Trade embargo `doubled the death rate'

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The Independent Online
THE MISERY in Iraq is not over yet. The population has suffered too much to imagine that one document passed in the chamber of the United Nations Security Council in New York is going to bring comfort and consolation overnight.

But the resolution does offer some hope for relief. That the blanket trade sanctions imposed on Iraq since 1990 have done terrible harm to innocent civilians is no longer an issue for argument. For years, aid organisations and even departments within the United Nations have been drawing the world's attention to the chronic shortages of food, water and medicine in Iraq and to the soaring mortality rates, especially among children.

In its latest survey of conditions in Iraq, done in August, Unicef, the UN children's fund, estimated that in the country's central and southern regions, where President Saddam Hussein's regime is most firmly in control, the death rate had more than doubled since the imposition of the embargo in August 1990. Moreover, the agency argues that about 500,000 Iraqi children who have died in that time would have lived but for the sanctions.

The argument over the morality of the sanctions is not resolved. Washington, supported by Britain, has continued to defend them as the most important instrument for punishing President Saddam and ultimately driving him out. Officials will also make the point that the sanctions are in place because of what President Saddam did in invading Kuwait. The people have him to blame, in other words, not Western governments.

The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, regularly points out that the UN Security Council was forced to come up with a plan to feed the Iraqi people because President Saddam preferred to spend his money on weapons of mass destruction and ornate palaces.

Among those who fault that logic is Denis Halliday, who gave up a 30- year career at the UN last year because of his disgust with the sanctions system. In his final years there, he oversaw the UN's humanitarian aid programme to Iraq. Now he is leading a worldwide campaign to end the sanctions.

"I think London and Washington have got to recognise the mistakes they've made and be big enough to change it and come up with some new approach," he said recently.

Yesterday's resolution does, for the first time, offer Iraq a direct and relatively short road to the ending of sanctions. That could mean everything to President Saddam's population. But Iraq has already vowed to reject the resolution, which provides for the resumption of weapons inspections.

If President Saddam makes good on that threat, yesterday's text will be virtually useless, just another twist in nine years of politicking and diplomatic shadow-boxing that has left the Iraqi people as the powerless victims.

One thing will happen automatically as a result of yesterday's decision. The cap on the amount of oil that Iraq will be allowed to sell under the oil-for-food programme will be lifted altogether. In other words, Iraq will be able to export as much oil as it likes and import all the food and medicine it requires.

There are questions, though, over Iraq's physical capacity to export any more crude oil than it does already. A group of independent experts concluded in July that Iraqi oilfields were in a "lamentable" state because of over-pumping and a disregard for the fragile oil infrastructure.