Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq


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Guide to Sanctions

[Guide contents & introduction]

7. Why is Northern Iraq in a better shape than the areas under the control of the Iraqi Government?

Humanitarian agencies have consistently reported that, whilst the situation in central and southern Iraq -- administered by the Government of Iraq -- remains one of humanitarian crisis, there has actually been a decline in mortality rates in Iraqi Kurdistan, administered by the UN since 1991. US and UK government statements have claimed this is evidence that the Iraqi regime is intentionally sustaining high mortality rates outside of Iraqi Kurdistan to win sympathy. In the words of one UK Foreign Office Minister, the difference "is because in northern Iraq the UN is implementing the 'oil for food' programme, not the Iraqi authorities. And it is doing so in a manner designed to bring maximum benefit to the Iraqi people."

Responses to this are two-fold. On one level, the direct cause of the suffering is much less relevant than ascertaining what can be done to prevent it. Under sanctions, at least hundreds of thousands more Iraqis have died. Whether or not the sanctions that the UK and US have imposed are intrinsically lethal or have only been so when manipulated by Baghdad, these governments have an ability to reduce the suffering if they choose.

On the second level, if one is concerned about the causes, various analyses make clear that the difference between Iraqi Kurdistan and South/Central Iraq is due to a wide variety of factors, and cannot simply be explained by pointing to the malevolence of the Iraqi leadership. As Anupama Singh, Unicef representative in Baghdad, explained in 1999, "the UN's direct role in the north did not account for the widely different results in infant mortality, especially since the oil-for-food deal went into effect only in 1997." Instead, Ms Singh suggested that the differences could be explained by a number of factors, including "the heavy presence of humanitarian agencies helping the Kurdish population". In addition, according to Ms Singh, in Northern Iraq "the oil-for-food money includes a cash component, allowing the UN, for example, to train local authorities and more effectively implement and monitor programmes. In the centre and south under Iraqi regime control, no funds are allocated to ministries for fear they would be used for more sinister purposes. The government may receive sanitation equipment, for example, but not have the resources to pay for contractors to install it."

Ms Singh's statements are expanded upon by a Unicef document from August 1999 which seeks to explain the differences in the current levels of child mortality between the autonomous northern governorates and the rest of Iraq:

"... the difference in the current rate cannot be attributed to the differing ways the Oil-for-Food Program is implemented in the two parts of Iraq. The Oil-for-Food Program is two and a half years old. Therefore it is too soon to measure any significant impact of the Oil-for-Food Program on child mortality over the five year period of 1994-1999 as is reported in these surveys. We need to look at longer-term trends and factors including the fact that since 1991 the north has received far more support per capita from the international community than the south and center of Iraq. Another factor maybe that the sanctions themselves have not been able to be so rigorously enforced in the north as the border is more "porous" than in the south and center of Iraq."

The March 1999 report of the Security Council's Humanitarian Panel also provides reasons for the differences between the two regions of Iraq (§44):

"The North of Iraq is clearly doing better than the Center/South for a variety of reasons. The per capita allocation of funds under the 986 programme is higher, distribution of food and medicine through UN agencies is comparatively more efficient than distribution by the Government, and the Northern border is more permeable to embargoed commodities than the rest of the country. ... Although the historic vulnerability of the North, as recognized in paragraph 8 (b) of resolution 986 (1995) would seem to justify the special attention it receives, it is a matter of concern that the situation in the Center/South is, in general terms, comparatively worse - a circumstance which most UN agencies felt should not be overlooked. It was also noted, in this context, that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Iraq has been consistently upheld by Security Council resolutions."

Similarly, a leading epidemiologist at Columbia University, Professor Richard Garfield, wrote to the New York Times on 13 September 1999, saying that:

"... the embargo in the North is not the "same embargo".... The North enjoys porous borders with Turkey, Syria, and Iran, and thus is effectively less embargoed than the rest of the country. It benefits from the aid of 34 Non-Government Organizations, while in the whole rest of the country there are only 11. It receives 22% more per capita from the Oil for Food program, and gets about 10% of all UN-controlled assistance in currency, while the rest of the country receives only commodities. Food, medicine, and water pumps are now helping reduce mortality throughout Iraq, but the pumps do less for sanitation where authorities cannot buy sand, hire day laborers, or find many other minor inputs to make filtration plants work. Goods have been approved by the UN and distributed to the North far faster than in the Center or South. The UN Security Council treats people in that part of the country like innocents. Close to 20 million civilians in the Center and South of the country deserve the same treatment. Spokesman James P. Rubin said that 'We can't solve a problem that is the result of tyrannical behavior.' He probably was referring to Saddam Hussein. As one involved in providing assistance throughout Iraq, I must admit that the arbitrary, ineffective, or destructive control sometimes exercised by the Security Council over Iraqi funds for food and medicine seem no less tyrannical. A good faith effort to meet basic needs in Iraq would create a better basis to negotiate an end to the Iraq conflict. Instead, every problem is blamed on Saddam. This politicization of the Oil for Food program only delays and weakens our ability to address the urgent humanitarian needs created by this most comprehensive embargo of the 20th century."

Finally, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its report of September 2000 also points to the differences in health and nutritional status between the two areas of Iraq. The report notes that "in contrast to the situation in the centre/south, improvements in the nutritional situation in the north had started in 1994, prior to SCR 986". In other words, the start of the discrepant development preceded the arrival of goods under the "oil for food" programme by almost three years. According to the FAO, the difference between the north and the South/Centre is "due to greater resources in the north, the north has 9% of the land area of Iraq but nearly 50% of the productive arable land, and receives higher levels of assistance per person. The north also benefits from the greater flexibility the use of cash gives" (p. 28). In addition, there may be some truth in the claim that the UN administration is more efficient than the corresponding Iraqi authorities; for example, UN staff are paid while Iraqi officials do not receive salaries from 'oil for food' money.

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