The Economic Consequences of Sanctions in Iraq

In 1996, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was interviewed on “60 Minutes” by Lesley Stahl. The topic of the interview was the US policy of economic sanctions on Iraq. The following is an excerpt from the now-famous conversation:

Stahl: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

Was the price worth it? That question will not be answered by me today. Instead, I will leave it up to the reader to decide if the sanctions and the consequences for the Iraqi people were “worth it”.

First, a brief history of the situation between Iraq and the US. The US had been allied with Iraq throughout the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. After the war ended, Saddam Hussain, the leader of Iraq, invaded Kuwait in 1990 in an effort to avoid having to pay off war debts to the Kuwaitis. The UN, lead by the US, intervened in Kuwait to push the Iraqi army out and back into Iraq, which they succeeded in doing.

After pushing Iraq back, the US started placing heavy economic sanctions on Iraq, meaning that goods could not go into or out of the country. These sanctions were kept up throughout the 90s into 2003, although some exceptions started to be made in the late 90s when the brutal conditions of the Iraqi people could not be ignored. During this time, the US kept up a constant bombing campaign in Iraq, with an average of three to four bombings each day.

Before giving a description of the suffering economic sanctions caused in Iraq, what about the entire theory behind economic sanctions in general? The theory says that if we pressure a regime with sanctions, then the people could grow restless and overthrow the government, or maybe the regime will start to feel the economic squeeze themselves, and yield to the wishes of the nation imposing the sanctions.

That’s the theory, at least. Although it may seem like a sound theory, there are several issues that prevent it from working in practice. First, it is naive to think that the regime itself will feel any economic squeeze. They will continue to live in luxury while the people take the brunt of the economic impact. Saddam had 19 palaces in 1996. He wasn’t feeling any pressure, needless to say.

What about the people? Why do they endure the drop in standards of living, especially while the government continues in their decadent ways? This is because the sanctions are seen as an act of aggression. This attitude is completely understandable. If you cannot get the food or medicine you need for you or your family and you hear it is because another country is keeping it from coming into your country, indignation and anger are natural reactions The state is all too quick to take advantage of this fact, and position themselves as being the protectors of the people against the imperialist countries trying to take over their land by inflicting economic pain upon them.

All of this is exactly what we see in Iraq in the 90s. The people are squeezed, while the elite say cozy. The regime stays stable however, and Saddam took measures to show how stable it was, virtually emptying the countries prisons and giving weapons to the people. However, the real story of Iraq and the sanctions is not about Saddam or his regime, but the people living under it.

The following was their lives for years:

The damage to the infrastructure of Iraq was enormous. Standards of living in Iraq had been rising for a decade or so, up until the start of the First Gulf War. This soon changed. The New England Journal of Medicine found that:

"In the first days of the war, 13 of Iraq's 20 power-generating plants were incapacitated or destroyed. At the end of the bombing only two plants remained operational, producing less than 4 percent of the prewar output. By early May 1991, Iraq had regained only 23 percent of prewar output. Many of the power plants were destroyed beyond repair and will have to be completely rebuilt. At the time of our visit, damaged facilities could only be repaired by cannibalizing parts from other plants."

Given that "Iraq's entire system of water purification and distribution relied on electricity,” the results are clear. NEJM states that, “With the destruction of the power plants, the system came to a virtual standstill."

Disaster is on the horizon:

“Throughout the country, many hospitals and health centers did not have adequate running water for standard sanitary procedures such as cleaning, flushing toilets, or bathing patients. None of the health facilities we visited used piped water for drinking purposes, because it was not considered safe. Instead, they used bags of water provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross."

The UNICEF, or United Nations Children’s Fund, conducted a detailed study on Iraq’s water production in 2000. The results are predictable, but shocking nonetheless:

"The daily per capita share of drinkable water was reduced from 330 litres per day in 1990 to 150 litres in 2000 in the capital city of Baghdad. In other urban centres, this share was less at 110 litres and, in rural areas, even less at 65 litres per day. However, in reality, the actual water available was far less, as the above figures are based on water production rather than on what was delivered at the household level. Distribution losses were estimated to be as high as 50% and water quality continued to be uneven. Those vulnerable groups residing at the end of the distribution channels barely got any water supply."

The World Health Organization, or WHO, conducted an extensive study of their own of the impact of sanctions on the Iraqi people and the Iraqi economy. The statistics on food shortages are especially revealing: 

  • 61.1% reduction in cereals 
  • 74.9% reduction in red meat
  • 91.9% reduction in fish
  • 92.4% reduction in eggs
  • 90% reduction in sugar 
  • 100% reduction in tea

These shortages naturally had a toll on nutritional intake for the Iraqi people. WHO found the following decreases:

  • 65% decrease in calorie consumption
  • 67.4% decrease in protein consumption
  • 70.8% decrease in fat consumption
  • 83.1% decrease in calcium consumption
  • 100% decrease in Vitamin A consumption
  • 100% decrease in Vitamin C consumption

Disease started to spread quickly. Cholera, which had been completely under control before the First Gulf War, started to return. Cases of Typhoid rose from 11.6 cases per 100,000 in 1989 to 142.1 in 1994. Malaria rose from 10.4 per 100,000 in 1989 to 128.7 in 1994. The Northern regions of Iraq were hit the hardest by Malaria. Cases rose from 87.2 per 100,000 in 1989 to 2,585 in 1994.

Children were one of the groups hardest hit by sanctions. It was in part because of the reports of the conditions of the Iraqi children that criticism and concern started to rise in the US over the morality of the Iraq sanctions. The number of children killed as a result of sanctions by 1995 is about 567,000. The same report that found that number also reported that 28% of Iraqi children in 1995 had stunted growth, up from 12% in 1991. Likewise, 29% of children were underweight, up from 7% in 1991.

The WHO report gives an equally grim picture. Infant mortality in Baghdad doubled from 1989-90 to 1994-1995. If infant mortality doubles in the capital city, rural areas would have been much worse. Percentages of low-weight births rose five-fold from 1990-1994. The mortality rate in children under five from malnutrition and disease rose from 257 per 100,000 in 1989 to 1,536 in 1994. UNICEF found that:

“close to half the children under 5 years suffered from diarrhoea. Over half of the children suffered from fever and over one third of the children suffered from acute respiratory infections. An Iraqi child suffered on average fifteen diarrhoea spells before the age of 5 years. The scarcity of clean, drinking water in adequate quantity, the absence of sanitation systems in specific locations, poor hygiene practices for childcare, feeding and limited access to healthcare services all contributed to this situation."

The point must be emphasized that the suffering of the Iraqi people was not a result of a natural disaster. The suffering was a result of a purposeful action by the US, and one could even say the suffering was an intended consequence of the sanctions. The death and famine could have been relieved at any time, should the United States have wished to do so. They did not see fit to do so.

The New England Journal of Medicine described the findings of the study by saying, “We found suffering of tragic proportions. As is so often the case, the youngest and most vulnerable are paying the price for the actions of others. Children are dying of preventable diseases and starvation as a direct result of the Gulf crisis.” These findings are not unique in any way, and I encourage the reader to do his or her own research into this matter. The literature I have cited is only a small portion of the work done on this subject.

Again, I will say that I am not here to pass any judgement on the subject of the Iraq sanctions. I leave that task to the reader. We cannot change history, but only learn from it.

Was it worth it?

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