Article on sanctions against Iraq and the true effects

From: Dickey, Michael F (
Date: Tue Feb 19 2002 - 10:16:49 MST

(This is an interesting article about the Sanctions against IRAQ. Opponents
of the sanctions site an often heard statement that these sanctions have led
to the death of over 1,000,000 children. Osama Bin Laden in his 10/7
videotaped message stated that every day US sanctions cause the death of
5,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5. Proponents of the sanctions assert
that these numbers are greatly exaggerated, if not outright lies. The truth
seems to lie somewhere in the middle. The original figure came from a five
study 700 household study in Iraq performed by Iraq's officials. Even
Iraq's own official web site shows the number to be 3,000 per month.
Interestingly, the sanctions apply to all of Iraq yet the northern part of
Iraq is not under Saddam's control, only the southern part is. Yet the
under 5 death rates in the south are double that of the north, and the
northern rates have been decreasing. It seems that how the government
operates may also have a significant impact on these figures. The author
also asks "How much should we blame Saddam Hussein for rejecting the U.N.'s
"oil-for-food" humanitarian offer for six years" A later UNIFEC study
showed a more reliable figure, in both north and south, to be about 100,000
since 1990. It is important not to trivialize these deaths, and it is
obvious that a significant number of deaths have come from the sanctions.
But it is important to know the facts and the real numbers, and acknowledge
that this countries own corrupt despotic government shares some of the blame
for these deaths. The author continues "Yet the basic argument against all
economic sanctions remains: namely, that they tend to punish civilians more
than governments and to provide dictators with a gift-wrapped propaganda
tool." and "It seems awfully hard not to conclude that the embargo on Iraq
has been ineffective (especially since 1998) and that it has, at the least,
contributed to more than 100,000 deaths since 1990. With Bush set to go to
war over Saddam's noncompliance with the military goals of the sanctions,
there has never been a more urgent time to confront the issue with clarity.
" - Mike)

The politics of dead children
by Matt Welch
   "It seems awfully hard not to conclude that the embargo on Iraq
   has been ineffective (especially since 1998) and that it has, at
   the least, contributed to more than 100,000 deaths since 1990."

The Politics of Dead Children

Have sanctions against Iraq murdered millions?

By Matt Welch

Are "a million innocent children...dying at this Iraq" because of
U.S. sanctions, as Osama bin Laden claimed in his October 7 videotaped
message to the world? Has the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund
(UNICEF) discovered that "at least 200 children are dying every a
direct result of sanctions," as advocacy journalist John Pilger maintains on
his Web site? Is it official U.N. belief that 5,000 Iraqi children under the
age of 5 are dying each month due to its own policy, as writers of letters
to virtually every U.S. newspaper have stated repeatedly during the past
three years?

The short answer to all of these questions is no. The sanctions, first
imposed in 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, are administered by the
U.N., not the U.S. They were first imposed on all exports from Iraq and
occupied Kuwait, and all non-humanitarian imports, in an effort to persuade
Saddam Hussein to retreat within his own borders. After the Gulf War, they
were broadened to include a dismantling of Iraq's biological, chemical,
nuclear, and missile-based weapons systems, out of fear that Hussein would
otherwise lash out again. Estimates of sanctions-era "excess" child deaths
-- the number above the normal mortality rate -- vary widely due to politics
and inadequate data, especially concerning children older than 5. The
dictatorial Iraqi government, which has blamed nearly every civilian funeral
since 1991 on sanctions, claims there have been more than 600,000 deaths of
under-5-year-olds these past 11 years (4,500 per month) and 1.5 million
deaths overall.

While firefighters were still pulling out warm body parts from Ground Zero,
foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky and his followers on college campuses and
alternative-weekly staffs nationwide were insisting that it was vital to
understand the "context" of the September 11 massacre: that U.S.-led
sanctions were killing "5,000 children a month" in Iraq. Meanwhile, on the
Iraqi government's own Web site, the number of under-5 deaths from all
causes for the month of September was listed as 2,932.

Arriving at a reliable raw number of dead people is hard enough; assigning
responsibility for the ongoing tragedy borders on the purely speculative.
Competing factors include sanctions, drought, hospital policy,
breast-feeding education, Saddam Hussein's government, depressed oil prices,
the Iraqi economy's almost total dependence on oil exports and food imports,
destruction from the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars, differences in
conditions between the autonomous north and the Saddam-controlled south, and
a dozen other variables difficult to measure without direct independent
access to the country.

