Iraq - Twelve Years of Sanctions:
Justified Punishment or Illegal Treatment?


PressInfo # 167

December 6, 2002



H.C. Graf von Sponeck

UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (1998-2000)

TFF Associate


A presentation at the Zayed Centre for Coordination & Follow-up
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 26 November 2002


The Beginning of Sanctions

1. The 2 August 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq led to UN Security Council resolution 661 of 6 August 1990 imposing military, economic and financial sanctions on Iraq with the objective of ending Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

2. Following the Gulf War and Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, the UN Security Council on 3 April 1991 adopted resolution 687. This resolution extends comprehensive economic and financial sanctions to Iraq to be lifted only when the UN Security Council confirms that Iraq has carried out the destruction, removal or rendering harmless, under international supervision, of all chemical and biological weapons as well as ballistic missiles with a range of more than 150 kilometers. (a)

3. Resolution 661 demanded 'withdrawal from Kuwait'; resolution 687 calls for Iraq's disarmament as a condition for ending sanctions. This is the first of many changes of parameters which were introduced by the UN Security Council during 12 years of sanctions. Such changes contributed to the slow pace of Iraqi compliance with the provisions of resolution 687 and Iraqi insistence that paragraph 14 of this resolution be implemented. This provision calls for the eventual establishment in the Middle East of a zone free from weapons of mass destruction. Iraq maintains that its compliance with disarmament of its WMD arsenal without similar steps taken by other countries in the Middle East, particularly Israel, reflects an international double standard.

4. Why have changes of parameters occurred in the early 1990s and continued up to the present time? It is argued here and subsequently elaborated that a US-led UN Security Council would not be agreeable to the lifting of the embargo as long as the Government of President Saddam Hussein remains in office.


The Human Condition in the immediate post-war period

5. At the time of Iraq's invasion into Kuwait many of Iraq's social and economic indicators were similar to those of the most highly industrialized countries, for example in the sectors of health, education and communications. The Gulf war brought this to a sudden end. UN Under Secretary General Maati Ahtisari, visiting Iraq in early March 1991, indicated: "... nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for .... the devastation which has...befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results....Iraq has for some time to come been relegated to a pre-industrial age." (b)

6. A mixture of national pride and hope to return to political normalization after the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, in fulfillment of resolution 661, explains the Iraq Government's reluctance to accept a sanction-based humanitarian programme which was to be financed entirely from Iraqi resources but under UN control. The UN reacted by launching international appeals for contributions to finance amounted to emergency health and feeding programmes. Five appeals during the period January 1992 to March 1996 identified requirements valued at $ 1.4 billion. A miserly international community, however, donated only $ 419 million or a mere 32% of the needed resources.


The Oil-for-Food Programme

7. The serious spread of diseases with rising mortality, particularly among children, and chronic malnutrition pressured the Iraq Government and the United Nations to come to an agreement in January 1996 to implement UN Security Council resolution 986 of 14 April 1995. This resolution created what has become known as the oil-for-food programme and refers to it as a 'temporary measure' to provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. The UN furthermore conveyed to the Iraqi Government that the resources made available from Iraqi oil assets would be seen as 'supplemental' to Iraq's own locally available commodities such as food.

8. The UN Security Council allocated $ 2 billion for each phase of six months to cover food, medicines, agricultural inputs, repair of water supply and sanitation systems, electricity supply and education requirements as well as the deduction of 30% for the UN Compensation Commission (c) and UN administrative overheads of 3%. This left a net amount for the oil-for-food programme of $ 1.3 billion or $ 59 per person/phase equal to 32 cents per person/per day to meet all the needs of life! The impact on the human condition of such an allocation was severe and forced the UN to double this allocation from mid-1997 (phase IV) onwards.

9. Funding at such a level can not be considered a 'humanitarian' response to protect an innocent civilian population. Subsequent international assessments by UN and non-UN agencies have confirmed that during this period the physical and social conditions in Iraq rapidly deteriorated.


The Legal Framework

10. Article 24(2) of the UN Charter explicitly states that the UN Security Council must discharge its duties "in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations." The low level of resources approved by the UN Security Council and the diversion of 30% to meet compensation claims outside of Iraq and the blocking of humanitarian supplies by the representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom on the UN Security Council, allegedly for fear of dual use by Iraq, (d) shows the disregard for article 24(2) and underlines the punitive nature of the UN Security Council's Iraq policy.

