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March 2000 - The War Has Not Ended

CASI Background Document on Three Kings

"the toughest, most comprehensive sanctions in history"
James Rubin, US State Department spokesman, daily press briefing, 1 December, 1997

"I do not think it is fair to make the civilian population subject to bargaining (by) the government of Iraq on the one hand and the other in the Security Council. The real victims are those who walk the streets of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul"
Hans von Sponeck, resigning as UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, 15 February 2000

The Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq (CASI) is a registered society at the University of Cambridge. Its members are all volunteers; its committee members are students. CASI is exclusively concerned with the humanitarian consequences of sanctions on Iraq. It does not support Saddam Hussein's regime and does not oppose military sanctions on Iraq.


Three Kings, David Russell's new film starring George Clooney, attempts to portray ordinary Iraqis caught between the brutality of their own government and the indifference of the US government. Nine years after the end of the Gulf War and the ensuing civil war, 22 million ordinary Iraqis remain trapped between warring governments. Sanctions, imposed after the invasion of Kuwait, still reduce Iraqis' ability to meet their needs and to rebuild their country after the wars in 1991. This sanctions regime "is unprecedented in terms of longevity and its comprehensive nature" according to a recent House of Commons Select Committee report [HC 67, 10 February 2000]. US and British air raids have continued over most of Iraq, albeit with less fanfare, since December 1998.

This document provides an overview of the situation in Iraq today. Its sources are primarily United Nations documents as these are the best independent sources of data (wherever possible we provide URLs to the sources mentioned). To guard against presenting too partial a portrayal we often quote at length; to indicate consensus, we often quote more than one source. As these safeguards lengthen the briefing we use bold text to orient the reader.

Reliance on sterile UN data risks adding to the depersonalisation of individual Iraqis. This is a problem as we already tend to regard Iraq as Saddam Hussein supported by a cast of thousands of statistics. Nevertheless, we believe that this approach provides the most neutral overview of the situation. We do, though, conclude with an excerpt from James Buchan's 1999 Granta article on his travels in Iraq in the hopes of balancing the pure data.

We are sending you this briefing not to advocate anything, but merely to provide you with some information on the situation in Iraq subsequent to the events portrayed in Three Kings. It is our belief that the suffering of Iraqis, and our role in it, has been a silent tragedy and that we must make use of any opportunity to draw our attention to it again. Three Kings provides such an opportunity.


On 2 August 1990, sanctions were imposed on Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait. On 30 January 1999, out of concern for their impact on ordinary Iraqis, the United Nations Security Council established a panel to "assess the current humanitarian situation in Iraq and make recommendations to the Security Council regarding measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Iraq". This humanitarian panel reported back on 30 March. Some of its findings are outlined below.

In December 1999 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) issued a Special Report entitled, IRAQ: A decade of sanctions. Its opening paragraphs paint a similar picture to that in the humanitarian panel report:


The humanitarian panel report compared the situation before the Gulf War to that afterwards:

The first sentences of paragraph 18, edited out above, addressed maternal, under-five child and infant mortality rates. We removed them as, in August 1999, Unicef produced more recent independent figures. Their press release summarises their findings:

The Unicef report itself notes that "the proportion of maternal deaths (31 percent) shows that maternal mortality is a leading cause of deaths in the last ten years among women of reproductive age". This means that roughly one in every three Iraqi women who die while of child bearing age (15 - 49 years old) die due to complications surrounding maternity.

A January 2000 explanatory memorandum on the sanctions on Iraq issued by Human Rights Watch, one of the world's two largest dedicated human rights organisations, added that:

Paragraph 26 of the humanitarian panel report mentioned the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq. This is Hans von Sponeck, the second of two Humanitarian Co-ordinators in Iraq. He, like his predecessor, has now resigned to protest the effects of the sanctions. Responding to US criticism for speaking out about the effects of the sanctions before his resignation, von Sponeck explained that "[the] very title that I hold as a humanitarian coordinator suggests that I cannot be silent over that which we see here ourselves" [Reuters, 8 February 2000]. After resigning he went on to say:

A week later he added that:

Von Sponeck's predecessor, Denis Halliday, had explained his resignation in September 1998 by saying that "[we] are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral" [The Independent, 15 October 1998].


British and American government officials publicly deny that sanctions have contributed to the suffering in Iraq. These statements display a confusion about the nature of sanctions: sanctions are coercive instruments and they seek to coerce by causing hardship.

