Sanctions - our moral problem


PressInfo # 173

 March 4, 2003

By Jan Oberg, TFF director and Christian Hårleman, TFF Boardmember


For many decision-makers it is convenient to focus on the brutality of the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein and leave the deeply inhuman consequences of our sanctions over the last 12 years untold. But, in the eyes of a visitor to Iraq, the moral high ground of the West has crumbled. Before going to Iraq, we too were quite ignorant about the facts and complexities; we were shocked by the reality.

During our fact-finding missions we collected statistics from international organisations, interviewed virtually all the heads of missions of the United Nations and humanitarian organisations. We met with Iraqi officials and visited hospitals.


Playing down the effects of our sanctions - without evidence

Governments that have no embassies and no independent fact-finding in Iraq can hardly know much. They must base their policies on what is politically correct and convenient for their policies in relation to other issues and other countries.

Thus, for instance, the Swedish minister of foreign affairs, Ms. Anna Lindh, has repeatedly stated that the people of Iraq suffer because of Saddam Hussein's wrong priorities and not because of the sanctions. She asserts that a) the elite have received advanced medical technology to treat cancer, but not the people; and b) that since the oil export ceiling was lifted in 1999, Iraq now exports more oil than ever. This presumably implies that there is enough money to care for people's needs. Other politicians have used similar arguments, and the media willingly forwards them without research or further questions asked.

Unfortunately, statements like these are not backed up by evidence. And they do not cover even a fraction of the comprehensive truth about the situation in Iraq.


 © 2003 Jan Oberg

Children in the bazaar area, Baghdad 2003


The basic facts

We have collected basic statistics concerning the lives of the Iraqis from recent, open United Nations reports that we obtained in Iraq in January 2003. (Thus, they could have been collected by any scholar, journalist and parliamentary delegation who wanted to know).

The data covers the changes that have taken place since the late 1980s and early 1990s, i.e. a period in which the regime has not conducted any wars. When discussing the effects of the sanctions, it is not enough to compare the situation in 1996 when the Oil for Food Programme began to be implemented with today. It is true that several improvements have taken place during that period. The essential fact is that all statistical indicators dropped in the preceding period between 1991 to 1995; Iraq wanted to care for its own people in spite of the sanctions, and the government - like the international community - had no idea that sanctions would last more than a decade and cripple society to the extent they did.

Second, the statistics compare the present situation with the time when the Iran-Iraq war, the Kuwait invasion and the allied war on Iraq had already reduced the quality of life in the country. For instance, you will see that today's GNP per capita is 15 per cent of what it was after these terrible events.



Iraqi population: roughly 24 million in 2000. Some 45% of the total population is under 14 years of age, only 4% is over 65.



- Infant mortality: 47/1000 in late 1980s, 107 now.

- Under-five child mortality: 56/1000 ten years ago, today 131.

- Child death causes: 70% due to diarrhoea, dehydration and acute respiratory infections.

- Malnutrition: Acute 8%, underweight 20%, chronic 30%

- Water: 5 million without safe water. Between 1990 and 2000, the daily per capita amount of potable water in both urban and rural areas decreased by more than 50%.

- People attending outpatient clinics for mental/psychological disorders: 200,000 in 1990 and 510,000 in 1998.



- No longer attending primary school: 31% girls, 18% boys

- No longer attending secondary school: 50% boys and 60% girls

- Teacher salary: US $ 3-5; shifts, classes of up to 60 pupils, outdated curriculum

5,100 new school buildings need to be built, 70% of existing schools need rehabilitation

- Literacy rate 1998: 58%, used to be much higher in the 1980s due to literacy campaigns; thus, adult literacy rate was 72% in 1987.

- Female illiteracy has increased from 8% in 1985 to 45% in 1995.