Confusing the issue still further are basic questions about the sanctions
themselves. Should the U.N. impose multilateral economic sanctions to keep a
proven tyrant from developing weapons to launch more wars against his
neighbors? If sanctions are inherently immoral, what other tools short of
war can the international community use? Is this particular sanctions regime
more unreasonable than others that haven't triggered humanitarian crises?
How much should we blame Saddam Hussein for rejecting the U.N.'s
"oil-for-food" humanitarian offer for six years, and expelling weapons
inspectors in 1998? Most important, has Iraq made headway since then in
pursuing nuclear and biological weapons?

Yet all this murkiness has not deterred advocates of sanctions from claiming
absolute certainty on the issue. The warmongering New Republic, for example,
announced in October that the notion that "sanctions have caused widespread
suffering" was simply "false." Writing in National Review in December,
former army intelligence analyst Robert Stewart asserted that "resources are
available in Iraq. Even under the sanctions, Iraq's people need not starve."

The chasm between claims made by sanction supporters and opponents is enough
to make inquisitive people throw their hands up in the air. Such despair is
not exactly conducive to healthy debate, which is especially important at a
time when President Bush has made it clear that Iraq must cooperate with
weapons inspection or become the next target of the War on Terrorism. A
closer look at the controversy over dead Iraqi babies shows that opponents
of sanctions have a compelling case to make. Although they often undermine
their own position with outrageous exaggerations, their critics show a
similar disregard for the facts when they blithely dismiss concerns about
the impact of sanctions on innocent people.

Origins of a Whopper

The idea that sanctions in Iraq have killed half a million children (or 1
million, or 1.5 million, depending on the hysteria of the source) took root
in 1995 and 1996, on the basis of two transparently flawed studies, one
inexplicable doubling of the studies' statistics, and a non-denial on 60

In August 1995, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gave
officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Health a questionnaire on child
mortality and asked them to conduct a survey in the capital city of Baghdad.
On the basis of this five-day, 693-household, Iraq-controlled study, the FAO
announced in November that "child mortality had increased nearly five fold"
since the pre-sanctions era. As embargo critic Richard Garfield, a public
health specialist at Columbia University, wrote in his own comprehensive
1999 survey of under-5 deaths in Iraq, "The 1995 study's conclusions were
subsequently withdrawn by the authors....Notwithstanding the retraction of
the original data, their estimate of more than 500,000 excess child deaths
due to the embargo is still often repeated by sanctions critics."

In March 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its own report
on the humanitarian crisis. It reprinted figures -- provided solely by the
Iraqi Ministry of Health -- showing that a total of 186,000 children under
the age of 5 died between 1990 and 1994 in the 15 Saddam-governed provinces.
According to these government figures, the number of deaths jumped nearly
500 percent, from 8,903 in 1990 to 52,905 in 1994.

Somehow, based largely on these two reports -- a five-day study in Baghdad
showing a "five fold" increase in child deaths and a Ministry of Health
claim that a total of 186,000 children under 5 had died from all causes
between 1990 and 1994 -- a New York-based advocacy group called the Center
for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) concluded in a May 1996 survey that
"these mortality rates translate into a figure of over half a million excess
child deaths as a result of sanctions."

In addition to doubling the Iraqi government's highest number and
attributing all deaths to the embargo, CESR suggested a comparison that
proved popular among the growing legions of sanctions critics: "In simple
terms, more Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions than the
combined toll of two atomic bombs on Japan." The word genocide started
making its way into the discussion.

Still, the report might well have ended up in the dustbin of bad mathematics
had a CESR fact-finding tour of Iraq not been filmed by Lesley Stahl of 60
Minutes. In a May 12, 1996, report that later won her an Emmy and an Alfred
I. DuPont-Columbia University Journalism Award, Stahl used CESR's faulty
numbers and atomic-bomb imagery to confront Madeleine Albright, then the
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "We have heard that a half million
children have died," Stahl said. "I mean, that's more children than died in
Hiroshima. And -- and you know, is the price worth it?" Albright replied, "I
think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is
worth it."

