Adverse Consequences of UN Sanctions

While researching the economics of the Union blockade of the Confederacy, I came across a working paper from the United Nations' Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, written by a Mr. Marc Bosuyt. (I was doing a google search looking for modern equivalents and came up with the Reign of Terror and the Sanctions against Iraq and Cuba!) The working paper examines the legality and efficiency of sanctions, as well as the history of sanctions. The report raises serious questions regarding the legality and efficiency of many UN Sanctions. Here are a couple of excerpts from this United Nations report regarding the sanctions against Iraq.

The sanctions against Iraq are the most comprehensive, total sanctions that have ever been imposed on a country. The situation at present is extremely grave. The transportation, power and communication infrastructures were decimated during the Gulf war, and have not been rebuilt owing to the sanctions. The industrial sector is also in shambles and agricultural production has suffered greatly. But most alarming is the health crisis that has erupted since the imposition of the sanctions. (p. 15)

As has been documented by United Nations agencies, NGOs, humanitarian and human rights organizations, researchers and political leaders, the sanctions upon Iraq have produced a humanitarian disaster comparable to the worst catastrophes of the past decades. There is broad controversy and little hard evidence concerning the exact number of deaths directly attributable to the sanctions; estimates range from half a million to a million and a half, with the majority of the dead being children. It should be emphasized that much of the controversy around the number of deaths is only serving to obfuscate the fact that any deaths at all caused by the sanctions regime indicate grave breaches of humanitarian law and are unacceptable. (p. 16)

In 1999, after conducting the first surveys since 1991 of child and maternal mortality in Iraq, UNICEF concluded that in the heavily-populated southern and central parts of the country, children under five are dying at more than twice the rate they were 10 years ago. An expert on the effects of sanctions on civilians states that "the underlying causes of these excess deaths include contaminated water, lack of high quality foods, inadequate breastfeeding, poor weaning practices, and inadequate supplies in the curative health-care system". The lack of food due to sanctions translated into a 32 per cent drop in per capita calorie intake compared to before the Gulf war. According to the Government of Iraq, by 1997, only half of the water treatment capacity of the country was operational. (p. 16)

Owing to the lack of medical supplies, it was estimated that, by 1997, 30 per cent of hospital beds were out of use, 75 per cent of all hospital equipment did not work and 25 per cent of Iraq's 1,305 health centres were closed. A recent Security Council-appointed panel summarized the health and sanitation situation as follows:

In marked contrast to the prevailing situation prior to the events of 1990-1991, the infant mortality rates in Iraq today are among the highest in the world, low infant birth weight affects at least 23 per cent of all births, chronic malnutrition affects every fourth child under five years of age, only 41 per cent of the population have regular access to clean water, 83 per cent of all schools need substantial repairs. The ICRC states that the Iraqi health-care system is today in a decrepit state. UNDP calculates that it would take 7 billion US dollars to rehabilitate the power sector country-wide to its 1990 capacity. (page 17)

The outcry against the sanctions on Iraq has come from all sides. From within the United Nations, the Secretary-General himself has been at the forefront of the criticism, levelling serious charges against the sanctions regime in his report to the Security Council of 10 March 2000 (S/2000/208) and stating two weeks later that "the Council should seek every opportunity to alleviate the suffering of the population, who after all are not the intended targets of sanctions". The sanctions have led to the resignation of three United Nations officials, two this year alone. First, Denis Halliday, former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, resigned in September 1998, declaring: "We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral." Hans von Sponeck, Halliday's successor as Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, resigned on 13 February 2000, explaining that he could not any longer be associated with a programme that prolonged the sufferings of the people and which had no chance to meet even the basic needs of the civilian population. Two days later, Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, also resigned, stating "I fully support what Mr. von Sponeck is saying". (p. 17-18)

The sanctions regime against Iraq is unequivocally illegal under existing international humanitarian law and human rights law. Some would go as far as making a charge of genocide. (p. 18)

Normally, I am not a fan of the United Nations, and I do favor the use of sanctions over outright military conflict, but as this report shows, many sanctions including those against Iraq, Cuba and others, are of dubious legality or effectiveness. In a study by Hufbauer and Schott (soon to be updated to include the 1990s), only 1/4 to 1/3 of the 116 sanctions imposed between 1914 and 1990 resulted in some policy change and that the more ambitious the sanctions were, the more likely they were to fail. Also, the study found that in about 70% of the 116 cases, the United States was the primary initiator of the sanctions.

Click here for a copy of the full report.

September 6, 2002