Vanishing Act: Making an entire people just “disappear”


It was 1991 when President Bush had to persuade the American people and congress to go to war with Iraq. When people suggested that sanctions be used instead of going to war, George W. Bush senior simply stated that “Sanctions won’t work”. With that in mind, we went off to war.

Skip ahead only ten years and what do we see: sanctions. The one thing that couldn’t win the war is the only weapon America seems to think can. Throughout these ten years, however, not much has changed in the Iraqi power structure. American administrations have come and gone, but one thing has remained constant: the sanctions on Iraq. What has changed is the heath and well being of the Iraqi people as they have spiraled into mediocrity.

Through each major administration we have heard the repeated calls that sanctions are the only way to rid Iraq of its despotic leader. Yet, if they are, why is Sadam still in power today, and why is he more powerful than ever? Sanctions have never had a long history of being effective. They have obviously failed in Cuba, as they have failed in North Korea and Vietnam at the expense of millions of lives over the course of many generations. Somehow this country has inherited the dangerous notion of “the end justifies the means.” Future generations will regard the sanctions on Iraq as this generation’s holocaust; and in bewilderment they will ask “why?”

But surely, most Americans think, there must be a reason for these sanctions to be in place. Yet, there truly is not, at least based on the list of justifications the United States has provided. The US has provided the following rationalizations for the sanctions: humanitarian reasons, the need to get Sadam Hossein out of power, and disarmament of Iraq. Clearly the former cannot be a viable reason because the US fervently supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when he was at the peak of his inhumane actions. In fact, in 1988 when Iraq used gas on humans the US stoutly blocked any criticism of its ally and continued to support Iraq. The middle argument is, of course, very flawed. The US did not verbally support an uprising by the people of Iraq until after the main insurrections of the masses to overthrow Sadam. The US has quite openly, in fact, supported a coup by Sadam’s generals so as to have an equally if not more corrupt government that the US can manipulate; just without the bad publicity and stubbornness of Sadam. Clearly, however, the US benefits from a regional mad man such as Sadam, for he serves as a type of threat to others in the region (example: if you don’t agree with us, will let Sadam loose on you) and he also serves as an example and figure head for other puppet leaders around the world (“If you mess with the United States you will end up like Saddam). And the latter argument cannot be true because the United States and others have spent trillions of dollars to arm other regional powers to the teeth with chemical and biological (and in some cases nuclear) weapons. Most of these nations have repeatedly proven themselves more volatile and aggressive than Iraq, and certainly more willing to flaunt their might; especially in the case of Israel. It is surprising then that Israel does not have to respond to inspectors or the such. One can only wonderéwhen will the sanctions on Israel begin?

The devastation that has occurred as a direct result of these sanctions is astronomical and not appreciated by the average citizen of the United States. What is shocking is that every year a new report from a major group affiliated with the United Nations comes out demonstrating the extreme wreckage the sanctions have brought about, yet the UN does nothing but file these reports away in a closet. In defense of many of the United Nations members states, they are largely against the continued sanctions against Iraq however there votes are void and useless when blocked by the United States’ and United Kingdom’s dictatorial veto power in the Security Council. So while the world watches in horror the US and UK continue their fight against an invisible enemy. The UN itself estimates that an average of 250 children under the age of five dies every day as a result of the sanctions. Furthermore, the World Health Organization confirms similar statistics stating that between 7,000 and 8,000 children under the age of five die each month.

In repeated reports the UN has found grave numbers that only seem to become more grotesque In March of 1999 they reported:

“Iraq has experienced a shift from relative affluence to massive poverty. In marked contrast to the prevailing situation prior to the events of 1990-91, the infant mortality rates in Iraq today are among the highest in the world, low infant birth weight affects at least 23% of all births, chronic malnutrition affects every fourth child under five years of age, only 41% of the population have regular access to clean water, 83% of all schools need substantial repairs. The ICRC states that the Iraqi health-care system is today in a decrepit state. UNDP calculates that it would take 7 billion US dollars to rehabilitate the power sector country-wide to its 1990 capacity.”

Of course, we must recognize that these people are dying slow and painful deaths drawn out across their increasingly short lives. In fact, UNECIF found that “32 percent of children under five, some 960,000 children are chronically malnourished – a rise of 72 percent since 1991 Almost one quarter (23%) are underweight – twice as high as the levels found in neighboring Jordan or Turkey.” Considering that the results of malnutrition cause irreversible damage to a child’s physical and mental self after the age of five, the future of Iraq seems sadly bleaker than its present state. Another UNICEF report found that:

“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.”

