Leading Article: Sanctions that achieve little

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The Independent Online
THE DEFECTION of two Iraqi diplomats is significant, not least because they are the first defectors openly to have aligned themselves with the opposition Iraqi National Council, based in London. Naturally, it raises hopes that the regime of Saddam Hussein may at last be tottering. People are bound to ask whether these two seemingly loyal servants of the regime had reasons to believe that the wind was changing and decided to secure their futures by switching sides. This would be the easiest explanation for why they have only now become ready to admit that Saddam is dragging Iraq 'into a darkness unkown to it since the days of the Mongols'.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support such an interpretation. The two men have been abroad for several years and are no longer members of Saddam's inner circle. They are unlikely to have reliable inside information of impending change. Nor are they sufficiently important to put much more wind into the sails of the opposition, or to attract new defectors to its ranks. Their decision seems to derive primarily from personal horror at the prospect of returning to Iraq. Nevertheless, by joining the struggle against his rule they should contribute to shortening the life of his regime and embarrassing it in its foreign relations.

In doing so they will also revive the debate about the efficacy of sanctions. That sanctions have greatly increased the suffering of the Iraqi people is beyond doubt. The economy is ruined, inflation is catastrophic, hunger and disease are spreading. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation warned last month that pre-famine conditions exist in Iraq. Far from weakening the regime, sanctions have enabled it to blame the West for the country's miseries and given it an excuse for even harsher repression. Similar results can be observed in Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic usefully exploits the siege conditions.

Does this mean that sanctions against both regimes should be lifted? Not quite. Sanctions seldom, if ever, have the intended effect and usually impose heavy costs on innocent populations and neighbours. But they have moral force and sometimes influence behaviour where other means are lacking. Even South Africa eventually found them more than just irksome. Serbia is tottering under their effect. Saddam has grudgingly modified his behaviour to comply with UN resolutions that he previously resisted, although he is far from fulfilling all their conditions. His ability to threaten his neighbours has certainly been curbed.

Sadly, the case for lifting sanctions is weaker than the case for not imposing them in the first place. The regimes of Serbia and Iraq could relieve the sufferings of their peoples by meeting the conditions attached to the sanctions. Saddam Hussein could do so merely by allowing the United Nations to disburse money for food and medicines under the terms of Security Council resolutions 706 and 712. Were he to sell oil again without conditions he would probably spend the earnings on weapons, not food.

The main lessons taught by sanctions are that they are slow to work and unpredictable in their side-effects, and show up the failure of other means.