*Death by Inches:  Sanctions and the Destruction of Iraq



[A review article on Abdul-Haq Al-Ani and Tarik Al-Ani, Genocide in IraqThe Case Against the UN Security Council and Member States (Atlanta:  Clarity Press, Inc., 2012); 258 pp.]



Since sanctions have assumed a critical place over the last few years in the foreign policy of the United States and its dutiful allies, with consequences that have often been chilling and ominous, it becomes imperative to understand how sanctions came to be deployed as a blunt instrument of terror and domination in our times.  With the formation of the United Nations in 1945, and the resolution taken by member states to attempt to resolve conflicts between themselves through means other than war, sanctions were bound to assume an important place in the international regime of governance.  It was in 1959 that Albert Luthuli, then President of the African National Congress, implored the international community to impose comprehensive sanctions against South Africa and so “precipitate the end of the hateful system of apartheid.” Three years later, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the economic boycott of South Africa, but as Britain, the United States, West Germany, and Japan, which between them accounted for by far the greater portion of South Africa’s exports and imports, chose to remain indifferent to resolutions expressing the general will of the rest of the world, sanctions against South Africa did not then come into force.


The General Assembly, repeatedly drawing the attention of the Security Council to the threat posed by South Africa to international peace and security, insisted that action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter was “essential in order to solve the problem of apartheid and that universally applied economic sanctions were the only means of achieving a peaceful solution.”  Under the terms of articles 41-42 of this chapter, only the Security Council has the power to impose mandatory sanctions, and attempts to render South Africa compliant were vetoed by the three Western nations that are permanent members of the Security Council.  However, the tide of international opinion could not altogether be resisted, and in 1977 an arms embargo against South Africa was mandated.  In 1993, the African National Congress, which was then almost on the verge of officially acquiring power, pleaded with the world community to remove the sanctions against South Africa and restore it to a respectable place in the community of nations.


These few nuggets on the history of sanctions suffice as a prelude to the understanding of how the most draconian regime of sanctions ever imposed upon a nation led to its devastation.  Abdul-Haq Al-Ani & Tarik Al-Ani’s Genocide in Iraq, published by the small and independent Atlanta-based Clarity Press, presents a severe but cogently argued and well-documented indictment of the United Nations Security Council, the principal vehicle through which the United States, the rogue-in-chief of all nation-states, effected the wholesale destruction of Iraq.  The authors of this book—Abdul-Haq is an Iraqi-born, British-trained barrister who holds a doctorate in electronics engineering as well as one in international law, while Tarik Al-Ani is an architect, translator, and independent researcher who makes his home in Finland—mince no words in either describing the outcome of the sanctions or the inability of people to understand the implications of what transpired during the course of a decade.  “Imposing sanctions on Iraq”, they state in their conclusion, “was one of the most heinous of crimes committed in the 20th century.  Yet it has received little attention in the Anglo-American world.  Despite the calamitous destruction resulting from the sanctions, no serious attempts by legal professionals, academics or philosophers have been undertaken to address the full scope of the immorality and illegality of such a criminal and unprecedented mass punishment” (p. 222).

Poster on the genocidal impact of sanctiosn at an anti-war demonstration.

Poster on the genocidal impact of sanctiosn at an anti-war demonstration.


No one doubted that after Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, it was incumbent upon the so-called ‘world community’ to show its strong disapproval of Saddam Hussein’s irredentist designs by enforcing comprehensive sanctions against Iraq.  This was accomplished by Resolution 661 of the UN Security Council, which urged all member states to adhere to a strict embargo on all exports from, and imports to, Iraq.  The resolution exempted from the embargo “supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs.” Another committee of the Security Council, known as the Sanctions Committee, was set up to ensure that there would be compliance with the resolution, and to report its observations and recommendations to the Security Council (pp. 196-214).


