The Evil of Sanctions

by Brian Cloughley, February 9, 2010


When strong governments wish to impose their will on weaker regimes, they often resort to sanctions. The effects have included the death or debilitation of millions of innocent people. Two good examples are Cuba, on which draconian U.S. sanctions have been enforced since 1960, and Iraq, where brutal sanctions were enforced from 1990 to 2003.

In 1959 the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown. He had ruled with the approval of Washington and the Mafia (who gave him a percentage on their casino operations). The dictator Castro took over and declared himself a communist, prompting the U.S. government to attempt to overthrow him. The illegal attempt to invade the country - the Bay of Pigs fiasco - was a national embarrassment for Washington, and the obvious revenge was to punish the country by the use of sanctions. Almost no contact with Cuba was allowed, and the effects have been monstrous.

Earlier this year the Cato Institute recorded,

The embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. In fact, the embargo has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free.



Dr. Michèle Barry points out in Annals of Internal Medicine,

Because economic sanctions result in shortages of food and medical supplies, their most severe consequences are often felt by the persons who are least culpable and most vulnerable....



The U.S. embargo against Cuba, one of the few that includes both food and medicine, has been described as a war against public health with high human costs....



"Most severe consequences" were experienced by the people of Iraq when Washington succeeded in having UN sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. After the Iraqis were forced out of Kuwait, it was declared that the sanctions were intended to make Iraq comply with UN Security Council Resolution 687, which demanded that Iraq eliminate its weapons of mass destruction and that it recognize the nation-state of Kuwait, which, like America's major Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, is ruled by an entirely nondemocratic regime.



The absurdity of UNSC 687 was that Rolf Ekeus, the UN representative responsible for identifying and destroying Iraq's weaponry, had already certified that 817 out of Iraq's 819 Iraqi long-range missiles had been destroyed. In 1999 a panel of the Security Council announced that all biological and chemical facilities "have been destroyed and rendered harmless." But that did not deter the sanctions proponents, who imagined that immense national suffering would somehow bring down the despot Saddam.

In 1998 Christian Aid stated,

The policy of sanctions has also been used to pursue political goals - for example, the removal of the Iraqi regime - beyond the overt scope of Resolution 687, which contained no prescriptions regarding Iraq's form of government or the conduct of domestic policy. The Iraqi population's economic and social rights have been seriously infringed by the impact of a prolonged embargo. In an authoritarian state which continued to hold most of the levers of control, much of the burden caused by the embargo fell on the civilian population.



But innocent civilians did not matter to the rest of the world, much of which was duped by the United States and Britain into concluding that Iraq presented a threat to global security, a ridiculous notion.



Killing innocents

In one of the most outrageously illegal acts of the many carried out by Washington and London, it was decided that there should be "no-fly zones" in the north and south of Iraq - covering about half the country - in which no Iraqi aircraft or radar was permitted to operate. (France at first joined in this travesty of legality but then withdrew after realizing that it was absurd and that it had no UN endorsement.)

The purpose of the no-fly zones was ostensibly to protect the Shia population of the south and the Kurds in the north, but in fact they were intended, most successfully, to destroy Iraq's civilian and defense infrastructure.

The zones had no basis in international law and complemented sanctions in a particularly savage manner. British and American fighter and bomber aircraft roamed the skies, attacking what they considered to be "legitimate targets." But scores of civilians died, as in January 1999, when six children were killed by a plane-fired missile.

But we know that foreign children don't always matter to war planners and their supporters. After all, when U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright was asked on television whether she considered the deaths of half a million children a reasonable result of U.S. sanctions, she replied, "This is a very hard choice, but ... we think the price is worth it."

This callous, pitiless, utterly heartless statement by a most senior official of the U.S. government could have been made by any other U.S. government official. If anyone in an official position in America or Britain disagreed with the pronouncement that the avoidable deaths of half a million children were justified, he kept very quiet about it. They all knew what the policy was. It is notable that during Albright's confirmation hearings preliminary to her becoming secretary of State, none of the senators questioned her on this point. The fact is that they didn't disagree with it, making them complicit in the horrible deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.



U.S. attacks on Iraq in the no-fly zones were carefully planned, especially in the months immediately before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion by the deluded "coalition" that Washington cobbled together by means of deceit and downright lies about "weapons of mass destruction." On September 5, 2002, for example, some 100 coalition aircraft bombed and rocketed a desert airstrip called H-3, deep in the far west of Iraq. There was no threat from the airfield, but it was planned that it be a base for U.S. Special Forces inserted from Jordan before the war began. It had to be neutralized. And this is but one example of cynical manipulation of an already illegal decree.

