The resurgence in interest in the oil-for-food scandal causes many to miss a key point: the real scandal is that there was ever any need for the program.
The U.N. Security Council designed the oil-for-food program in 1995 to alleviate the effects of the embargo and economic sanctions imposed on Iraq five years earlier. At least it appeared to be intended to alleviate those effects.
The embargo was first imposed to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. It barred all trade with Iraq and ostensibly exempted only medicine and, later, food. As Iraq’s economy depended on oil sales, there was not enough money to pay for the goods necessary for people to survive.
During the war, the U.S. bombed electrical plants, oil refineries, transportation networks, water treatment facilities and other civilian infrastructure. “What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of the sanctions,” a Gulf War planning adviser told the Washington Post. A U.N. report said the bombing “wrought near-apocalyptic results” on the already devastated economic infrastructure of Iraq.
After Iraq was driven out of Kuwait, sanctions remained under another U.N. resolution, UN 687, to force Iraq to disarm. The sanctions impeded Iraq’s ability to repair the damage from the war and to acquire chemicals, like chlorine, necessary to purify water. Iraqis were supposed to boil their water, but they had no energy to heat it. Between January and August 1991 the mortality rate of children under five years old rose by 140 percent.
The effects continued throughout the decade and were well known. In May 1996, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was confronted with the fact that the number of children in Iraq killed under the sanctions regime was higher than the number of people who died in Hiroshima, she said it was “a very hard choice” but added “we think the price is worth it.”
According to the United Nations, the goal of the sanctions was for Iraq to disarm, but U.S. officials wanted more. As early as seven weeks after the resolution, President Bush said, “At this juncture, my view is we don’t want to lift these sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.”
Oil-for-food was used to continue the sanctions policy. It allowed Iraq to sell some of its oil to pay for food and medicine, but took one-third of the money to compensate victims of the Iraq-Kuwait war. The rest was divided between the autonomous north (13 percent) and south and central of Iraq (53 percent), governed by Saddam.
Many tried to blame Saddam for the difference in mortality rates between the north and the rest of Iraq, but under oil-for-food the north received 22 percent more per person. For the entire sanctions period (1990-2003), the United Nations concluded that the after-effects of the war and the sanctions killed 400,000-500,000 children, and more than one million people overall.
From the beginning, the sanctions policy was considered unjust by some of the very people who carried it out. Two top U.N. humanitarian coordinators resigned their positions in disgust, having determined that the policies had “very deliberately been genocidal.” A bi-partisan group of 71 members of the U.S. Congress were less severe, calling it “infanticide masquerading as policy.”
Economic sanctions harm the weak – children, the elderly, the poor – they don’t harm dictators.
Sanctions were used to prevent Iraq from repairing the damage from the war. This destroyed civilian life and kept Saddam Hussein in power, while blaming him for all the destruction.
Regardless of what Iraq did to disarm, the sanctions would remain until Saddam was gone – until then Iraqis would suffer. Two-thirds of Iraq was forced to depend on Saddam’s handouts. Suffering people, jobless, dependent on a government for survival, do not overthrow their government.
Essentially, sanctions gave Saddam supreme dictatorial power over the people of Iraq – they kept him firmly in power until outside forces could remove him. In 2003 the U.S., not the Iraqi people, got rid of him. Now the U.S., not the Iraqi people, will control Iraq and its resources.
Khalid Adad can be reached at [email protected]