Before sanctions were first enforced in the late summer of 1990, Iraq unquestionably had among the highest standards of living in the Arab world, a flourishing and prosperous middle class, and a formidable social welfare system that provided enviable material security to ordinary citizens. The economists Jean Dreze and Haris Gazdar noted that the “government of Iraq has a long record of active involvement in health care, education, food distribution, social security and related fields.  Notable achievements in these fields include free public health care for all, free education at all levels, food distribution at highly subsidized prices, and income support to ‘destitute’ households . . .” One of the more significant contributions of Genocide in Iraq is not merely to reaffirm the views of knowledgeable observers of Iraqi society, but also to offer a more sustained account of the achievements of the Ba’athist regime under Saddam Hussein. Chapters 3 & 4, on the economic development of Iraq, and “the progressive social policies” of the Ba’ath regime, ought to be nothing less than a revelation, particularly to those in the United States and Britain who allowed themselves to be led like sheep into believing that Iraq was nothing but a backward state full of hateful Muslims led by a blood-thirsty dictator, detailing as they do the strides made by Iraq in attempting to give a greater number of its people the benefits of a reasonably advanced social welfare state—an accomplishment all the more remarkable considering that Hussein was doubtless a brutal ruler who did not hesitate an iota to send to their death those politicians, activists, army men, public figures and opponents who might even remotely be construed as a threat to his own political survival and well-being.


According to the authors, the transformation sought by the regime was such as would confer the “benefits of development” upon “workers, peasants and other poorer classes” (p. 97); if this is at all true, that is certainly far more than what the United States attempts to do for its working class population.  “Prior to the 1990 Gulf War,” the authors state, “93% of Iraqis had access to health care and safe water.  Education was free, calorie availability was 120% of actual requirements, and GNP per capita was more than double its 1976 value” (p. 97).  The book is rich in empirical data:  we learn, for example, that between 1960 and 1990 the infant mortality rate diminished from 117 to 40 while the under-5 mortality declined from 170 to 50 (p. 108), just as the number of doctors grew by over 500% from 2145 in 1968 to 13621 in 1990 (p. 110).  Impressive as are these achievements, a testimony to the Ba’athist government’s progressive social policies, it is the authors’ delineation of a multicultural society that commands even greater attention and will certainly invite outright skepticism from the critics of Saddam Hussein who were pushing for war.  The authors argue that “up until the 2003 invasion, Iraq had been a very tolerant society with very responsible policies on religious freedom.  People grew up in mixed neighborhoods with no segregation between sects or religions” (p. 100).  They describe growing up in neighborhoods where Muslims, Christians, and Jews “lived side by side without any problem”; and each religious community was permitted its paid religious holidays, a privilege that is not conferred on Muslims in predominantly Christians nations such as the US, UK, and Germany.  Though it is simply assumed by most people that religious minorities have always faced persecution in Iraq, leading to their migration and diminished numbers, the authors point out that Iraq’s Christian population grew from around 149,000 in 1947, or about 3.7% percent of the population according to census figures, to about 1 million in 1987, or close to 5% of the population (p. 103).

Cartoon by Mike Flugennock, 18 August 2007.  Source:  http://sinkers.org/stage/?m=200708

Cartoon by Mike Flugennock, 18 August 2007. Source: http://sinkers.org/stage/?m=200708


A campaign of sustained bombing, and seven years of the most severe sanctions ever inflicted against any nation, were to relegate Iraq, in the words of an official UN fact-finding team, to the “pre-industrial” age.  [United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights.  Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. “Forth-third session:  Summary Record of the 10th Meeting.” E/CN.4/Sub.2/1991/SR.10 (20 August 1991), 10.]  Insofar as socio-economic indicators are reliable criteria, Iraq joined the ranks of the under-developed nations and become economically regressive: as oil revenues shrunk dramatically, the little that remained of its decimated infrastructure after the bombing fell to pieces.   Iraq would soon have the highest rates in the world of maternal and infant mortality, and correspondingly the fewest number of hospital beds; an astronomical increase in diseases and mental illnesses was documented, and malnutrition, which had all but disappeared from Iraq before 1990, was estimated to have affected the majority of Iraqis by 1995. A report released in 1997 by UNICEF described 1 million children in Iraq under the age of 5 as being chronically malnourished, a condition that leads not only to stunted physical growth but considerably reduced capacity for development and education, and it ominously adds the following words:  “Chronic malnutrition is difficult to reverse after the child reaches 2-3 years of age.”  One year after sanctions first went into effect, the real monthly earnings for unskilled laborers in Iraq had declined by nearly 95%, and were lower than the earnings for unskilled agricultural laborers in India, where levels of poverty are endemic.

