Leading Article: Suffering caused by success

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THE UNITED Nations has been accused of many failures since its charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945, but not often of being too successful for its own good. Yet that is just the situation the UN faces with the sanctions it imposed on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions have worked - too well.

In many cases, economic sanctions against a country fail because its neighbours find it lucrative to break them. There is plenty of evidence that Iraq has continued a trickle of trade with the outside world in defiance of the United Nations. Some of its Muslim neighbours, notably Egypt, Turkey and Iran, are behaving noticeably more warmly to Baghdad than they have for a long time. But, broadly speaking, Iraq's trade has been sharply affected. With the government refusing to sell its oil through the UN, as it has been ordered to, the Iraqi people have suffered from the ring-fence that the international community has drawn around their country. As medicines have become scarce, infant mortality rates have shot up; food has run short; hyperinflation has reappeared; and members of the educated middle class, on whose support most governments depend, have endured hardship.

With this 'success', however, has come a dilemma. The thinking behind sanctions is that popular pressure at home will force a government to give in when diplomatic pressure from abroad has failed. In Iraq's case, that has evidently not happened. Saddam Hussein has been willing to sit by while his people suffer, and has held on to power by a ruthless suppression of dissent. For all the pain they have inflicted on average Iraqis, sanctions have failed to unseat their leader or change his policies.

Could a lifting of the sanctions be justified, were nothing else put in their place? The Iraqi leader has already thumbed his nose at the United Nations; it would undermine the organisation's authority further to allow him to do so again. Unless the West can contemplate more bombing raids or a second war, the sanctions should stay. There is also the question of whether Saddam Hussein still poses a threat to world peace, even after the extensive work done to dismantle his daunting war machine. For lasting stability in the area, Iraq's fangs must be fully drawn.

There are indications, however, that changes of policy are being contemplated in the West. Signals from the White House suggest that President Bill Clinton may be willing to accept Saddam Hussein's legitimacy if he obeys the United Nations by abandoning his weapons programme and his attacks on his own citizens. Yet the lives of Iraqis will remain miserable as long as they are ruled by a tyrant whose hold on power depends on abusing the human rights of those who stand in his way. For the sake of the Iraqi people, the West should continue to support Saddam's courageous opponents. To do otherwise would make a mockery of the war the UN forces fought against him in 1991.