- GNP per capita/year down almost 7-fold since 1990 to US$700

- Value of Dinar: 0,33 to the dollar in 1990, 20,000 to the dollar in 2002; devaluation 6000%

- Oil revenue: 35 billion dollars between 1996 and November 2002

- Since 1991, Iraq's rank on UNDP's Human Development Index fell from 96 to 127, out of 174. No other country has fallen so far, so fast. In 1990, Iraq ranked three places above Jordan; by 2000, it ranked 34 places below.

- Pre-Gulf War debts US$ 130 to 180 billion, 25% of oil income given away for war reparations (to Kuwait).



Roughly 3.7 million families currently receive an average of 2,470 kcal per person per day from the food ration. Food ration is distributed by the Iraqi government through 40,000 shops.


*Statistics from various UN organisations' publications obtained by TFF in Baghdad 2003.


 © 2003 Jan Oberg

Father and son selling their books, Baghdad 2003


Other things you may not know about the sanctions


A few other facts should be added:

a) There is no cash component for central and southern Iraq.

Iraq as such does not receive cash for the oil it exports. Through the Oil for Food Programme, it receives food rations, medicine and goods (such as spare parts, trucks, etc.) that must first be approved by the UN Sanctions Committee. Nothing can enter the country legally unless decided by that committee. If an item is considered "dual use", i.e. can also be used for military purposes, Iraq will not be allowed to import it. Only northern Iraq gets cash and special programmes (see b); central and southern gets no cash for the oil. Since the cash component philosophy is based on a series of conditions, among them that the international community must control the country and secure that the cash can't be diverted for the "wrong" purposes, it has been unacceptable to Baghdad .


b) Iraq finances all "humanitarian aid" through its oil export.

For the value of its oil export, Iraq receives:

59% in humanitarian supplies for the centre and south covering food, health, medicine, transport and food handling, water and sanitation, housing, electricity, education, irrigation, agriculture, telecommunication, etc.

25% goes to a compensation fund, e.g. payments to Kuwait for the war.

13% goes to humanitarian programmes in the north (Dahuk, Erbil, Suleimaniyah).

2.2% goes to cover operations costs such as distribution and monitoring, bank-related charges, oil and customs inspections, experts assisting the Sanctions Committee, etc.

0.8% to the administration of the UN weapons inspection programme.

So, at best 71% of the oil money comes back, in goods. Only the northern, mainly Kurdish, minority enjoys preferential treatment and cash. The cash that enters Iraq is brought in through "secret" oil export, smuggling, petty traders and the Mafia.


c) The items are distributed through the Iraqi government system.

Iraqi families are registered in a local shop where they pick up their monthly ration. There are about 40,000 such shops, supplied by the government. It's the largest food distribution project in a single country in the history of the United Nations. According to all international sources we have spoken with, this functions effectively given the overall socio-economic situation. This means that the people are extremely dependent on the present government. Should a new war destroy the food distribution system and/or topple the government, destroy roads, buildings, etc., UN mission assess that there could be mass famine in Iraq within 6-8 weeks. In addition, people who flee from their present homes will not get rations elsewhere, only where they are registered today.


d) The food rations are not sufficient.

The monthly food baskets cover no more than the needs of about 25 days. Even so, about 40 per cent of the families have to sell items to get enough cash to buy clothes or other necessities. The main reason, of course, is that after three wars and twelve years of sanctions, very few beyond the Mafia, the elite around the leadership and the extremely wealthy have anything left. They have long ago sold their jewellery, books, art, porcelain, furniture, etc. - all of which foreigners can now buy in "antique" shops in Baghdad.


 © 2003 Jan Oberg

Items from the food ration


e) Iraq's oil export revenue is far from enough to finance development.

Between December 1996 and the end of 2002, Iraq exported oil to the value of US $ 61 billion. Oil industry experts stated in 1998 that the country's oil industry was in a "lamentable state". It exported fewer barrels in 2001 and 2002 than it did in 1999 and 2000, according to UN statistics of January 2003. While oil revenues for 2000 were roughly US$ 18 billion, they were roughly 11 billion in 2001 and 11 billion in 2002.


f) Sanctions kill innocent Iraqis and suffocate Iraqi society.