Infant and Under-5 Mortality Rates in Iraq,  1979-99

Infant and Under-5 Mortality Rates in Iraq,


Severe as were the sanctions, they scarcely made a dent in the public imagination.  There can be no more notorious sign of this indifference than the remarks of the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who when asked whether the sanctions could be justified in view of the mass starvation and death of Iraqi children, replied without a moment’s hesitation:  “We think the price is worth it.”  (Of course this notoriety surrounding Albright did not prevent her from receiving the usual accolades from the establishment.)  Some scholars take the view that the sanctions policy of the United States cannot be impugned, since it is conducted under the rubric of the Security Council; if this is the case, then it becomes incumbent to conduct a close examination of the human rights implications of the sanctions policy of the Security Council.  This is the other signal contribution of Abdul-Haq Al-Ani and Tarik Al-Ani’s book:  its subtitle, “The Case Against the UN Security Council and Member States”, hints at the boldness of the argument, since the authors are quite certain that the Security Council, which ought to act strenuously to prevent genocide, became the agent for the genocidal destruction of a people and their nation.  Their argument, however, would have derived yet greater force if they had considered that, rather ironically, another (and far more widely representative) body of the United Nations, namely the General Assembly, would draw attention to the “Security Council’s greatly increased use of this instrument”, and to “a number of [attendant] difficulties, relating especially to the objectives of sanctions, the monitoring of their application and impact, and their unintended effects.”  The General Assembly was to recall the “legal basis” of “sanctions”, which are described in Article 41 of the UN Charter as “measures not involving the use of armed force in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”, in order to “underline that the purpose of sanctions is to modify the behavior of a party that is threatening the international peace and security and not to punish or otherwise exact retributions.”


In making a representation before the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1991, the non-governmental International Progress Organization made the more forceful point that “the continuation of the sanctions policy implemented through the United Nations Security Council” constituted a “grave and systematic violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms” of the entire population of Iraq, who were being denied even the most basic right, the right to life.  The figure often mentioned to indicate the number of Iraqis killed since the imposition of sanctions is about one million between 1991-95 alone; the respected British medical journal, Lancet, gave a figure of 567,000 children who had died as a consequence of sanctions by 1995, while UNICEF estimated that 500,000 children had been killed on account of sanctions and the collateral effects of war.


Sanctions constitute a form of nearly invisible death, and ought to alert us to the fact that oppression in our times is increasingly masked.  We associate war with death and violence, but sanctions with human rights and non-violence:  as the former United States ambassador to the UN, Thomas Pickering, put it in a Security Council debate, “sanctions are measured, precise and limited.  They are a multilateral, non-violent and peaceful response to violent and brutal acts.” [United Nations, Security Council, “Provisional Verbatim Record of the Three Thousand and Sixty-Third Meeting.”  S/PV.3063 (31 March 1992), 67.] This is, to put it mildly, a perverse, even macabre, view of sanctions, and just as strikingly it displays a singular naiveté about the nature of non-violence, which is erroneously equated with the mere absence of force.  Non-violence is not only, or even, a doctrine of abstention from force:  it requires us to take active measures for peace and the well-being of all, and it is obscene to suppose that the denial of basic amenities to people, including the right to life, might be construed as a respect for human rights.


There has been little endeavor to recognize the economic oppression of an entire people as a crime against humanity, indeed as a form of terrorism.  The prospects for the international rule of law can be nothing but appalling, as the American scholar John Quigley has noted, if the United States continues to act on the presumption that multilateralism is a worthwhile enterprise only if it “can control the outcome.”  It becomes imperative, then, to ask what ought to be the place of sanctions in an international world order that purports to base itself on the principles of equity, ‘rule of law’, and democracy?  Are sanctions only viable when they have the force of moral opprobrium of a world-wide citizenry, as was evidently the case when sanctions were at long last imposed on South Africa, or should they continue to be available, as they are at present, to any modern nation-state that chooses to impose sanctions unilaterally?  There is almost nothing to warrant the belief that the wide and systematic use of sanctions will serve the dual ends of ensuring a just world order and help to make societies that are targeted by sanctions more open, just as there is compelling evidence to suggest that such wide and seriously abusive use of sanctions exacerbates political repression within targeted nations and paves the way for greater inequities between nations, eroding both the ‘rule of law’ and respect for the international system.  I have discussed the legal and political implications of sanctions in greater detail elsewhere, but readers can turn to Genocide in Iraq with immense profit to understand both how sanctions are deployed as a modern means of ‘pacification’ and to understand how crimes against humanity came to be perpetrated against an entire people without any consequences for the perpetrators of such crimes.