Dying of Shame
by Felicity Arbuthnot
New Internationalist magazine, January/February
For the people of Iraq, normality died in August 1990. Today,
in formerly high-tech hospitals, built with petro-dollars and
staffed with people who have completed postgraduate training in
Britain, Canada and the US, surgery is frequently carried out
without anesthetic; the simplest items, from painkillers to antibiotics,
are unavailable. Scanners, X-ray machinery and incubators lie
idle for want of spare parts.
To witness the effect of the United Nations embargo is to
live with images that haunt. To walk into any hospital ward is
to see a look in the eyes of parents of a desperately sick child,
which can be instantly translated: one is from outside, so possibly
important, can perhaps wave a magic wand, help. Then the look
On a visit to one ward I saw two children with acute myeloid
leukemia cancers have risen fivefold since the Gulf War; a rise
some experts have linked to the depleted uranium weapons used
primarily by the US, Britain and France, which left a residue
of radioactive dust throughout the country. The younger child,
just three, his little body bloated with edema, bleeding internally,
in terrible pain, was making tiny mewing noises. His eyes were
filled with tears but he had learned not to cry since it wracked
his small frame further and increased the agony. His name translated
as 'the vital one'.
The older child, aged five, was in a similar condition, yet
when I bent to stroke the pathetic, puffy little face, damp with
perspiration, a small hand grabbed mine and he squeezed with all
his might. I knew then that it is possible to die of shame.
In 1989 the World Health Organization recorded Iraq as having
92-per-cent access to clean water, 93-per-cent access to high
quality health care and with high educational and nutritional
By 1995 the World Food Program noted that: 'time is running
out for the children of Iraq'. Figures - verified by UNICEF- record
that 1,211,285 children died of embargo-related causes between
August 1990 and August 1997. A silent holocaust in the name of
the UN, these numbers are similar to those lost in Pol Pot's genocide
in Cambodia. It is three times the population of Kuwait in small
lives lost. And it is broadly ten times the 130,000 people that
Amnesty International estimated to have died in Iraq in the ten
years to 1989 as a result of the country's woeful human-rights
'After 24 years in the field, starting with Biafra, I didn't
think anything could shock me,' wrote Dieter Hannusch of the World
Food Program in l995. 'But this was comparable to the worst scenarios
I had ever seen.'
Inflation is stratospheric. When a child who had fainted in
school was asked what was wrong, she replied: 'It's not my turn
to eat today.' Families eat in rotation so that there is a little
more for the others. A new medical diagnosis has manifested itself.
Mothers too malnourished to breast-feed and unable to afford milk
powder - a tin exceeds a doctor's monthly salary - feed their
babies on sugared water or sugared tea. These babies become chronically
malnourished, terribly bloated and almost all die. Doctors call
them the 'sugar babies'.
The embargo has meant the death of childhood for those who
do survive. There are no birthday parties any more: no-one has
the money for presents. Most children since the embargo have never
tasted chocolate - on a recent visit I bought two chocolate bars
and tubes of sweets for a child. They came to 3,000 Iraqi diners.
I realized with shock that I had just spent the monthly salary
of my interpreter, who speaks seven languages and has worked all
over the world.
Children's bikes, toys, pencils, erasers and exercise books
have all been vetoed by the Sanctions Committee; so too have lipstick,
sanitary towels and shoelaces. A grandmother living in Britain
sent a pair of hand-knitted leggings to her new grandchild in
Baghdad and had them returned by the Post Office with the information
that she would have to apply to the Department of Trade and Industry
for an export license.
Knowledge itself is embargoed too; medical journals are not
allowed. Neither, in 1994, were 500 tons of shroud cloth. Sanctions
reach beyond the grave - when children born after 1990 die, parents
do not even have a photograph to remember them by. Film, even
if you can find it, exceeds the average professional's monthly
salary - and is always out of date.
Former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark has described the
blockade as the most draconian in modern history. In 1919, US
President Woodrow Wilson advocated sanctions as a 'quiet but most
lethal weapon that exerts a pressure no nation can withstand'.
From 1945 to 1990 there were just three embargoes: Rhodesia
(now Zimbabwe); South Africa and Cuba. The first two, largely
big-business related, affected the populace but did not put them
in a straitjacket. The embargo on Cuba has affected normality
from medical treatment to pencils, as with Iraq.
From 1990 to 1994 embargoes were implemented against nine
countries. In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein remains unaffected
while his people suffer. 'Starvation of civilians as a method
of warfare is prohibited,' says the Geneva Convention. Such treatment
of civilians - however unscrupulous their ruler - defies international
law and runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN Sub-Commission
on Human Rights concluded in 1994 that blockades, sanctions and
freezing of assets are 'terrorist acts'. In August 1997 it passed
a unanimous resolution condemning the 'adverse consequences of
economic sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights'.
The draconian implementation of sanctions has been a war of
moving goal posts. The world has mostly forgotten that sanctions
were implemented as an alternative to war. Iraq is now 'a country
bombed back to a pre-industrial age for a considerable time to
come', according to the UN Special Rapporteur back in 1991. It
has suffered grievously from the double standards of the UN, to
whom it was one of the first signatories.
It is not the first time. When the Iraqis revolted against
British domination in 1919, the Royal Air Force requested authorization
from Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State at the War Office,
to use chemical weapons 'against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment'.
Churchill sanctioned their use, saying: 'I do not understand this
squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favor of
using [it] against uncivilized tribes.'
Demonizing a nation into sub-humanity was justification for
genocide then as now. Whilst the UN and the US deem nations 'pariah
states', it is the people not the regimes which suffer. Every
time Iraq complies with one condition for the lifting of sanctions,
another appears. These include recognizing the border with Kuwait
(done); monitoring cameras being installed (done); destruction
of armaments (stated by the weapons inspectors as done but since
they cannot prove there is not a weapon left in the country this
can be open-ended).
While international bureaucrats wrangle at the United Nations,
Iraq must prove what few other countries are in a position to
prove - that it is adhering to the highest standards of human
rights. In the absence of a concrete enemy post-Cold War, Saddam
is a convenient demon; a dictator who is also a Muslim. Though
Iraq is a Muslim country, it is not militantly so.
In a small grocery store in a poor area, of Baghdad early
one morning I watched a child of perhaps five, in the mode of
small children everywhere, proudly doing a terribly important
errand: he bought one egg. A tray of 30 eggs exceeds a university
professor's monthly salary. To go to the home of professional,
relatively wealthy people and have a dish with tiny pieces of
egg in it is to be honored indeed.
As he left, the child dropped the egg. He fell to the floor,
frantically trying to pick the shell, yolk and white, with his
small hands, tears streaming down his face. As I reached in my
pocket, the shopkeeper gently tapped him on the shoulder and gave
Trauma is everywhere, in every small act. That child will
never forget that egg - it could be a metaphor for Iraq, for human
rights, for the UN and for the embargo itself, 'the quiet but
most lethal weapon'.
Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist specializing in environmental
and social issues. She has written and broadcast widely on sanctions
Policy and Pentagon