UN Security Council Resolution 687 establishes terms which would commonly be embodied in a post-war peace treaty: destruction and monitoring of weapons of mass destruction; Iraqi acceptance of Kuwait’s borders and sovereignty; and return of Kuwaiti property and missing persons. It also includes a reference to compliance with “all other relevant resolutions.” In the view of some Security Council members, this includes UNSC 688, which addresses Iraq’s treatment of its own population and its humanitarian needs. But Resolution 688 is a weak instrument in that it offers no enforcement mechanisms or precise criteria for compliance. Human rights and protection issues have therefore become part of the argument against the lifting of sanctions while in practice remaining low on international political agendas.

These UN resolutions are ambiguous enough to bear conflicting interpretations, particularly on what precise conditions Iraq must meet before sanctions are lifted. This offers each permanent member of the Council a reverse veto, meaning “the sanctions regime cannot be modified unless all five decide that the objectives of the resolution, as defined by each of them, have been met.” [1] Consequently, it is difficult to say how far sanctions have “succeeded,” since leading Security Council states have had different priorities and goals.

Differences among the permanent five remained in the background during the first years after the war, but have sharpened since Iraq’s decision in late 1993 to pursue full lifting of sanctions and abandon any discussions of limited oil sales under UNSC 706 and 712. Iraq has received encouragement from France and Russia, generally supported by China. Both France and Russia have economic and commercial interests in Iraq and are already discussing terms for exploring new oil fields in the south. Russia is also owed large debts by Iraq, and its current economic difficulties encourage efforts to restore economic relations. Iraq is one area in which Russia has chosen to try and reassert its position as a world power.

The current dispute focuses on interpretation of paragraphs 21 and 22 of UNSC 687. Paragraph 21 refers to the embargo on exports to Iraq with the exception of certain foodstuffs and medical materials. A decision “to reduce or lift” the prohibition depends on a 60-day review “in the light of the policies and practices of the government of Iraq, including the implementation of all relevant resolutions of the Security Council.” Paragraph 22, though, specifies that the embargo on imports from Iraq — primarily oil — and related financial transactions “shall have no further force or effect” once Iraq has complied with the requirements in the resolution relating to destruction and monitoring of its weapons of mass destruction and related manufacturing capacity, and the establishment of the UN Compensation Fund. Russia, France and China take the view that Iraq is coming close to complying with the requirements of paragraph 22. In November 1994, after active Russian diplomatic initiatives, Iraq recognized the boundaries and sovereignty of Kuwait. The US and Britain emphasized their continuing distrust of Iraq’s “peaceful intentions” following Iraqi troop movements toward the Kuwaiti border in October 1994. In January 1995, France signaled its wish to normalize relations by resuming low-level diplomatic relations with Baghdad.

There are also differing views on how far Iraq has gone in meeting the requirements of long-term monitoring of weapons of mass destruction. Since September 1994, UNSCOM head Rolf Ekeus has stated that monitoring mechanisms are in place and being tested, but he has questioned the completeness and veracity of Iraq’s responses to inquiries on past programs, particularly on biological and chemical weapons. This has allowed both sides to argue that Ekeus’ findings justify their positions.

The US and Britain oppose any “staged” lifting of sanctions insisting that they should remain in place until “all relevant resolutions” are complied with ignoring the separate requirements of Paragraph 22. The French contend that Iraq can only be expected to comply with Chapter VII (threats to international peace and security) resolutions. In their view this does not include UNSC 688 — a view apparently shared by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali — though some assert that it does carry the mandatory force of a Chapter VII resolution.

US officials have stated that they do not consider that the current Iraqi government can remain in power if it complies with the requirement to “end repression of its civilian population.” The US has made it clear that it wants to maintain sanctions even if it is obvious that it is “moving the goalposts” to do so. This response, based primarily on fear of the alternatives, seems to be driven as much by domestic political concerns as by foreign policy considerations. Any change in approach could risk attacks from the Republican Congress for weakness or failure to measure up to stated goals.

The business community in Europe has shown considerable interest in returning to Iraq. Such interest also exists in the US and UK, but is more muted. In Britain, the anticipated publication of the Scott inquiry report in May 1995 — on British exports to Iraq in the 1980s — may have discouraged most politicians from showing any signs of softening their approach on Iraq.


[1] Ian Johnstone, Aftermath of the Gulf War: An Assessment of UN Action, International Peace Academy Occasional Paper Series (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994), p. 56.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Security Council Conflicts Over Sanctions," Middle East Report 193 (March/April 1995).

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