It was the non-denial heard 'round the world. In the hands of sanctions
opponents and foreign policy critics, it was portrayed as a confession of
fact, even though neither Albright nor the U.S. government has ever admitted
to such a ghastly number (nor had anybody aside from CESR and Lesley Stahl
ever suggested such a thing until May 1996). The 60 Minutes exchange is very
familiar to readers of Arab newspapers, college dailies, and liberal
journals of opinion. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan mentioned it several times
during their respective presidential campaigns.

After September 11, the anecdote received new life, as in this typically
imaginative interpretation by Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham in the magazine's
November issue: "When Madeleine Albright, then the American secretary of
state [sic], was asked in an interview on 60 Minutes whether she had
considered the resulting death of 500,000 Iraqi children (of malnutrition
and disease), she said, 'We think the price is worth it.'"

Albright has been dogged by protesters at nearly all her campus appearances
the past several years, and rightly so: It was a beastly thing to say, and
she should have refuted the figures. Quietly, a month after the World Trade
Center attack, she finally apologized for her infamous performance. "I
shouldn't have said it," she said during a speech at the University of
Southern California. "You can believe this or not, but my comments were
taken out of context."

The other, far more credible source of the 500,000 number is a pair of 1999
UNICEF studies that estimated the under-5 mortality rates of both Iraqi
regions based on interviews with a total of 40,000 households. "If the
substantial reduction in the under-five mortality rate during the 1980s had
continued through the 1990s," the report concluded, "there would have been
half a million fewer deaths of children under-five in the country as a whole
during the eight year period 1991 to 1998." If the expected mortality rate
had stayed level rather than continuing its downward slope, the excess death
number would be more like 420,000.

Significantly, UNICEF found child mortality actually decreased in the
autonomous north (from 80.2 per 100,000 in 1984-89 to 70.8 in 1994-98) while
more than doubling in the south (from 56 per 100,000 to 130.6). This is
Exhibit A for those who, like The New Republic, argue that Saddam alone is
responsible for Iraq's humanitarian crisis. When the report was released,
UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy attributed the difference in
mortality trends to "the large amount of international aid pumped into
northern Iraq at the end of the [Persian Gulf] war."

The UNICEF report took pains to spread the blame for increased mortality in
the south, mentioning factors such as a dramatic increase in the bottle-only
feeding of infants in place of more nutritious (and less likely to be
tainted) breast milk. "It's very important not to just say that everything
rests on sanctions," Bellamy said in a subsequent interview. "It is also the
result of wars and the reduction in investment in resources for primary
health care."

But in the hands of sanctions opponents and some news organizations, these
findings were translated into a U.N. admission that sanctions were "directly
responsible" for killing half a million children (or even "infants"). In
September 2001 alone, the UNICEF report was mischaracterized in The Boston
Globe, The Buffalo News, The Akron Beacon Journal, The San Diego
Union-Tribune, The Charleston Gazette, the Wilmington Sunday Star-News, and
The Chicago Tribune (by a Northwestern University journalism professor, no

By November, UNICEF was annoyed enough with the frequent misinterpretations
to send out regular corrective press releases, saying things like: "The
surveys were never intended to provide an absolute figure of how many
children have died in Iraq as a result of sanctions." Rather, they "show
that if the substantial reductions in child mortality in Iraq during the
1980s had continued through the 1990s -- in other words if there hadn't been
two wars, if sanctions hadn't been introduced and if investment in social
services had been maintained -- there would have been 500,000 fewer deaths
of children under five."

Sanctions critics almost always leave out one other salient fact: The vast
majority of the horror stats they quote apply to the period before March
1997, when the oil-for-food program delivered its first boatload of supplies
(nearly six years after the U.N. first proposed the idea to a reluctant
Iraqi government). In the past four years of oil-for-food, Iraq has exported
around 3 billion barrels of oil, generating $40 billion in revenue, which
has resulted in the delivery of $18 billion of humanitarian and
oil-equipment supplies, with another $16 billion in the pipeline. (The rest
is used to cover administrative costs and reparations to Kuwait.)

As the U.N. Office for the Iraqi Program stated in a September 28, 2001
report, "With the improved funding level for the program, the Government of
Iraq is indeed in a position to address the nutritional and health concerns
of the Iraqi people, particularly the nutritional status of the children."
Even two years earlier, Richard Garfield noted in his survey that "the most
severe embargo-related damages [have] already ended."

