United Nations Sanctions Against Iraq: The Destruction of an Entire Population

The United Nations Organization was established with the ostensible purpose of bringing about peaceful resolution to international conflicts, for “solving problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character,” and for “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

The UN Security Council played in 1990 a decisive role in mobilizing the coalition that ultimately pushed back the Iraqi army that invaded Kuwait. After the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf war in early 1991, the Security Council passed the resolution that set economic sanctions on Iraq prohibiting trade in all “non-essential” commodities. Trade sanctions turned out later to include such items as paper, pens, and ink, all essential for education and human development.

Nine years of economic sanctions have devastated the Iraqi population, and brought untold sorrow and misery to ordinary Iraqis, particularly the most vulnerable. Latest statistics about the socioeconomic conditions in Iraq, furnished by UN organs such as WHO and UNICEF, reveal a horrifying picture of the sorrow state of affairs inside Iraq, and compelling many members of the UN, as well as countless civil society organizations, including CBD, to call for the end of sanctions, and to question the propriety of using economic sanctions against an entire population. The severity of the sanctions regime has forced two senior UN officials to resign in protest of the inhumane conditions brought about as a result. The representatives of US and UK, under pressure from close allies, and in response to international criticism, introduced in 1997 an oil-for-food plan. But as latest statistics reveal, the plan did very little to rectify the situation.


Recent figures show that the Iraqi economy is in shambles. The UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that over 4 million Iraqis, constituting 20% of the population, live in extreme poverty. The purchasing power of the local currency has been greatly reduced. By 1997, the exchange rate between the Iraqi Dinar (ID) and the US dollar has droped from US$3 = 1 ID in 1990 to about US $1 = ID1,500 in 1997.

The drastic reduction in the purchasing power of the Iraqi Dinar, coupled with the destruction of the industrial infrastructure during the 1991 war, resulted in the complete collapse of the Iraqi economy. The GDP per capita has been reduced from $3500 to $600 and the current salary of public workers now averages about $3 to $5 per month, compared with $50-100 prior to 1990.

While food received through public rations is not sufficient to provided minimal nutrition, soaring food prices makes the food sold on the market inaccessible to most Iraqis. At least 80% of a family’s income is spent on food.


The Gulf war and later the UN sanctions have tremendously reduced Iraq’s ability to provide good sanitation. Water treatment plants lack spare parts, equipment, treatment chemicals, proper maintenance and adequate qualified staff. Plants often act solely as pumping stations without any treatment. “The distribution network, on which most of the population relies, has destroyed, blocked or leaky pipes. There have been no new projects to serve the expected population increase over the past seven years.”

Combined with the reduced accessibility to nutritious food stuff by most Iraqis, the lack of good sanitary conditions have led to sudden rise in health problems, particularly among children and the elderly. “The increase in mortality reported in public hospitals for children under five years of age (an excess of some 40,000 deaths yearly compared with 1989) is mainly due to diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. In those over five years of age, the increase (an excess of some 50,000 deaths yearly compared with 1989) is associated with heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, liver or kidney diseases. With the substantial increase in mortality, under-registration of deaths is a growing problem.”

“Malnutrition was not a public health problem in Iraq prior to the embargo. Its extent became apparent during 1991 and the prevalence has increased greatly since then.” UNICEF reported that 18% in 1991 to 31% in 1996 of all children under five suffer from “chronic malnutrition (stunting); 9% to 26% with underweight malnutrition; 3% to 11% with wasting (acute malnutrition), an increase in over 200%. By 1997, it was estimated about one million children under five were [chronically] malnourished.”


The destruction of the education system as a result of the Gulf War and UN sanctions has been extensive. Decline in school enrollment is on the increase. UN sanctions are so watertight and unsparing that even school supply does not escape. The most basic school supplies, such as blackboards, chalks, pencils, notebooks and paper (designated as “non-essential” by the Sanctions Committee), are inaccessible. Further, 84% of all schools need rehabilitation.

Oil For Food Plan

The oil-for-food Plan that was meant to ease the suffering of the civilian population, has not been effective in achieving the desired goal, and has brought very little comfort to the Iraqi population. In addition, there has been serious complications and bureaucratic maneuvering in its implementation. Although the Security Council resolution that established the Oil-for-Food Plan (SCR 983) “is meant to provide US$210 million for each six month period of the Phase I and II, only US$80 million (i.e., 20%) had been received ” by the end of the first six months.

The UNICEF 1998 report made it abundantly clear that “Oil for Food plan has not reduced widespread suffering, nor provided supplies in full, in a timely manner.” “The Oil-for-Food plan has not yet resulted in adequate protection of Iraq’s children from malnutrition/disease. Those children spared from death continue to remain deprived of essential rights addressed in the Convention of Rights of the Child.”

The continuation of the sanctions, despite their inhumane effects on the Iraqi population, raises serious questions about their usefulness and propriety. There is no evidence that the sanctions have contributed to the weakening or de-stabilizing the Iraqi government. To the contrary, the sanctions have contributed to weakening the Iraqi population and have destroyed whatever remains of the civil society of Iraq under Saddam’s regime, thereby making the possibility of popular mobilization against the regime more difficult if not impossible.

* Center for Balanced Development (CBD)

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