Cradle to Grave
The atrocities of Saddam Hussein
are widely known, but the impact of the UN embargo is quietly
being airbrushed from history.
by Felicity Arbuthnot
New Internationalist magazine,
In 1995 a glossy publication marking 'Fifty
Years of Achievement' presented 'a sample of what the UN system
has accomplished since 1945'. Impressive headings included self-congratulatory
statements about humanitarian aid to victims of conflict, alleviating
chronic hunger, providing safe drinking water and reducing child
For Iraq-watchers the irony was stark.
On 6 August 1990, Hiroshima Day, the most draconian embargo ever
administered by the UN was imposed on Iraq in response to its
invasion of Kuwait. By the end of the 40-day first Gulf War in
February 1991, Iraq had been 'bombed back to a pre-industrial
age', as threatened by then US Secretary of State James Baker.
Further disaster was already unfolding.
'Nothing we had seen or read could have
prepared us for this particular form of devastation,' wrote the
then Special Rapporteur to the UN Martti Ahtisaari. 'The recent
conflict has wrought near apocalyptic results on the economic
infrastructure of what had been a rather urbanized and mechanized
society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed
or rendered tenuous.
Iraq imported about 70 per cent of everything.
The UN sanctions regime stopped the import of spare parts to maintain
the supply of electricity, water and telephones. Dialysis patients
died for lack of machine maintenance. Burns units had no rehydration
salts, painkillers or antiseptics. Under the 'dual use' paragraph,
operating theatres were denied disinfectants because, according
to the UN, they could theoretically be used in chemical-weapons
manufacture. Additives for water purification fell into the same
category. Almost anything that came out of an Iraqi tap soon became
Within a year, childhood mortality spiralled.
'Baseline mortality for the under-five population rose from 43.2
to 128.5 per thousand,' an independent report concluded. Near-eradicated
diseases such as polio, cholera and typhoid returned. Marasmus
kwashiorkor - grotesque wasting diseases
associated with starvation - made an appearance. Cancers soared,
linked to the depleted uranium weapons used in the 1991 bombardment.
The import of cancer drugs was prohibited - the 'dual use' paragraph
again. An embargo imposed to force Iraq out of Kuwait quietly
strangled a nation where half the population was estimated to
be aged under 16.
In 1993 doctors discovered an entirely
new disease. Mothers too malnourished to breastfeed - in a country
where obesity was once a problem - and unable to afford milk powder,
had been feeding their babies sugared water or tea. Almost all
their babies died. The doctors called them 'sugar babies'.
Diagnosed with a minor heart problem in
1990, seven-year-old Yasmin's doctors reassured her parents that
as soon as the embargo was lifted a relatively simple procedure
would fix it and she would be fine. During the next five years
a minor problem slowly became a major one. She died in front of
me and a gentle Iraqi friend. 'I hope they told her before she
died that she had failed to comply with UN resolutions,' he said
with fury, encapsulating the loathing for the UN throughout most
of Iraq. Margaret Hassan, the redoubtable head of Care International
in Baghdad kidnapped last October and brutally murdered - called
the children of the embargo 'the lost generation'.
US and British politicians repeatedly
claim that the '30 years of neglect' by the Iraqi regime was responsible
for the woeful state of the country's infrastructure. Yet successive
UN Co-ordinators in Iraq made their views about the real culprit
quite clear. After all, embargoed goods never even entered the
country. Collective punishment, from the cradle to the grave,
meant that items refused entry ranged from a pair of hand-knitted
leggings for a new grandchild - sent in a plastic bag from London
- to school books, blackboards, pencils, just about an study materials
and even 60 tonnes of shroud material. Under the 'oil for food'
programme that was finally agreed in 1995, UN mine-detecting sniffer
dogs in northern Iraq were allocated more food per head than the
Iraqi people, according to the Director of the Iraq Programme
With good reason, Iraqis feel that the
UN is no more than a puppet of the US and Britain - who for 13
years bombed them almost daily without objection from the world's
peacekeeper. Hundreds of reports and memos from the UN itself
support their view. For example, in just one month in 1997 more
than 70 contracts... were on hold at the request of the United
States'; on Hiroshima Day (again) US naval forces intercepted
a freighter inside Iraq territorial waters carrying vital hygiene
supplies. Kofi Annan and the UN said little or nothing.
UN employees and weapons inspectors, however,
did not seem to suffer. They stayed in the best hotels, drove
new Landcruisers and saloon cars, sported the most sophisticated
communications systems and computers in their headquarters at
the Canal Hotel - all paid for with Iraqi money - while Iraqi
doctors were denied even the paper on which to keep notes. The
world may have been aghast at the bombing of the Canal Hotel,
with searing loss of life, in August 2003, but one eminent Middle
East commentator remarked to me: 'The Iraqi people see that building
as the symbol of nearly 13 years of grinding misery. Why is anyone
There were, however, some honourable exceptions.
Indeed, two UN Assistant SecretaryGenerals - with 66 years' service
between them - did more than anyone else to alert the world to
the reality in Iraq. Denis Halliday and Count Hans von Sponeck
resigned from the post of UN Coordinator in Iraq in 1998 and 2000
respectively. 'We are in the process of destroying an entire society,'
said Halliday.. 'It is as simple and terrifying as that.'
I remember returning to the Canal Hotel
with Denis Halliday while working on a radio documentary. We arrived
unannounced. The building emptied - Iraqis, people of all nationalities,
mobbed him, hugged him, shook his hand, thanked him for his stand.
Some of those who were there that day were later to die. They
were the very best of what the UN is meant to stand for.
The young men now fighting the occupation
had their childhood snatched away by the embargo - the older ones
helplessly watched it happen.
Felicity Arbuthnot has spent many months
in Iraq and written about the country for many years.
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