Economic sanctions as a weapon of mass destruction

By Joy Gordon

Professor of Philosophy at Fairfield University.
Her first book "A Peaceful Silent, Deadly Remedy: The Ethics of Economic Sanctions" will be published by Harvard University Press
These notes were taken during her talk on the "Iraq - Just Solutions?" Workshop at the Potsdam Einstein Forum, May 6, 2003.
Further details may be found in Joy Gordon, Cool War, Harper's Magazine, November 2002.

lf any international act in the last decade is sure to generate enduring bitterness toward the United States, it is the epidemic suffering needlessly visited on Iraqis via U.S. fiat inside the United Nations Security Council. Within that body, the United States has consistently thwarted Iraq from satisfyng its most basic humanitarian needs, using sanctions as nothing less than a deadly weapon, and, despite recent reforms, continuing to do so. Invoking security concerns -including those not corroborated by U.N. weapons inspectors- U.S. policymakers have effectively turned a program of international governance into a legitimized act ot mass slaughter.

Sanctions imposed on Iraq have been comprehensive, meaning that virtually every aspect of the country's imports and exports is controlled. There is no documentation

All U.N. records that could answer my questions were kept from public scrutiny. Documents are unavailable that show how the U.S. policy agenda has determined the outcome of humanitarian and security judgments.

General assessment: U.N. agencies lacking in openness. U.S. purposely minimizing humanitarian goods delivery, causing high child mortality, epidemics

The operation of Iraq sanctions involves numerous agencies within the United Nations.
  1. The Security Council's 661 Committee (so called because of Security Council Resolution 661, which initially imposed sanctions on Iraq) is generally responsible for both enforcing the sanctions and granting humanitarian exemptions.
  2. The Office of Iraq Programme (OIP), within the U.N. Secretariat, operates the Oil for Food Programme. he Office of Iraq Programme does not release information on which countries are blocking contracts, nor does any other body. Access to the minutes of the Security Council's 661 Committee is restricted. The committee operates by consensus, effectively giving every member veto power.
  3. Humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organisation work in Iraq to monitor and improve the population's welfare, periodically reporting their findings to the 661 Committee.
These agencies have been careful not to publicly discuss their ongoing frustration with the manner in which the program is operated.

Over the last three years (2000 - 2002), through research and interviews with diplomats, U.N. staff, scholars, and joumalists, I have acquired many of the key confidential U.N. documents concerning the administration of Iraq sanctions. I obtained these documents, on the condition that my sources remain anonymous.

What they show is that the United States has fought aggressively throughout the last decade to purposely minimize the humanitarian goods that enter the country. And it has done so in the face of enormous human suffering, including massive increases in child mortality and widespread epidemics.

Introduction: Iraq's pre-Gulf war extensive social, health care and economic programs

Saddam Hussein's government is well known for its human-rights abuses against the Kurds and Shi'ites, and for its invasion of Kuwait. What is less well known is that this same, government had also invested heavily in health, education, and social programs for two decades prior to the Persian Gulf War. While the treatment of ethnic minorities and political enemies has been abominable under Hussein, it is also the case that the well-being of the society at large improved drarnatically. The social programs and economic development continued, and expanded, even during Iraq's grueling and costly war with Iran from 1980 to 1988, a war that Saddam Hussein might not have survived without substantial U.S. backing. Before the Persian Gulf War, Iraq was a rapidly developing country, with free education, ample electricity, modernized agriculture, and a robust middle class. According to the World Health Organization, 93 percent of the population had access to health care.

U.N. Secretary General's 1991 Envoy: imminent epidemics and famine, U.S. Intelligence: degraded medical conditions

The devastation of the Golf War and the sanctions that preceded and sustained such devastation changed all that. Often forgotten is the fact that sanctions were imposed before the war -in August of 1990- in direct response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. After the liberation of Kuwait, sanctions were maintained, their focus shifted to disarmament. In 1991, a few months after the end of the war, the U.N. secretary general's envoy reported that Iraq was facing a crisis in the areas of food, water, sanitation, and health, as well as elsewhere in its entire infrastructure, and predicted an "imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemics and famine, if massive lifesupporting needs are not rapidly met." U.S. intelligence assessments took the same view. A Defense Department evaluation noted that "Degraded medical conditions in Iraq are primarily attributable to the breakdown of public services (water purification and distribution, preventive medicine, water disposal, health-care services, electricity, and transportation). . . . Hospital care is degraded by lack of running water and electricity."

Holds on imports: figures

Iraq cannot legally export or import any goods, including oil, outside the U.N. sanctions system. The Oil for Food Programme, intended as a limited and temporary emergency measure, was first offered to Iraq in 1991, and was rejected. It was finally put into place in 1996. Under the programme, Iraq was permitted to sell a limited amount of oil (until 1999, when the limits were removed), and is allowed to use almost 60 percent of the proceeds to buy humanitarfan goods (25 percent of the proceeds are reserved for reparations to Kuwait.) Nearly everything for Iraq's entire infrastructure - electricity, roads, telephones, water treatment - as well as much of the equipment and supplies related to food and medicine has been subject to Security Council review. In practice, this has meant that the United States and Britain subjected hundreds of contracts to elaborate scrutiny, without the involvement of any other country on the council; and after that scrutiny, the United States, only occasionally seconded by Britain, consistently blocked or delayed hundreds of humanitarian contracts. The severe limits of funds created a permanent humanitarian crisis.

In response to U.S. demands, the U.N. worked with suppliers to provide the United States with detailed information about the goods and how they would be used, and repeatedly expanded its monitoring system, tracking each item from contracting through delivery and installation, ensuring that the imports are used for legitimate civilian purposes.

