After 20 years, UN sanctions on Iraq finally have come to an official end. Let’s consider their tragic legacy.
First, the good news:
The sanctions were successful in restraining Iraq’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction. They cut off the supply of vital nuclear-related materials. An official report of the British Foreign Office in September 2002 noted that sanctions “were hindering the impact of crucial potential nuclear-weapons applications” and “that Iraq would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon” as long as sanctions were in place.
Sanctions also prevented Saddam Hussein from rebuilding his war machine after the 1991 war. According to State Department figures, Iraqi military spending dropped from more than $22 billion in 1990, to an average of little more $1 billion annually through the 1990s. Iraq’s previously huge volume of military imports slowed to a trickle.
Sanctions pressured the Hussein regime to accept UN weapons inspections, which achieved unacknowledged success in eliminating Iraq’s nuclear and other weapons programs. UN diplomats credited the sanctions with helping to overcome Baghdad’s frequent attempts to obstruct the inspections.
The sanctions did not make Saddam Hussein less truculent or more cooperative, but they hampered his ability to threaten his neighbors and develop nuclear weapons.
Now, the bad news:
Sanctions had devastating social and humanitarian consequences. In their first six years, the sanctions blocked trade and cut off all oil exports, which accounted for more than 90 per cent of the country’s revenues. This came on top of the massive bombing campaign in the 1991 war that destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure and electrical generating capacity, including vital water and sewage pumping systems. The economy and public health systems collapsed. Preventable disease and malnutrition multiplied.
By the late 1990s the oil-for-food program moderated the impact of the sanctions so that oil revenues could be used for purchasing needed civilian goods. In 2002 the Security Council adopted the so-called smart sanctions resolution, which limited trade restrictions to military-related groups only.
The changes came too late to save Iraqi lives. Numerous research studies were conducted during the 1990s, including an assessment I commissioned while at the Fourth Freedom Forum, all with the same grim finding: hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths among Iraqi civilians. A May 2000 report in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet found that Iraqi infant mortality doubled during the 1990s.
In May 1996 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was questioned on 60 Minutes about the human toll of the sanctions.
Reporter Lesley Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.
I couldn’t disagree more. Definitely not worth it.
The story of the Iraq sanctions is one of double tragedy. Their social and economic impacts led to the premature deaths of many thousands of Iraqi children during the 1990s. Later, when they were finally restructured to avoid social harm, and were effectively restraining Iraq’s military threat, they were tossed aside in favor of an unnecessary war that has left a hundred thousand or more dead in its wake.