The sanctions have killed an estimated 500,000 to 1 million innocent Iraqis since 1991. The estimates have been done by different UN agencies, among them UNICEF. They are not Iraqi propaganda. The deaths took place particularly before 1996 when the Oil for Food Programme began to be implemented. A typical expression among internationals in Baghdad is that the sanctions are the main contributors to the fact that a whole generation of young Iraqis have been lost. That's what the health and schooling statistics above confirm. And the young were supposed to be those who reconstruct and democratise Iraq. But how?


Inhuman and counterproductive sanctions - the two cages

So, what have we done since the "international community" decided to punish Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait back in 1991?

In the name of the United Nations, too, we have caused a genocide. We have deprived millions of people of the human right to health, education and welfare, something that was an integral part of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein's development policy. We have caused de-development throughout Iraqi society, the largest and fastest fall in human development ever registered.

In the process, we have - unwisely - crushed the educated middle class that existed there; Iraq is now a mass of deprived people and a small elite of very wealthy people. This means that we have also made the people dependent, even for their daily food, upon the leader we allegedly wanted to punish, weaken and topple. We have crushed the social forces that could have pushed for democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedom in Iraq. We have caused many to leave Iraq.


 © 2003 Jan Oberg

Boy in car in Rasheed Street, Baghdad


We, the authors, would not be surprised if the Iraqi political and military leaders get what they need - and more. The Swedish minister of foreign affairs may well be right here. But are we really to believe that the consumption and life style of these few thousands explain why the remaining 23-point-something million people suffer the terrible way they do?

The people of Iraq were not responsible for the invasion of Kuwait. But they, not Saddam, have been punished, put in prison for 12 years. They have lost hope. They live inside the inner cage of the regime and the outer cage of our sanctions. They know very well who has insisted on keeping the sanctions in place, and it would be wise to ask whether they are likely to receive foreign occupiers as liberators?



Stop the three wars on Iraq and heal Iraq together with its people

Finally, there is much talk about a new military war these days. But a war is already on; bombing raids have been conducted by the U.S. and U.K. in the no-fly zones for years and are now being stepped up. Foreign "special forces" already operate in Iraq. In addition, the citizens of central and southern Iraq have been victims of economic warfare every day since 1991. They are also objects of propaganda warfare. Their voices have seldom been heard, and documentaries about their situation are not exactly flooding our television screens. The media show pictures only of Saddam with his rifles and swords. We shall remember that Iraq is one bad guy and not 24 million fellow citizens in deep need of our sympathy, empathy and compassion. We even let them pay for the humanitarian aid that became necessary to keep them alive in a living hell.

A tiny minority of governments may soon bomb, invade, occupy and control Iraq, or try to. Even if conventional, the firepower will be mass-destructive to the people. The United States and the United Kingdom plan to use nuclear weapons "if necessary." How can they even think of doing that against a country in which half of the people are children and youth who have lived all their life in misery? Where is the Swedish and other governments' diplomatic protests at the callous idea that nuclear - and chemical - weapons could be used against Iraq?


 © 2003 Jan Oberg

When will our policies take youth into account?


Sanctions are our mass-destructive weapon. Since 1991, simple facts tell us that sanctions have killed and harmed more people and destroyed more of society's qualities than Saddam presumably ever did. And now a new war? Shall there be no end to our ignorance and cruelty?

These are dark and increasingly mad times. The West seems so morally weak that we cannot take an open discussion about the deeply inhuman consequences of our own morally bankrupt policies. It's easier to blame everything on Saddam, "the Evil", and insist that we are only doing good. Reality is that we stand on the top of a Mount Everest of propaganda, ignorance, and lies. All wars require such - convenient - ignorance and lies.

Instead of war, we ought to lift the sanctions, apologise to the Iraqi people, beg their forgiveness and help them get back to normal, sooner rather than later. If we did, they could then take action to decide their own future. We certainly have no right to do it for them.


PressInfo 176 explains why the sanctions will never be lifted by the Security Council.



© TFF 2003



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