11. This is further demonstrated by the fact that the key resolutions determining the UN Iraq policy, resolutions 687 of 1991 and 1284 of 1999 are both imprecise in their wording and therefore subject to arbitrary interpretation of the extent of Iraq's compliance in disarmament. 687 insists that Iraq must have completed "all its actions contemplated" and 1284 underlines that Iraq must have "cooperated in all respects". The act of determining that conditions prevail which allow the lifting of economic and financial sanctions is therefore reduced to a subjective or political decision. What US officials have referred to as "constructive ambiguity" has in fact resulted in a disabling liability for the Iraqi population which is meant to be protected by international law.


The Human Condition after a Decade of Sanctions

12. The UN Security Council has been entrusted by the community of nations to monitor the impact of its policies. The President of the UN Security Council had to remind the Council in January 1999 that this oversight responsibility in the case of Iraq had to be taken seriously. This important reminder led the UN Security Council to appoint the 'Amorim Panel' on humanitarian issues. This panel concluded in March 1999 :"Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivation in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war." (e)

13. In a report of the UN Economic and Social Council of June 2000 about the adverse consequences of economic sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights, it is stated that "the sanction regime against Iraq is unequivocally illegal under existing international humanitarian law and human rights law."(f) The reality of the horrific human conditions in Iraq had led a UK House of Commons committee of MPs representing all parties to conclude in January 2000:"We find it difficult…to believe that there will be a case in the future where the UN would be justified in imposing comprehensive economic sanctions on a country…The UN will lose credibility if it advocates the rights of the poor whilst at the same time causing… their further impoverishment."(g)

14. As a result of such clear statements from multilateral as well as bilateral sources, the UN Security Council decided to review options to the existing sanction regime. A long debate of almost a year ended in May 2002 with the adoption of UN resolution 1409. The purpose of this resolution was to introduce more 'targetted' or 'smart' sanctions thereby confirming that sanctions against Iraq during the previous 12 years had indiscriminately punished the Iraqi population as a whole. Concurrently, the UN Security Council, under pressure from the US and UK Governments, introduced retro-active pricing for oil contracts. This was meant to end a system of surcharges levied on oil traders by the Government of Iraq to obtain access to cash.(h) This has entirely wiped out the benefits targeted sanctions, as envisaged in resolution 1409, could have had for the Iraqi population. Retro-active pricing has resulted in a dramatic fall in oil exports and a consequent sharp decrease in the revenue needed to finance phase XII of the oil-for-food programme. It is expected that less than 60% of the budget of $5.08 billion will have been earned for this phase. As of end-November $ 2.6 billion worth of humanitarian contracts concluded during phase XII could not be executed due to lack of funds. The negative implications for the people of Iraq are obvious.

15. Those who unrelentingly advocate the maintenance of comprehensive economic and financial sanctions against Iraq argue that the evidence of deprivation and suffering of the people of Iraq offered by reputable international governmental and non-governmental organizations is not convincing since 'Iraqi Government statistics' are involved. This is part of an organized campaign to misrepresent the Iraqi reality.(i) Part of this effort has been to prevent continuous reporting to the UN Security Council on the evolving human catastrophe by the Iraq-based UN team. Instead the standard reporting to the Council is little more than 'accounting' of oil-for-food commodity arrivals rather than comprehensive analyses of social conditions under sanctions. Initiatives to broaden the scope of reporting have failed. This is not surprising since such reporting would document the implications of years of a wrong UN policy on Iraq.

16. The profile of the human condition in Iraq after twelve years of sanctions and internal repression shows a society that has been disabled in all aspects of life. The civilian population remains largely dependent on government hand-outs and is traumatized by lack of opportunities to lead a normal life and more recently by the prospects of war. The decimated middle-class has been forced to fight for survival by all means. Youth can not prepare for adulthood because of a defunct educational system. The physical environment is increasingly dangerous to health and life because of years of neglect and the unresolved issue of depleted uranium, particularly in southern Iraq.

