Dr. Kamil Mahdi: The Iraq Sanctions Debate: Destruction of a People


Dr. Kamil Mahdi
The Iraq Sanctions Debate: Destruction of a People


Source: Middle East International - December 24, 1999

As the Security Council comes up with a new sanctions and disarmament resolution, Kamil Mahdi challenges the received wisdom that the embargo targets the regime’s hold on power or its weapons capability.

The term “sanctions” is applied to very different sets of measures, but those against Iraq stand out as the most comprehensive and severe ever imposed. The term “blockade” invoking medieval siege practices, may be more appropriate. Air travel is barred; sea-lanes were totally blockaded and now are only partially open for Iraqi passengers who have virtually no chance of obtaining a visa to any of the destination ports. Many foreign legations have closed their doors and anyone wishing to travel abroad for any purpose has to take the road to Jordan, the only land route that is open for normal passenger traffic. In Jordan, foreign embassies treat Iraqis in a degrading manner and usually refuse them travel visas. If an Iraqi applies for a visa through the British Consulate in Amman, he or she will be asked to make an astonishingly detailed declaration about their life and resources. If they declare that they have a bank account in London, possibly a residual few hundred pounds from an earlier stay many years ago, the chances are that the information will be used to freeze the bank account, rather than to facilitate a visa. . Exceptions are not normally made on grounds of health or compassion. One can understand how urbane officials administering such a cruel regime find themselves dispensing with customary civilities.

What applies to travel extends to cultural and social exchanges. A person could be arrested in Britain for posting a book or sending medicines to a friend or relative in Iraq without prior authorisation from the Department of Trade and Industry. Iraqis are deemed to be in a prison: letters are allowed, but little else. The blockade is enforced even more stringently in financial matters. International banking has ceased to operate in Iraq, except under the oil-for-food programme. Personal and private business transfers are forbidden, and individuals have to operate illegally, usually at both ends of the transaction and along the way too. The costs of such activities are a very heavy burden on the population, and the alienating cultural impact has incalculable consequences for the future of the country. Iraqis wonder what any of this has to do with President Saddam Hussain’s military designs, and how it is supposed to help them reclaim their civil and democratic rights from the dictatorship which has been denying them since long before sanctions were imposed.

All of the above is at the direct individual level, where sanctions are indisputably targeted at the people, i.e. at Iraqis by virtue of being Iraqi. At the broader levels of society and economy, the sanctions have been aimed at undermining all the state’s functions without discriminating between its social and economic roles and its regulatory functions, and its political and security ones. By first blockading and then controlling and limiting all trade into and out of the country, the sanctions have deprived the state of the major part of its revenues, and cut the economy off from essential material and technological resources which international trade provides. The result could not be anything other than economic paralysis, massive unemployment and the collapse of earnings.

Aiding the regime

The resultant misery has not been shared equally by all Iraq’s population. The regime has not been willing to make sacrifices in terms of its own welfare and security in order to be closer to the people in their suffering. But this deplorable behaviour is no justification for world powers deliberately setting out to engineer economic catastrophe. The consequences of such a catastrophe will be with Iraq and the rest of the region for generations to come. The longer the present situation continues, the more difficult it will be for the country to recover the range of resources, the organisational ability and the political stability necessary to achieve a recovery.

The desperate economic situation has made violence and corruption increasingly prevalent and reduced the regime to paralysis vis-à-vis social and economic affairs. It is unable to introduce political reform. Instead, it responds with greater violence, and tolerates, even encourages, corruption in all areas of public and private life. The regime is also taking refuge in primeval practices and arcane institutions that are dangerous and divisive. None of this should be surprising, since this is an unpopular regime which lacks legitimacy and which is fighting for its survival against external pressures. These circumstances are combining to further undermine Iraq’s social cohesion and its national institutions of education, administration and welfare.

Moreover, sanctions do not encourage the emergence of a moderate democratic alternative to the present regime. A genuine alternative cannot emerge in circumstances where the fate of a people is determined by external powers. The Iraqi people have bitter experience with the policies of the United States and Britain, both during their war against the country’s civilian infrastructure and when they previously supported for Saddam’s dictatorship. The US and Britain are perceived to have manipulated domestic and regional conflicts to the detriment of the people of the region. Iraqis will not be rushing to support an opposition that is tainted by the charge of subservience to either of these two powers. Nevertheless, the United States in particular, loses no opportunity to emphasise the dependence of certain Iraqi groups on its munificence and goodwill, thus in effect acting to stain and paralyse all opposition to the present regime.