All said, well over 500,000 children (making a total of over a million people overall) have died as a result of the sanctions on Iraq. However, the social consequences of sanctions on Iraq may be more costly as they are likely to tear into generations to come. Far to many of the nations educated persons and skilled workers have been forced into low-level jobs where their training is useless, or forced into fleeing the country in hope of better work. Furthermore, 20-30% of the countries primary school age children are not in school because they are forced to become the providers for their homes. Naturally, as with any society, the increase in economic turmoil has caused an increase in crime. People have increasingly found no other way to make money, and thus live another day, other than to commit crimes against others. This has inevitability caused a major rift in this culture that was once accustom to a virtual lack of crime and life in relative luxury of safety. The unfortunate result of the sanctions is that only Sadam Hussein and his close associates have benefited from these sanctions off the increasingly lucrative and profitable black market.

Ever since Resolution 986, the oil-for-food program, passed most American have falsely believed that the problems of Iraq have diminished. Unfortunately this could not be more incorrect. While the program has allowed certain food products to enter the country, it has been more of a way for the UN and the US to save face and get essential oil supplies without fixing the problem. The program is essentially rotten to the core. All the business is conducted between the governments at hand instead of free market commerce. This lack of competition allows the UN and US to set the standards for exactly what and how much it will exchange, essentially abusing the system to get the most for itself. However the major problem with this means for commerce is that it leaves the responsibly of distributing the goods to the Iraqi government; which the UN is so often label as corrupt and the sole reason the sanctions remain in place. The problem, then, is that the Iraqi government is corrupt and has been reported several times for abusing its gained resources to make money for its individuals in power. Once again it is the UN and its affiliate organizations that are the best witnesses against themselves. It is apparent that the program as a whole is a failure. UNICEF reported early on that “There is no sign of any improvement since Security Council Resolution 986/1111 [“Oil for Food”] came into force.” Denis Halliday reported to students at Harvard (after his resignation from his post as UN Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq in protest of the continued sanctions) that:

Within the limited revenues allowed by the Security Council for imports under 986, funds are not adequate for the inclusion in the monthly food basket of animal proteins, meat, fish, chicken, and minerals and vitamins essential in a balanced diet for the well-being of adults and critically important for young children. The 986 food basket has focused on calorific intake, via grains, sugar, tea, and other basic supplies, which taken together with the breakdowns mentioned above has shattered the life expectancy of Iraqi infants and children.

Even with the program the children of Iraq remain dangerously malnourished and essentially in the same position as before resolution 986 took place. The basic supplies they are receiving are essentially what they had originally had the greatest access to. Aside from the products mentioned above the Iraqis deeply need sanitation and agricultural materials that have been labeled as potential means for Iraqi weaponry. The subsequent destruction of the nation’s agriculture naturally contributes to the problem in a long-term sense; for even when the sanctions are lifted the nation’s agricultural infrastructure will take decades to rebuild. The lack of access to safe drinking water has killed significant portions of the Iraqi population. However to get an idea of how ridiculous the above standards for restricted items are one must only listen to the reason behind sanctioning pencils: “We are told that pencils are forbidden because carbon could be extracted from them that might be used to coat airplanes and make them invisible to radar.” (Taken from Farid Zarif in “Smart Bombs, Dumb Sanctions”, deputy director of the UN humanitarian aid program).

Most politicians in the United States who are in favor of sanctions on Iraq dismiss any opposition to such policy as ignorance of the problem. This is clearly not the case because some of the most learned individuals on the subject, and highly regarded intellectuals in all, are strongly against the sanctions policy. Furthermore, so are most international organizations. The long list of opponents includes the aforementioned Denis Halliday and Scott Ritter (former US Weapons Inspector in Iraq) as well as Noam Chomsky– clearly among the leading intellectuals of the modern era. Among the most prominent groups to stand against or at least disapprove of the sanctions (officially or otherwise) are UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the New England Journal of Medicine among other major publications. In fact in a blistering editorial the New England Journal of Medicine states:

The Cuban and Iraqi instances make it abundantly clear that economic sanctions are, at their core, a war against public health. Our professional ethic demands the defense of public health. Thus, as physicians, we have a moral imperative to call for the end of sanctions. Having found the cause, we must act to remove it.