17. Child mortality and literacy are two indicators of the seriousness of the human condition in Iraq:

a) Child mortality:

In 1990 56/1000 children under five died in Iraq; in 1999 child mortality had risen to 131/1000 children under five. A survey carried out by UNICEF in 2000 showed that the increase in child mortality in Iraq was the highest of the 18 countries surveyed. Had the trend in Iraq's child mortality of the 1980s continued in the 1990s the mortality rate would have been 25/1000, a difference of 106 children! (j)

b) Literacy:

In 1987 Iraq received a UNESCO award for having raised literacy to 80%; in 1995 according to UNICEF literacy had fallen to 55%. It is furthermore reported by this UN agency that in 2000, 23.7% of children (31.2% were girls and 17.5% were boys!) The education curriculum has not changed in twenty years; teacher training is severely neglected. (k)


Seven Conclusions:

18. Linking comprehensive economic and financial sanctions to disarmament has held the Iraqi people responsible for the acts of their government. The impact of such a policy has been devastating for an innocent population.

19. Years of increasing evidence to this effect has not resulted in UN policy changes on Iraq. The red line of demarcation between what could be defended as unavoidable 'collateral damage' and disregard of fundamental human rights and humanitarian law has been ignored by the United Nations, the very institution created to guarantee justice and protection in accordance with articles 1 and 55,(c) of the UN Charter. Exclusion of Iraqis constitutes not only a double standard in the application of international law but a serious violation of such law.

20. The pre-condition for an effective international response to this reality is the existence of a sound information base. Europe and the Middle East must take analytical self-reliance and the resulting independence of judgment significantly more serious.

21. The known existence of organized disinformation about Iraq's involvement in terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction points to the urgency of such self-reliance in information gathering.

22. The Arab League and its individual members such as the UAE Government shoulder a heavy responsibility to go beyond the conclusions of the March 2002 Beirut Summit. This implies that they consistently and strongly speak out against the continuation of comprehensive economic and financial sanctions against Iraq and take an unambiguous position against a unilateral preemptive military strike against Iraq.

23. Iraq has accepted unconditionally UN resolution 1441 of 8 November 2002. The fact that the Iraqi authorities have done so without linking their acceptance to the lifting of economic and financial sanctions shows the seriousness of their intent to cooperate. UN arms inspectors have returned to Iraq and resume their work. They must be allowed to do this work unimpeded by the Iraqi authorities as well as the international community. Governments in the region should carefully monitor this resumed inspection process and on that basis participate, directly or indirectly, in the assessment of inspection incidents in order to deprive any party of the opportunity to misrepresent realities on the ground.

24. The Secretary General of the Arab League and the President of the European Commission should join hands in monitoring the delicate implementation of UN resolution 1441 to prevent by all means a war with Iraq that would have far-reaching consequences not only for the Iraqi people but for the Middle East and the global community as a whole.



a) UN/SC resolution 687(1991), paras 8-13 and 22;

b) UN/SC doc. S/22366, 20 March 1991, para 8;

c) The UN Compensation Commission, located in Geneva, was established by UN/SC resolution 692 (1991) for the processing and payment of claims against Iraq by individuals, corporations and governments in connection with Iraq's invasion into Kuwait;

d) Only the US and UK governments are blocking humanitarian supplies for Iraq; the value of withheld goods peaked in July 2002when it reached $ 5.3 billion;

e) The 'Amorim Panel', named after Ambassador Celso Amorim (Brazil) was convened in 1999 by the UN Security Council &endash; see report S/1999/356/30 March 1999;

f) Report of the Economic and Social Council, E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/33,UN Commission of Human Rights, p. 18, para 71;

g) 'The Future of Sanctions', p.xvii, para 42, a report issued by the UK House of Commons, 27 January 2000;

h) The Government of Iraq has obtained revenue from the sale of oil outside the UN sanction regime and furthermore demanded from oil traders a surcharge varying from 10 to 40 cents/barrel. Much of this income estimated to be between $ 2-3 billion per year is required to defray national recurrent expenditures for which sanction regulations do not permit any allocation. The US/UK claim that most of this money is spent on palaces and luxury goods is false and part of a disinformation campaign;

i) Statistics which confirm the human catastrophe in Iraq are generally contested by the US & UK authorities, e.g. mortality rates identified by UNICEF in their reports of August 1999 and December 2000 are questioned by these governments and considered Iraqi 'propaganda' while UNICEF confirms that it takes full responsibility for both statistics and analysis;

j) UNICEF, The State of the World's Children 2001, Table 2;

k) UNICEF, February 2002, p.39;


© TFF 2002


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