Book: The road to Iraq and ruin?

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FOR MUCH of this century, sanctions have been a preferred instrument of the centre and left. In the Thirties they were favoured by advocates of the League of Nations against aggressor states; in the Sixties and Seventies as an instrument against racist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia. Today, however, the tide has turned: there is a widespread sense, in the UN and elsewhere, that sanctions are being used to excess by the UN and, even more so, by the US.

Geoff Simons belongs to the anti-sanctions camp. His brisk history of sanctions highlights their cost, in war and peace, for civilian populations. Recent sanctions by the US - against Cuba, Libya and, above all, Iraq - are, he argues, both genocidal and illegal. They are intended to starve civilians, and, in Iraq's case, are voted in by a UN Security Council acting under coercion. Iraq is now a "concentration camp", reduced to penury and disease; a "new Holocaust" is in the making.

On Iraq, Simons's history is foreshortened. Iraq was a concentration camp long before the UN declared sanctions. His bibliography does not appear to include Samir al-Khalil's work Republic of Fear. Starvation, mass deportation and chemical attacks on the civilian population were all features of Iraq in the Eighties. This is relevant to an assessment of the present, because it shows that the Iraqi government is prepared to impose dire suffering on its own people.

In the period since the imposition of UN sanctions, the Iraqi government has played an important role in enforcing the penury and starvation that Simons denounces. It was Baghdad that, until 1996, refused all offers of substantial oil exports, because these would be under international control. It was Baghdad which last June refused all Arab offers of food and medical supplies.

Anyone reading Simons would think that there was a ban on food and medicine exports to Iraq - as the US has indeed placed on Cuba. No such ban exists. In December 1997, Baghdad imposed a 21-fold increase in the cost of the individual food ration, intending thereby to maximise the revenue it would receive from the sale of food supplies - and, arguably, to prolong the starvation of its people.

Claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food are belied by its other activities: the construction of palaces and large mosques, the clandestine import of weapons, the ostentatious lifestyle of the elite. Iraq is now entitled, under UN resolutions, to export $10.5bn of oil a year, more than half of what it earned before sanctions.

That, plus the considerable resources which Iraq has for agricultural production, should be sufficient to feed its population. Iraq has considerable agricultural potential: more than 20 per cent of its land area is cultivable, a higher percentage than that of China. Its wheat and barley output rose 15 per cent last year, enough to enable it to export to Syria and Jordan.

There remain serious problems in Iraq because of the impact of five years of complete obstruction by the regime and its continued manipulation - and theft, of resources intended for its people. These have been highlighted in reports on the human rights situation by the UN Special Rapporteur, Max van der Stoel.

Simons also dodges the reasons - a pattern of aggression and violation of international controls on biological and chemical weapons - that prompted the sanctions in the first place. On these security issues, he has nothing to offer except collusive indignation.

Should Saddam be allowed to continue to use the starvation of his people as a weapon against international controls? No. The area that needs rigorous attention is Iraq's import of military materials. Ending the controls on oil exports, conditional on military controls and inspection, would remove this weapon from the regime.

The general case against sanctions is weaker than Simons indicates. Sanctions are like any other instruments of pressure, be they legal restraints in domestic politics or war in the international realm. They are capable of abuse, or of being properly applied. The imposition of sanctions on Cuba is a clear example of abuse: a vindictive and cruel policy. However, sanctions played a significant role in forcing change in South Africa in the Eighties. Simons understates this, ignoring the impact of the US investment ban pushed through by the black caucus in Congress. One day, states may be liable to the imposition of sanctions for discrimination based on gender, as they once were for discrimination based on race.

Behind these discussions lies not the issue of sanctions, but the legitimacy of coercive behaviour by the more powerful states in the world. Coercive, discriminatory, selective they certainly are; but this does not mean that no such actions are ever valid. The internationalist activism that confronts Iraq is the same that bombed the Bosnian Serbs, may now act to protect Kosovo, and that seeks to try Pinochet. Recycled anti-imperialism is an insufficient response to the crises of the contemporary world.

Fred Halliday

The reviewer is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics