Iraq scholars criticize sanctions

Two experts on Iraqi politics asserted that economic sanctions against Iraq throughout the 1990s resulted in disastrous humanitarian consequences in a Wednesday afternoon talk.

Joy Gordon, a philosophy professor at Fairfield University, and Hans-Christof von Sponeck, head of United Nations operations in Iraq from 1998 to 2000, each gave talks at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies about the history and humanitarian impact of economic sanctions placed on Iraq. Von Sponeck said he initially supported the economic sanctions that were imposed against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1990, but that it became clear to him once he assumed his post as head of U.N. operations in Iraq that the sanctions were hurting the Iraqi people, particularly because the U.N. was not effectively delivering humanitarian aid alongside the sanctions.

“In reality, the sanctions actually helped Hussein consolidate his power and influence,” von Sponeck said.

In listing the negative consequences of the harsh economic sanctions of the 1990s, von Sponeck mentioned the collapse of Iraq’s education system, an unemployment rate of between 60 and 70 percent, low rates of residential construction and an unprecedented growth in the number of Iraqi orphans. According to von Sponeck, the U.N. Security Council and other countries erroneously believed these sanctions would cripple Saddam Hussein’s rule.

In order to dispense humanitarian aid during this time, the U.N. set up an office in Iraq dedicated to the task that was separate from the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — an organizational structure that had never before been tried. He said the newly formed office failed to properly integrate humanitarian, human rights and disarmament efforts. While the Iraqi people were receiving little support in upholding their civil rights, he said imposing sanctions that caused them suffering was unfair.

“As I carried out my job in Iraq, the growing gap between what the U.N. Security Council grasped as its responsibility and the actual implementation of policies in Iraq became very clear to me,” he said. “As this gap grew, I began to see the sanctions placed on Iraq as unjustified.”

After von Sponeck concluded his speech, Gordon followed with a detailed analysis of the challenges faced by humanitarian officials in Iraq. Gordon said the secrecy and hypocrisy of the 661 Committee, the U.N. committee responsible for implementing humanitarian aid in Iraq during the sanctions, carried most of the blame for the lack of humanitarian aid delivered to the country.

“661 Committee meetings did take minutes, but these minutes were highly restricted, and not circulated to the entire committee,” she said. “Only permanent members were allowed to see them. This created the problem, right from the beginning, of holding any specific committee members responsible for their actions and votes,” she said.

In providing an example of the committee’s hypocrisy, Gordon said the United States, a permanent member of the 661 Committee, released public statements saying that Iraq could import desperately needed items, while it simultaneously supported legal restrictions that prevented Iraq from importing these goods. In one case, she said, the United States forbade Iraq from importing antibiotics on the grounds the medicine could be used as an antidote to anthrax.

Gordon is the author of “Invisible War,” and von Sponeck is the author of “A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanction Regime in Iraq.” Both books focus on the sanctions against Iraq in the last 20 years.

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