Anyone who tells you more children will perish in Iraq this month than
Americans died on September 11 is cutting and pasting inflated mid-1990s
statistics onto a country that has changed significantly since then.
Knowingly or not, these critics are mangling the facts to prove a debatable
point and in the process damaging their own cause.

The Truth is Bad Enough

Two weeks after the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, I began looking in earnest for trustworthy sources of
information about the effects of sanctions on Iraq. I was joined in my
search by a half-dozen or so e-mail acquaintances who approached the
question from a broadly similar viewpoint: If sanctions are killing Iraqi
babies, then Osama Bin Laden has a legitimate propaganda tool, and the U.S.
has blood on its hands that demands immediate attention. So let's find the
facts, weigh them against Saddam's weapons capabilities, and proceed from

It immediately became obvious that sanctions opponents, especially in the
U.S., would be a hindrance, not a help. "I'm a little disgusted at the way
the Naderite left has used the issue, especially when they have no backup
for the claims they are making," one of my co-conspirators, Eric Mauro,
wrote me. "They may be right, but they are so inept at arguing that it's
dangerous to take their word for it."

The man who launched the American anti-sanctions movement as we know it is a
University of Texas journalism professor named Robert Jensen. His Web site's
"factsheet" on Iraq contains two lies right off the bat. Citing WHO, he
claims that "each month 5,000 to 6,000 children die as a result of the
sanctions." And citing UNICEF, he asserts that "approximately 250 people die
every day in Iraq due to the sanctions."

Jensen, who teaches "critical thinking," drifted onto the national radar
screen days after the terrorist attacks, when he wrote a column published in
ZNet,, and The Houston Chronicle titled "U.S. Just As
Guilty of Committing Own Violent Acts." He has opposed the war against
Afghanistan (not to mention Serbia), teaches the journalism of Mumia
Abu-Jamal, and once wrote a column about how the "U.S. middle class,
particularly the white middle class, is probably the single biggest
impediment to justice the world has ever known."

Jensen's cohorts in kick-starting the anti-sanctions movement were
intifada-supporting professor Edward Said, "people's historian" Howard Zinn,
and Noam Chomsky, a man who has rarely met a foreign policy he couldn't
describe as "genocide." The four issued a joint statement in January 1999
condemning the situation in Iraq as "sanctioned mass-murder that is nearing
holocaust proportions."

These four men have authored reams of hyperbolic nonsense since September
11. Isn't it reasonable to conclude that anything they and Saddam Hussein
agree upon must be false?

No, actually, it's not, and therein lies the problem. Any sustained inquiry
into the sanctions issue runs up against waves of propaganda and reckless
disregard for the truth, and it would be all too easy to declare the issue
settled after a quick dismissal of the most glaring lies. But that would be
an abdication of responsibility. Many of those who support continued
pressure on Saddam Hussein tend to focus on a few key counterpoints while
ignoring piles of haunting in-country surveys and the damning testimony of
former U.N. officials who have quit to campaign full-time against U.S.
policy in Iraq. Sanctions proponents, if they are not careful, run the risk
of aping the foolish debate tactics of the critics they condemn.

Take, for example, the lowered mortality rates in the northern provinces of
Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil -- the smoking gun of the
sanctions-don't-kill crowd. The New Republic claims the autonomous Kurdish
area "is subject to exactly the same sanctions as the rest of the country."
This is false: Under the oil-for-food regime, the north, which contains 13
percent of the Iraqi population, receives 13 percent of all oil proceeds, a
portion of that in cash. Saddam's regions, with 87 percent of the
population, receive 59 percent of the money (recently increased by the U.N.
Security Council from 53 percent), none of it in cash. (Of the rest, 25
percent goes to a Kuwaiti compensation fund, and the rest covers U.N.

It just isn't true that the sanctions are "exactly the same" in both parts
of Iraq. And there are other factors affecting the north-south disparity:
International aid agencies have been active in the areas protected by no-fly
zones since 1991, and the Turkish border is said to be suitably porous for
smuggling (although Saddam has been caught smuggling several times in the
past decade).