Collapse of society

Iraq’s pre-1990 economy and social structure, have been destroyed by the massive bombardment of 1991 and by the sanctions regime. A new and unstable set of social relations is slowly developing to replace classes and social groups that have been decimated by the collapse of their former economic positions, status and social networks, not to mention their health, livelihood and security. Until a new society with some degree of stability emerges, it would be hard to imagine a coherent and successful challenge to the present structure of power. The regime’s power structures have been better able to adapt to Iraq’s catastrophic decade than the majority of Iraqis. Sanctions have not only caused enormous suffering and alienated the Iraqi people from the rest of the world, but they have also given a discredited and moribund regime a new lease of life and a role in holding back the slide to total chaos.

Economic and political sanctions against Iraq are now in their tenth year. Their original rationale was to help force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait without the need to go to war. Subsequently, they were maintained with the new objective of ensuring compliance specific disarmament measures. In both cases, the Iraqi government resisted the demands of the United Nations. However, one way or the other it relented, and both the withdrawal and the disarmament have long been completed. Iraq has submitted to highly intrusive inspections, and accepts long-term monitoring on the basis of Resolution 687. The US, on the other hand, has been violating those articles of that resolution it does not find convenient, and it has used the UN Disarmament Commission UNSCOM for illegal purposes of espionage and for objectives unrelated to the terms specified by the UN. UNSCOM is now discredited and defunct.

Complete verification of disarmament is impossible. It is possible to destroy weapons programmes, but it is impossible to destroy a modern country’s capability to produce chemical and biological weapons without destroying the country and its people. What UNSCOM, the US and Britain have been demanding is impossible to achieve without genocide. The destruction or subversion of all industrial plant deemed to be of possible dual use is nothing short of the destruction of an economy and of the people who depend on it.

Control without responsibility

As happened at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, a new resolution has now been produced by the Security Council to give a facade of legitimacy to a policy that has deviated from its declared objective and lost all credibility. Yet again, the lifting of economic sanctions is being linked to a new and added set of conditions. The power of sanctions may have forced the regime to destroy Iraq’s proscribed weapons, and it has been argued that sanctions alone could have forced the regime to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991 without resort to war. But no matter how powerful a weapon these sanctions are, they cannot destroy the regime itself. This is because, to borrow from recent war terminology, the damage they do to the regime is collateral damage in a war against society.

The present and proposed oil-for-food arrangements are designed to be limited and ineffectual. They treat Iraq as a massive refugee camp to be provided with emergency relief. What Iraqis need is to be able regenerate their economy and resume reconstruction and development. This means that essential services and the infrastructure have to be given a high priority, and the import programme has to be geared to raising domestic production. This is impossible under the political and bureaucratic shackles of the Security Council. Iraq’s economic administration has to be rejuvenated. A measure of certainty and stability is essential for proper economic functioning, and that means an end to economic sanctions. The oil-for-food arrangement is bizarre in that it gives absolute power to a tiny incongruous group of civil servants from other countries, over the lives and livelihoods of the people of Iraq. It is the most extreme of centrally planned systems, managed with neither technical competence nor with the desire to achieve economic success.

The oil-for-food arrangement is portrayed as a humanitarian gesture. Yet, the main beneficiaries are the Western powers and not the hapless people of Iraq. Over $5 billion generated by this programme are held in an escrow account in New York, largely as a result of delays and disruptions caused by US and British objections to import programmes agreed with the UN. Moreover, these billions are themselves taken from a residual of other deductions. While Iraq’s basic humanitarian needs are not met, its resources are diverted to a “compensation” fund against which western companies have been allowed to claim. Iraq has been forced to accept this arrangement simply to fend off famine. Future generations of Iraqis may well take a different view, and this is likely to rekindle conflicts.

Discrediting the opposition

Under the system of sanctions and oil-for-food regimes, outside powers - effectively the US - have taken full control of Iraq’s resources and destiny without bearing any of the responsibility for the welfare of its people. They continue to claim that the welfare of the population, or the lack of it, is the sole responsibility of the Baghdad regime. What Iraq needs is not more war and external violence to add to its internal conflicts, but a new political process.

Yet the US uses the rationale for sanctions to also pre-empt and destroy all political dialogue that might involve concessions by the Iraqi regime to its people. There is a US veto against the Kurdish parties entering into any form of dialogue with the government in Baghdad, and the US opposes all efforts to reconcile Iraq with its Arab neighbours. As an unofficial part of the sanctions policy, any understanding between Iraq and its neighbours is viewed with hostility and suspicion.

Nine years after the Gulf war, the discourse has not shifted towards effective practical measures of assisting the people of Iraq and addressing the increasingly complex issues of their economic, social and political rights by means of creating an environment that is conducive to domestic and regional dialogue. For the US and Britain, blockade, containment and the threat of war still seem the order of the day. This is precisely what Saddam Hussain has been best able to survive.l

Dr Kamil Mahdi
Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter
Old Library
Exeter EX4 4JZ


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