Mikael Barford of the European Commission's Humanitarian Office presented oral evidence to the House of Commons' Select Committee on International Development for their Second Report, on The Future of Sanctions [HC 67, 10 February 2000]. He identified six reasons that economic sanctions may harm civilians more than a regime:

The Red Cross' Special Report is very clear that the sanctions on Iraq are contributing to hardship, claiming that, "[as] in war, it is civilians who are the prime victims of sanctions".

A year and a half previously, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities noted:

The House of Commons International Development Select Committee concluded that:

On 12 May 1996 Madeleine Albright demonstrated the difficulties involved in admitting the consequences of these sanctions in an appearance on the US television show, 60 Minutes. At the time she was the US ambassador to the United Nations; six months later she became Secretary of State. Host Lesley Stahl, referring to a 1995 figure, asked:

Videotapes of the show are available from CBS (1-800-848-3256); the segment above may be viewed on the web.


According to the House Special Committee's report on The Future of Sanctions:

The Human Rights Watch memorandum expanded on the consequences of the Gulf War bombing:


The humanitarian panel report contains the most comprehensive review of the "oil for food" programme of exemptions to the sanctions:

The Red Cross Special Report agreed:


Before searching for alternatives, we should ask whether Albright was right: have the achievements of the sanctions on Iraq been worth the price? The consensus within academic and diplomatic circles disagrees so strongly as to use the sanctions on Iraq as the example of failed sanctions. The first words in Prof. Daniel W. Drezner's 1999 book on the difficulties in using sanctions against dictatorial regimes are:

The Human Rights Watch memorandum agreed, stating that the "balance sheet of several years of sanctions against Iraq reveals a minimum of political dividends as against a high human price paid primarily by women and children."

In December 1999 the UN Security Council passed a new resolution (SCR 1284), piloted by the UK and supported by the US. The other three permanent members of the Security Council, France, China and Russia, abstained from voting on it (for more information, see CASI's briefing). Representatives of the US and the UK claimed that 1284 represents a significant humanitarian development. White House National Security Adviser Sandy Berger also felt that the resolution gave the sanctions "a greater degree of legitimacy and acceptability around the world" [Reuters, 19 December 1999].

Berger's optimism may be unfounded. On 17 February the Daily Telegraph reported that:

This article was written shortly after the second UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, tendered his resignation. He also disagreed that 1284 offered sufficient humanitarian improvements:

He had previously claimed that he was not alone in his beliefs:

The day after his resignation, Jutta Burghardt, head of the UN World Food Programme in Baghdad, proved him right by resigning as well. She too denied that the new resolution could meet the humanitarian needs of ordinary Iraqis:

According to the Associated Press, "Von Sponeck's call for the sanctions to be lifted earned him the wrath of the United States and Britain. He also wanted the Security Council to separate the issues of humanitarian aid and disarmament in Iraq" [15 February 2000]. Days earlier, just after von Sponeck had announced his resignation, US State Department spokesperson James Rubin replied, "Good" [Reuters,11 February 2000].

Perhaps surprisingly, UN humanitarian staff like Halliday, von Sponeck and Burghardt are supported by Scott Ritter. Ritter, an ex US Marine, became the most famous weapons inspector in Iraq for his "challenge inspections", designed to break the Iraqi weapons concealment progamme. In August 1998 he resigned. Ritter has since spoken out against the sanctions to all who will listen:

He too has argued for a separation of the military and humanitarian issues:

The Human Rights Watch memorandum also recommended de-linking the humanitarian and political problems:

The question of dual use items is a difficult one, as noted by the House Select Committee:

The representative of Save the Children was referring to the tendency of the US and British representatives to the Sanctions Committee to place holds on items regarded as dual use. According to a letter written by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on 23 October 1999:

Benon Sevan, the Executive Director of the UN Iraq Programme in New York commented on this when he briefed the Security Council on 17 November. Regarding holds on electrical contracts, he reported the UNDP's estimate that "Iraq could potentially achieve a 50 per cent increase in electricity supply if these holds were released" and is sure "we all share the view that there is a direct link between reliable power generation and the provision of health care, water supplies and other basic services" . The importance of telecommunications contracts is less immediately obvious but Mr Sevan wished:

Aware of this, the Human Rights Watch memorandum noted that:

Many observers caution soberly that the lifting of the non-military sanctions on Iraq will not solve its economic problems. The Red Cross Special Report claims that:


James Buchan, Granta Magazine # 67: "Women and Children First" (1999). The version below is taken from The Guardian's 25 September 1999 excerpt, The Children of the Storm.

This briefing has been prepared by Colin Rowat, 393 King's College, Cambridge CB2 1ST, tel 0468 056 984, fax 0870 063 4984. CASI can be reached via its website or by e-mail. It is happy to accept donations to support the distribution of these briefings.