The get-Saddam camp also likes to point out that sanctions haven't seemed to
inflict similar grief in countries such as Libya and Yugoslavia. To which
Richard Garfield, who compared the various penalized countries, has an
effective rebuttal: "Embargoes with the greatest impact on the health of the
general population are usually those which are multilateral and
comprehensive, occur in countries with heavy import dependence, are
implemented rapidly, and are accompanied by other economic and social blows
to a country. Iraq shared each of these characteristics."

Those who get past the initial frustrations of researching the topic usually
end up on Richard Garfield's doorstep. His 1999 report -- which included a
logistic regression analysis that re-examined four previously published
child mortality surveys and added bits from 75 or so other relevant studies
-- picked apart the faulty methodologies of his predecessors, criticized the
bogus claims of the anti-sanctions left, admitted when the data were shaky,
and generally used conservative numbers. Among his many interesting findings
was that every sanctions regime except the one imposed on apartheid South
Africa led to limitations of food and medicine imports, even though such
goods were almost always officially exempt from the embargo. "In many
countries," he wrote, "the embargo-related lack of capital was more
important than direct restrictions on importing medicine or food."

Garfield concluded that between August 1991 and March 1998 there were at
least 106,000 excess deaths of children under 5, with a "more likely"
worst-case sum of 227,000. (He recently updated the latter figure to 350,000
through this year.) Of those deaths, he estimated one-quarter were "mainly
associated with the Gulf war." The chief causes, in his view, were
"contaminated water, lack of high quality foods, inadequate breast feeding,
poor weaning practices, and inadequate supplies in the curative health care
system. This was the product of both a lack of some essential goods, and
inadequate or inefficient use of existing essential goods."

Ultimately, Garfield argued, sanctions played an undeniably important role.
"Even a small number of documentable excess deaths is an expression of a
humanitarian disaster, and this number is not small," he concluded. "[And]
excess deaths seen as the tip of the iceberg among damages to
occur among under five-year-olds in Iraq in the 1990s....The humanitarian
disaster which has occurred in Iraq far exceeds what may be any reasonable
level of acceptable damages according to the principles of discrimination
and proportionality used in warfare....To the degree that economic sanctions
complicate access to and utilization of essential goods, sanctions
regulations should be modified immediately."

Garfield's conclusion echoes that of literally every international agency
that has performed extensive studies in Iraq. In 1999 a U.N. Humanitarian
Panel found that "the gravity of the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi
people is indisputable and cannot be overstated." UNICEF's Carol Bellamy, at
the time her landmark report was released, said, "Even if not all suffering
in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi
people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the
prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war."
The former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, travels
around the world calling the policy he once enforced "genocide." His
replacement, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest of the U.N.'s
"criminal policy."

Losing the Loonies

There have been no weapons inspectors in Iraq since 1998. As a result it is
exceptionally difficult to know with precision what nuclear and biological
weapons Saddam actually has on hand or in development. From the beginning,
economic sanctions have been tied to what foreign policy analyst Mark
Phythian described in World Affairs as "the first attempt to disarm a
country against its will." After September 11, the issue of an
America-hating tyrant arming himself to the teeth has seemed more pressing
than easing an embargo that blocks his access to money.

Yet the basic argument against all economic sanctions remains: namely, that
they tend to punish civilians more than governments and to provide dictators
with a gift-wrapped propaganda tool. Any visitor to Cuba can see within 24
hours the futility of slapping an embargo on a sheltered population that is
otherwise inclined to detest its government and embrace its yanqui
neighbors. Sanctions give anti-American enclaves, whether in Cairo or
Berkeley or Peshawar, one of their few half-convincing arguments about evil
U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War.

It seems awfully hard not to conclude that the embargo on Iraq has been
ineffective (especially since 1998) and that it has, at the least,
contributed to more than 100,000 deaths since 1990. With Bush set to go to
war over Saddam's noncompliance with the military goals of the sanctions,
there has never been a more urgent time to confront the issue with clarity.

That means losing the loonies on the left. Already there are signs of
mounting liberal impatience with the routine smokescreens emanating from the
usual anti-sanctions rabble. Slate, The Guardian, and even The Nation all
published sober correctives of dead-Iraqi-baby inflation toward the end of
2001, decisively backing Richard Garfield over Robert Jensen. And if Noam
Chomsky no longer leads this particular coalition of critics, maybe they're
not so wrong after all.

Matt Welch, a columnist for the Online Journalism Review, is a writer in Los

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