Cruel Cost of Iraq's Sanctions

by Kirsten Broomhall

The Press, New Zealand, April 18, 2000


Statistically, the number of Iraqi children under age five who have died under United Nations sanctions is almost New Zealand's entire population under the age of 15. Legally, the sanctions have been labeled genocide, a war crime, and a crime against humanity under international law. Morally, three top United Nations humanitarian officials working in Iraq, including former coordinator Denis Halliday, have resigned because of their frustration at trying to help the Iraqi people while the U.N.'s sanctions work against those efforts.

Politics, however, is what counts most in this messy issue, and politically, it seems that the sanctions are here to stay. When U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked in 1996 whether the price of half a million Iraqi child deaths under the sanctions was worth it, she said: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price-we think the price is worth it."

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff says he agrees with the United States in its goal of stopping Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction, but he does not believe that the sanctions

are effective in achieving that objective. "They have a huge cost, by actually destroying the basis of Iraqi society. The aim is laudable. The impact has been deplorable," he said.

Although New Zealand defense spokesman Wayne Mapp agrees that problems have occurred in the U.N.'s administration of the sanctions, he lays all the blame at Saddam's door. "He hasn't complied with U.N. resolutions to allow the sanctions to be lifted, and he hasn't allowed access to food and medicine to be made available," he said.

Initially, these seem valid arguments. All Iraq has to do is prove to weapons inspectors that it has scrapped its weapons of mass destruction and its means to produce and deliver them. The United States has since said, however, that it will not support the lifting of the sanctions until Saddam is removed from power.

Saddam has manipulated the system, slowing the delivery of food and medicines, but the United States and Britain have been guilty in vetoing humanitarian supply contracts.

Ramon Das of Victoria University disagrees with Mapp. Das, who lectures on the morality of sanctions, says that he is not defending Saddam, but people must be "responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their own actions." The U.N. has admitted the consequences of its actions: 1.2 million deaths, increased health problems, and Iraq's inability to rebuild its infrastructure. "That indicates a high degree of moral culpability," says Das.

If the aim is to remove Saddam from power, why not lift the sanctions to the point where people can rise up against him? "It seems to me that both sides, Iraq and the United States, don't want to lose face," says Marten Hutt, a medical aid advocate. "The United States has maintained for so long that we need the sanctions that any backdown would be misinterpreted. Similarly, Saddam has got so much mileage out of being a martyr, oppressed by the West. "

The political compromise everyone is looking to is targeted sanctions that would hurt only Saddam and his cronies through things such as travel bans and asset freezing, as well as a continued arms embargo. It is an idea discussed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan during his visit to New Zealand in February, and an idea the government has looked at for some weeks.

Goff says: "Our position is targeted sanctions against the war machine and the elite, but with a freeing up of sanctions on materials and goods that are necessary for the well-being of ordinary people whom we can't hold responsible for Saddam." Targeted sanctions sound good in theory, but bureaucrats are skeptical as to whether they are workable in practice. It would be easy for the Iraqi elite to flout a travel ban by traveling under false names. It could be hard to trace bank accounts with money stashed around the world and able to be moved within minutes.

Christchurch lawyer Shuna Lennon says the sanctions are a breach of the Geneva Conventions, which ban the starving or attacking of civilians, and the International Convention against Genocide. With its contribution of three frigates and troops to the naval blockade, New Zealand is guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity under the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, she says.

Perhaps the last and most knowledgeable word is best left to a person who has experienced the sanctions firsthand. "We are in the process of destroying an entire nation," says Halliday. "It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral."

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