its level a decade earlier. Comparing these mortality rates with pre-1990 trends of declining child mortality, UNICEF estimated that half a million Iraqi children died between 1991 and 1998, who would have lived if pre-sanctions trends of declining mortality had continued.

In the 1990s, primary school enrollment in central and southern Iraq fell from 98 percent of all children, to 88 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls. In two years, primary school dropout rates rose from 17 to 40 percent. As a result of these shifts, literacy fell from 80 percent to 58 percent of the adult population.

The devastation caused by the sanctions has led to increasing cristicism internationally, and in the United States as well. Three U.N. officials charged with overseeing humanitarian efforts to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi population have resigned in protest of the continued brutality of the sanctions.

Former U.N. Assistant Secretary General Denis Haliday referred to their "genocidal impact." In the spring of 2000, a U.S. congressional letter demanding the lifting of the sanctions garnered 71 signatures, while House Democratic Whip David Bonior called the economic sanctions against Iraq "infanticide masquerading as policy."

Meanwhile, the periodic bombing of Iraq by the United States and Britain continues and killed more than 140 Iraqi civilians in 1999 alone. In addition, Iraqis (and U.S. and other veterans) continue to suspect continuing health effects from the use of depleted uranium shells during the Gulf War; more than 340 tons of such shells were fired. (Recently, European governments have confirmed widespread radiation contamination in Kosovo as a result of the use of depleted uranium shells by U.S. forces there.)

Officials of the Bush administration have pledged to tighten the pressure on Iraq. Nontheless, it is possible that the change in government in the U.S. may create a new opportunity to challenge the sanctions, since many Democratic members of Congress may be more willing to question the wisdom and morality of U.S. policy toward Iraq when this doesn't require challenging a Democratic president.

Ten years of economic sanctions have not accomplished anything other than cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent children and much unnecessary suffering. If the American people were aware of the human toll of these measures, they would demand an end to them. Their removal is long overdue.

Robert Naiman is senior policy analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. The center was established to promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people's lives. More information on the center is available at

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