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Published Evening Post 10/11/98

Marten Hutt is an HRC postdoctoral research fellow at the Health Services Research Centre, Wellington. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Iraq Sanctions Medical Alert Group.

Eight years have passed since the Gulf War. However, the bluster and brinkmanship continue, with Iraq's Saddam Hussein refusing to cooperate with arms inspections until economic sanctions are lifted.

Sanctions have been in place since 1991, when Resolution 687 of the United Nations (UN) Security Council was passed. This resolution maintains that the sanctions will be lifted once the Security Council is satisfied that Iraq has complied with the programme of destruction of its weapons of mass destruction.

The position of the New Zealand Government is to support the enforcement of sanctions. HMNZS Wellington and Canterbury were sent in 1995-1996, and Cabinet is currently considering sending an Orion aircraft to the Persian Gulf.

However, it is time for a reality check on the sanctions. Eight years of sanctions have strengthened, not weakened, Saddam's rule. Eight years of sanctions have weakened, not strengthened, the people of Iraq. To understand how the complete opposite of the policy objectives were attained, we need to examine the sanctions regime itself.

How do the sanctions work?

UN official Eric Falt was quoted last month as saying the sanctions regime was "the most complex [programme] the UN has ever organised". It is a highly complex piece of socialist central planning. Oil revenues are held in escrow by the UN in New York. Every economic decision, no matter how small, has to be approved by this committee.

Among many problems with the UN bureaucratic process has been the "dual use" provision. If there is any possible military use, the application is turned down. Among hundreds of everyday items recently turned down by the UN sanctions committee have been ambulances, putty, wheelbarrows, shopping carts, napkins, sandpaper, mops and chalk.

To offset the effects of this micro-management of the Iraqi economy, the so-called "oil-for-food" programme has been instituted. A UN report issued on 1 September confirmed the view that this programme suffers from bureaucratic delays, both from Iraq and the UN. Reparations, UN expenses and oil price fluctuations have ensured the UN is US$1 billion behind schedule on delivering humanitarian aid to Iraq.

This is to be expected. On 4 September, the executive director of the Office of the Iraq Programme, Benon Sevan, admitted that the oil-for-food programme " was never meant to take care of all the needs of the Iraqi people...It was just a temporary measure".

The effect of the sanctions

The most devastating weapon of mass destruction has been the sanctions regime itself. Last year the UN estimated that, since 1991, 750,000 Iraqi children have died as a result of the sanctions. According to UNICEF, this death toll grows by 4,500 children, over and above normal mortality rates, each month.

On the "60 Minutes" TV programme, that figure was quoted to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She replied that "we feel this is a hard choice, but we think - we think the price is worth it". US diplomats and politicians have accepted the child mortality and morbidity data, and decided the policy benefits are worth the human cost. Regardless of the moral bankruptcy this quote reveals, this view is to be applauded for its intellectual honesty.

International agencies such as UNICEF, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and medical journals such the British Medical Journal attest to recent massive rises in rates of water-borne infectious diseases, such as cholera and typhoid, as well as in malnutrition. Former New Zealand Director-General of Health, Professor George Salmond, has described this situation as a "public health disaster".

Children have been hit the hardest. WHO reported that mortality rates of children less than five years of age have increased six times since 1990. This year, the Lancet reported that leukaemia rates have increased four times, and UNICEF nutrition surveys show consistent malnutrition rates for under 1s and 5s of about 30%.

Why doesn't Saddam just cooperate and have the sanctions lifted?

Like many simple, but fair, questions, the answer is complex. Without delving into personal psychology, here is a tripartite explanation, which revolves around self-interest and incentives.

Firstly, Saddam is a brutal dictator who shows little regard for the welfare of his people. He will not always do what is rational or just. The latest outburst of non-cooperation is both regrettable and hopeless.

Secondly, many statements from the US in particular have handed Iraq a potent weapon to argue that no matter what they did, and while Saddam remained in power, the sanctions would remain. Stepping well beyond the scope of Resolution 687, US State Department spokesman James Rubin noted earlier this year that Iraqi compliance would "include more than weapons of mass destruction provisions". This included return of Kuwaiti prisoners and property, and repair of environmental damage caused by the Gulf War.

Thirdly, sanctions have made Saddam's rule stronger, and make him look like a martyr. The Kurds are no longer a headache. Imports are now narrowly channelled courtesy of the UN, hence his cronies get to control the black markets.

Ordinary Iraqi people are caught in the middle. As they have never voted on his post-Gulf War actions, we cannot just say "Its up to Saddam".

Reality check

We should acknowledge that the sanctions and the oil-for-food programme are not working. On 1 October, the world's media reported that the UN co-ordinator of the oil-for-food programme, Denis Halliday, had dramatically resigned. Halliday resigned, he said, to expose the "damage and futility of sanctions...a totally bankrupt damages the innocent people of the country [and] probably strengthens the leadership...pushing people to take extreme positions".

If we choose to retain economic sanctions, they can be either eased or re-focused. Removal of economic sanctions might raise the well-founded fear that Saddam will rebuild his military machine once he has his hands on the oil revenue. But if the Security Council has the collective resolve to enforce sanctions, then they can collectively vow not to sell Saddam arms post sanctions-lifting.

There is compelling justification to retain the arms embargo, and sanctions could be re-worked to target the leadership more explicitly, such as through access to Swiss bank accounts.

Easing economic sanctions would not let Iraq off the hook. The medical evidence alone tells us the Iraqi people have paid a heavy toll for the actions of their renegade leader. It is debatable whether Saddam has yet to pay his dues in equal measure.

New Zealand position

Despite the goalpost-shifting and perverse incentives, the current New Zealand Government is committed to binding UN resolutions. But our diplomats can be instructed to whisper unease in the corridors of the UN. Our voice is well-respected in the UN.

Internationally and nationally, the focus of the debate has moved onto the health effects of the sanctions, through such groups as the Iraq Sanctions Medical Alert Group (ISMAG), a group of Wellington-based doctors and epidemiologists. ISMAG has been advising the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the medical costs of supporting the sanctions. In conjunction with UNICEF (NZ), ISMAG has helped raise $43,000 for medical and humanitarian relief through UNICEF's 0800 number (0800 243 575437). This builds on the concern of many New Zealanders - notably the Red Cross, Quakers and other mainstream church leaders - in questioning the sanctions regime.

In the run-up to the next election, we look to individual MPs and political parties to make their position on Iraq explicit and evidence-based. The views of credible agencies such as UNICEF, WHO and the spate of damning UN reports and resignations, and talking to anyone who has been to Iraq, all confirm that sanctions are not working.

It is time for bitter realism. Sanctions are brutal. They hurt the wrong people. The price is not worth it.



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