Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq


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Guide to Sanctions

[Guide contents & introduction]

6. Isn't the problem that the Iraqi regime doesn't distribute the supplies it receives?

The UK government has persistently claimed that the humanitarian crisis in Iraq is caused in large part because the Government of Iraq diverts resources that it imports under the 'oil for food' scheme, either for supplementing the wealth of a small elite, or to sustain poverty for propagandistic reasons. This is an explanation that has been consistently challenged by UN agencies and personnel working within Iraq.

In a September 2000 report the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) characterised the Government of Iraq's food rationing system as "effective". It notes that the availability of "cereal imports since 1997/98 under the oil-for-food deal has led to significant improvements in the food supply situation" (p. 31). Nevertheless, a major problem is that "food rations do not provide a nutritionally adequate and varied diet" (p. 33). In addition, poverty compounds this problem: "with the decline in household income, a significant number of Iraqis are not in a position to adequately complement the ration" (p. 14).

Tun Myat, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, made similar comments in his first press conference on 19 October 2000. He said that the food distribution system in Iraq under the 'oil for food' programme was "second to none", but that "in order to affect the overall livelihood and nutrition state of the people, of the children, you need more than food, of course". Unless the basics -- housing, electricity, water, and sanitation -- were restored, the overall well-being of the people would not improve. In addition to the collapse of such infrastructure, he said, the major problem was poverty.

Most recently in February 2002 Unicef described the distribution of food rations by the Iraqi government as "a massive logistic operation that appears to work flawlessly". It went on to note that "households' dependency on food rations has evolved over the past decade to almost total dependency" and consequently "the capability of households to cope with food shortages has reduced".

The Security Council's Humanitarian Panel report of 30 March 1999 commented directly on the question of Iraqi cooperation with 'oil for food' (§37):

"While there is agreement that the Government could do more to make the "oil for food" programme work in a better and more timely fashion, it was not clear to what extent the problems encountered could be attributed to deliberate action or inaction on the part of the Iraqi Government. It is generally recognized that certain sectors such as electricity work smoothly while drug supplies suffer from delays in distribution. But mismanagement, funding shortages (absence of the so called "cash component") and a general lack of motivation might also explain such delays. While food and medicine had been explicitly exempted by Security Council resolution 661, controls imposed by resolution 986 had, at times, created obstacles to their timely supply."

The "cash component" bears explanation. In the areas of Iraq under governmental control, the government is not given cash in return for oil sales under the "oil for food" scheme, but only receives delivery of goods. As a result it is constrained in its ability to, for example, hire a lorry to make a delivery if it does not have one available at the time.

In summary there is no evidence of systematic attempts by the government of Iraq to divert resources imported under the 'oil for food' programme. In fact it is the success of the government of Iraq's food rationing system which keeps many Iraqis from starvation.

Further reading:

Two excellent briefings by Voices in the Wilderness:

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