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, January/February 2005


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 mortality.'

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 lethal.

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 and

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.

Sugar babies

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 Benon Sevon.


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 surprised?'

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.

Iraq page

United Nations page

Index of Website

Home Page