As for the high level officials in both the United States and Britain that defend the sanctions, Noam Chomsky put it best when he stated in “Frontline” (in response to Tony Blair’s statements that the sanctions were not responsible for children’s deaths and Madeline Albright’s statements saying that the US “disowned” any responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children):

Every time Tony Blair opens his mouth, he looks more disgusting and ridiculous, and his performance marked a painful and shameful day in the history of Britain. As for Madeleine Albright, her comments over the years have captured very clearly the moral level of U.S. actions. In 1996, an interviewer on “60 Minutes” on national television asked her for her reaction to reports from the United Nations that half a million Iraqi children had died from the sanctions. Her answer was, “Well, this is a price that we feel that we are willing to pay.” So we – we – are willing to pay the price of dead Iraqi children. We do not care if we carry out mass slaughter; the deaths could, I think, properly be called a form of genocide.

The list of those who have fought against the sanctions policy is as extensive as the statistics that show the brutality of sanctions. The odd thing is that many Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are beginning to oppose the policy. Almost certainly not because they feel sorry for the Iraqi children that are dying in apocalyptic numbers, but rather for lucrative campaign contributions and support from the oil lobby (which too is beginning to oppose the sanctions). In fact, major European nations (Italy, Russia, Germany, and Franceéor course notably not the UK) are starting, if they have not already done so, doing business with Iraq due to the outrage within their nations against the sanctions, and of course for economic interests.

As well as being morally outrageous, the sanctions clearly defy all major international charters, resolutions, laws, bills, and rights. It is important to remember then that the US as a signatory of these documents must uphold and follow them to the letter. Among others, the sanctions violate the following:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

[N]o state may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights or to secure from it advantages of any kind

(1) Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.

(2) It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.

Economic measures as a means of political and economic coercion against developing countries: Calls upon the developed countries to refrain from exercising political coercion through the application of economic instruments with the purpose of inducing changes in the economic or social systems, as well as in the domestic or foreign policies, of other countries; Reaffirms that developed countries should refrain from threatening or applying trade and financial restrictions, blockades, embargoes, and other economic sanctions, incompatible with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations and in violation of undertakings contracted multilaterally and bilaterally, against developing countries as a form of political and economic coercion that affects their political, economic, and social development.

We recognize that access to nutritionally adequate and safe food is a right of each individual. We affirm…that food must not be used as a tool for political pressure.

What is even more shocking is that by its own definition and laws the United States categorizes itself as a terrorist states according to:

(1) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of an State;

(2) appear to be intended: (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or

(3) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum;

(Special thanks to for its vital information and legal code assistance)

Clearly no one wishes to see the current Iraqi regime in power, except for perhaps the leaders of the United States and England. Sadam’s regime is clearly among the worst in the world. However, the way to rid the Iraqi people of their despotic leader is not through punishing them and slaughtering their civilians. The only way to get rid of Sadam’s despotic rule is through a popular uprising of the masses, something the US does not wish to have because it might lead to democracy-a system of government that would threaten our stranglehold on the region. And it is clear that people cannot fight a war when they are fighting for their lives as well as the lives of their families. The average Iraqi has come to blame the US outright for their hardships, and not Sadam, and slowly he is gaining support from his people yet again. When we lift the sanctions, the people will begin to lift Sadam from power; until then they cannot see any alternative to his rule.

Not only have the sanctions robbed the Iraqi people of their lives and future, it has robbed them of their humanity and dignity. As Mohammed Abdul Razaq told the New York Times, “First I sold my television, then my furniture, then my car, then my houseéEverything that I built up over a lifetime is gone. A bomb is something you hear far away, or at worst, it kills you in a second. Sanctions kill you every day.”

Those that have witnessed it first hand best describe the shocking reality of what is being done to the people of Iraq. Dennis Halliday stated that “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” However no quote can better show the silent murder that is taking place, than that of Ashraf Bayoumi (the former head of the World Food Program Observation Unit) when he stated:

You kill people without blood or organs flying around, without angering American public opinion. People are dying silently in their beds. If 5,000 children are dying each month, this means 60,000 a year. Over eight years, we have half a million children. This is equivalent to two or three Hiroshimas.

Through starvation, torture, oppression and genocide the masses of Iraq have been silenced. It is then our responsibility to be their voices, to stand for them where they have fallen, and to fight where so many have been defeated.

To all those who support the sanctions on Iraq: how can you. Is it because the child you are killing is from a distant land? Is it because you will never meet him? Or hear his screams? Or his desperate pleas for food and help? Is it because he doesn’t matter? Or is it because you simply don’t care? No matter what your reasons may be-shame on you.

May you plea and pray from your Lord to grant you forgivenesséfor future generations never will.

And in bewilderment they will ask “why?”

Mr. Bobeck Modjtahedi  is a student and humanitarian activist from California and currently the President of the International Student Action Committee.