According to U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, the coalition flew 21,736 sorties over southern Iraq between June 2002 and the start of the war in April 2003 - more than 60 a day. Three hundred forty-nine targets were attacked and Moseley claimed that U.S. and other aircraft were fired at 651 times. He had the grace to admit to the New York Times (which helped the Bush administration to convince Americans that the war was justified),

We became a little more aggressive based on them shooting more at us, which allowed us to respond more.... Then the question is whether they were shooting at us because we were up there more. So there is a chicken and egg thing here.

In fact Britain's Ministry of Defense let the cat out of the bag by admitting that from March to November 2002 there were 8 alleged violations by Iraqi forces of the No-Fly Zone and 143 instances of "recorded threats." In response, 253,000 pounds of bombs were dropped on Iraq. The number of rockets fired was not stated.



Bombs and rockets

While illegal sanctions caused the premature but prolonged and usually agonizing death of countless innocent Iraqis, the illegal bombings and rocketings played a major part in destroying a country that will take decades to recover, if it ever does. The social consequences of attacks and sanctions have been truly terrible.

Electricity systems, wrecked beyond repair, were unable to supply power to hospitals and the civil population in general. But Saddam and his henchmen were not affected: they had plenty of generators - which were one of the thousands of items forbidden to be imported for ordinary people.

Christian Aid observed in 2000,

The immediate consequence of eight years of sanctions has been a dramatic fall in living standards, the collapse of the infrastructure, and a serious decline in the availability of public services. The longer-term damage to the fabric of society has yet to be assessed but economic disruption has already led to heightened levels of crime, corruption and violence. Competition for increasingly scarce resources has allowed the Iraqi state to use clan and sectarian rivalries to maintain its control, further fragmenting Iraqi society.

And that was before intensification of bombing and the tightening of already harsh controls on imports. These included six-month examinations of requests for importing such things as medical prescription drugs and substances required for water purification. By the time of approval (if given), most drugs were useless and thus dangerous, which may have been the intention. (Such things as aspirin and other pain-relievers were said to be ingredients for making chemical weapons.)

There were some principled people who went public about the appalling human crisis inflicted on Iraq by the United States and its British ally. Dennis Halliday, who was head of the UN's humanitarian program in Iraq, resigned in protest, as did his successor, Hans von Sponeck. They wrote,

The death of some 5-6,000 children a month is mostly due to contaminated water, lack of medicines and malnutrition. The US and UK governments' delayed clearance of equipment and materials is responsible for this tragedy, not Baghdad.

Their statement was blunt, to the point, and accurate - and completely ignored by the barbarians who considered the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children was "a price that was worth it." The only honorable officials in the entire squalid sanctions horror were Halliday and von Sponeck, but of course they were reviled by those who knew well what effect the cruel sanctions would have and were having.



Oil for no food

Then there was the "Oil for Food" program, which was begun in 1996 and became one of the biggest scams of modern times. According to the BBC, the Oil for Food program "was a $60bn (£32bn) scheme which was supposed to allow Iraq to buy food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies with the proceeds of regulated oil sales, without breaking the sanctions imposed on it after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait." Actually, it was a license for fraud and embezzlement and proved most lucrative to all sorts of lowlifes who profited from a government plan that purported to alleviate misery.

Instead of trying to alleviate starvation and disease, the sanctions administrators deliberately stalled on approving Oil for Food arrangements. The UN found that it took an average of 66 days for agreement to be reached on contracts and a further 59 days for food to be delivered. The intention was clear: no matter the desperate plight of children in Iraq, the sanctions would continue to be imposed with the utmost severity.

In spite of criminality and willful disruption of food and medical supplies, the child mortality rate declined as a result of the Oil for Food program. This was no thanks to such agencies as Britain's Department of Trade and Industry, which prevented diphtheria and yellow-fever vaccines from being sent to Iraq, claiming that they could be used to make weapons of mass destruction.

In 1997, according to UNICEF, 25 percent of children under five were severely malnourished. They were especially vulnerable to water-borne diseases, such as typhoid and cholera, that were unknown in Iraq before the Gulf War of 1991.

To end this sad tale of death and despair on Iraq, the words of the honorable Dennis Halliday are appropriate. Sanctions, he said,

do not impact on governance effectively and instead [they damage] the innocent people of the country. For me what is tragic, in addition to the tragedy of Iraq itself, is the fact that the United Nations Security Council member states ... are maintaining a program of economic sanctions deliberately, knowingly killing thousands of Iraqis each month. And that definition fits genocide.



Brian Cloughley is a commentator on political and military affairs and is a strategy analyst for Jane's Sentinel. He resides in France. Visit his website: Send him email

International War Crimes

Home Page