In a 661 Committee meeting on March 20, 2000, UNICEF official A.R. Singh made a presentation on the deplorable humanitarian situation in Iraq: of the children in south and central governorates

  1. 25 percent suffered from chronic malnutrition (often irreversibly),
  2. 9 percent from acute malnutrition, and
  3. child-mortality rates had more than doubled since the imposition of sanctions.

Excessive numbers of holds, dual-use goods

Dual-use goods, of course, are the ostensible target of sanctions, since they are capable of contributing to Iraq's military capabilities. But the problem remains that many of the tools necessary for a country simply to function could easily be considered dual use. Challenges: Many members of the Secunty Council have been sharply critical of the hold practices. In the April 20, 2000 meeting members of the 661 Committee challenged the legitimacy of the U.S. decisions to impede the humanitarian contracts. The British and American delegates justified their position on the grounds that the items on hold were dual-use goods that should be monitored, and that they could not approve them without getting detailed technical information. But the French delegate challenged this explanation:
  1. there was an elaborate monitoring mechanism for telecommunications equipment, he pointed out, and
  2. the International Telecommunication Union had been involved in assessing projects. Yet, he said, there were holds on almost 90 percent of telecommunications contracts.
  3. Similarly, there was already an effective monitoring mechanism for oil equipment that existed for some time; yet the holds on oil conracts remained high.
  4. Nor was it the case, he suggested, that providing prompt, detailed technical information was sufficient to get holds released: a French contract for the supply of ventilators for intensive-care units had been on hold for more than five months, despite his govemment's prompt and detailed response to a request for additional technical information and the obvious humanitarian character of the goods.
The water tanker example: In 2001 the United States blocked contracts for water tankers, on the grounds that they might be used to haul chemical weapons instead. Yet the arms experts at UNMOVIC (the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Committee), had no objection to them: water tankers with that particular type of lining, they maintained, were not on the "1051 list" - the list of goods that require notice to U.N. weapons inspectors. Still, the United States insisted on blocking the water tankers -this during a time when the major cause of child deaths was lack of access to clean drinking water, and when the country was in the midst of a drought.

U.S. - UNMOVIC disagreement: Thus, even though the United States justified blocking humanitarian goods out of concern over security and potential military use, U.S. blocked contracts that the U.N.'s own agency charged with weapons inspections did not object to. And the quantities were large. As of September 2001, "1051 disagreement," involved nearly 200 humanitarian contracts.

Beyond its consistent blocking of dual use goods, the United States found many ways to slow approval of contracts.

Collapse of the water system, anticipated by Pentagon official in 1991

The United States anticipated the collapse of the Iraqi water system early on. In January 1991, shortly before the Persian Gulf War began and six months into the sanctions, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency projected that, under the embargo, Iraq's ability to provide clean drinking water would collapse within six months. Chemicals for water treatment, the agency noted, "are depleted or nearing depletion," chlorine supplies were "critically low", the main chlorine-production plants had been shut down, and industries such as pharmaceuticals and food processing were already becoming incapacitated. "Unless the water is purified with chlorine," the agency concluded, "epidemics of such diseases as cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid could occur." ("Iraq Water Treamwnt Vulnerabilities," Defense Intellligence Agency, January 18, 1991.)

Yet U.S. policy on water-supply contracts remained as aggressive as ever.

Among the many deprivations Iraq has experienced, none is so closely correlated with deaths as its damaged water system.

Child mortality

Since the Oil for Food Programme began, an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 have died as a result of the sanctions. Child mortality rate for Iraqi children under five years old was In earty 2001, the United States had placed hold on $280 million in medical supplies, including The rationale was that the vaccines contained live cultures, albeit highly weakened ones, The Iraqi government, it was argued, could conceivably extract these, and eventually grow a vitutent fatal strain, then develop a missile or other delivery system that could effectively disseminate it. UNICEF and U.N. health agencies, along with other Security Council members, objected strenuously. European biologieal-weapons experts maintained that such a feat was in fact flatly impossible.

At the same time, with massive epidemics ravaging the country, and skyrocketing child mortality, it was quite certain that preventing child vaccines from entering Iraq would result in Iarge numbers of child and infant deaths. As late as in March 2001, when the Washington Post and Reuters reported on the holds - and their impact- the United States announced it was lifting them.

Targeting sanctions and Goods Review List (May 2002) to buy security council approval

A few months later in 2001, the United States began aggressively and publicly pushing a proposal for "smart sanctions", sometimes known as "targeted sanctions". The idea behind smart sanctions is to "contour" sanctions so that they affect the military and the political leadership instead of the citizenry. Basic civilian necessities, the State Department claimed, would be handled by the U.N. Secretariat, bypassing the Security Council. Under the new system, UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency make the initial determination about whether an item appeears on the GRL, which includes only those materials questionable enough to be passed on to the Security CounciL The list is precise and public, but huge. Cobbled together from existing U.N. and other international lists and precedents, the GRL has been virtually customized to accommodate the imaginative breadth of U.S. policyrnakers' security concerns.


Some would say that the lessons to be learned from September 11 is that we must be even more aggressive in protecting what we see as our security interests. But perhaps that's the wrong lesson altogether. It is worth remembering that the worst destruction done on U.S. soil by foreign enemies was accomplished with little more than hatred, ingenuity, and box cutters. Perhaps what we should leam from our own reactions to September 11 is that the massive destruction of innocents is something that is unlikely to be either forgotten or forgiven. If this is so, then destroying Iraq, whether with sanctions or with bombs, is unlikely to bring the security we have gone to such lengths to preserve.

version: February 25, 2004
URL of this page
Send comments to Joachim Gruber