After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 triggered the imposition of international economic sanctions, it was widely believed that the Gulf crisis would be rapidly resolved. The scale of Iraq’s military defeat in the 1991 Gulf war suggested that the government would accept ceasefire terms, or be overthrown. When neither of these things happened, the continued economic embargo was expected to achieve compliance. But almost a decade after sanctions were imposed, the same Iraqi government is still in place and the international community struggles to reach any consensus on how to proceed. Over this decade, and especially in the last two years, the conflict has increasingly become a bilateral one between the United States, with Britain as its ally, on one side, and Iraq, with varying degrees of support from other Security Council members, on the other. It has certainly ceased to be an exercise in multilateral enforcement of international law.

In Iraq, military force has been used in conjunction with comprehensive economic sanctions — a departure from previous practice. But neither the use of force nor the UN economic embargo has brought compliance with international demands on Iraq, or a peaceful resolution of internal conflicts in Iraq which flared after the 1991 Gulf war.

The collapse of UNSCOM’s role immediately before Operation Desert Fox in December 1998 and the continuing international impasse during 1999 over sanctions and weapons inspections led the US to pursue “aggressive enforcement” of the no-fly zones as part of its “enhanced containment” of Iraq. In January 1999, President Clinton quietly changed the rules of engagement for US aircraft operating in the no-fly zones, and the British followed suit. On February 23, 1999, a US Defense Department spokesman spelled out the targets, which include “missile sites, anti-aircraft sites, command and control sites, relay stations and some intelligence gathering sites.” [1] Clinton’s order has allowed the US and UK to wage a persistent bombing campaign against Iraq with a rising toll of civilian casualties. [2]

In the 1990s, efforts by leading Security Council members to find rapid solutions to conflicts that “threaten international peace and security” have been less than wholly successful — witness the wars and ethnic cleansing that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The end of the Cold War made it possible to consider both military and humanitarian intervention in such conflicts, though this has been done on a highly selective basis, and recently, with military action by NATO rather than UN forces. A high priority is given to so-called humanitarian    interventions, but the focus usually has been on short-term “fire-fighting” goals. So interventions generally have not contributed to resolving the underlying problems that gave rise to conflict in the first place.

Research on various experiences of using economic sanctions as a means of coercion suggests that when embargoes are prolonged, their effects tend to be weakened because the sanctioned government finds ways of adapting to new conditions. [3] The longer sanctions continue, the more adaptation occurs. This argument seems pertinent in the case of Iraq.

By the late 1980s, after eight years of war with Iran, the centralized economic structure of Iraq was already in trouble. The imposition of comprehensive UN sanctions in August 1990 greatly exacerbated existing problems, halting the oil sales on which the economy depended. Nonetheless, the government has continued to deploy much reduced resources to its own advantage and that of favored groups.

Despite a relatively tight sanctions regime, Iraq has continued clandestine trade with most of its neighbors, while members of the regime have been able to move some funds regionally and internationally. The volume of border trade, over and above goods allowed under the “Oil-for-Food” program since 1997, appears to have increased significantly since the late 1990s.

But the duration of the embargo has created serious problems for Iraq’s longer-term economic and social prospects, as well as a chronic humanitarian emergency for a large part of the population. Its economic future is compromised by a large external debt and massive reparations payments, unless creditors forgive the debt and the UN reduces the reparations. These deficits will affect the ability of whatever government is in power when sanctions are lifted to restore the civilian infrastructure, damaged during the 1980s and in the 1991 war, and further degraded by the subsequent years of embargo.

The Sanctions’ Impact Now and Later

The UN economic embargo against Iraq differs from others applied by the Security Council in that it was prolonged after a war and a civil uprising in which the civilian infrastructure — especially power and water supply systems — had been seriously damaged. In addition, these systems had sustained heavy damage in the 1980s from the Iran-Iraq war in the south of the country, and from the ravages of the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the north. Although some of the infrastructural damage was patched up after the 1991 war, a chronic decline in infrastructure was accompanied by the erosion, and by the mid-1990s, the virtual collapse in some regions of services on which most people depended, including water and sanitation services, health care and education.

The government took some steps to provide a safety net in the form of basic rations. These rations may have prevented mass starvation, but they were meager and of low protein content. The purchasing power of wages and salaries declined drastically, impoverishing the middle classes and leaving those who were already poor on the edge of survival.

The consequent steep rise in morbidity and mortality rates, especially among young children, is a matter of great concern. In 1999, the first nationwide survey of infant, under-five and maternal mortality since 1991 showed infant and under-five mortality climbing steadily from the end of the 1980s. [4] The International Study Team survey in August/September 1991 had indicated a threefold increase in deaths of children under five in the first eight months of 1991. UNICEF’s 1999 figures, based on a survey of 24,000 households in government-controlled areas of Iraq, showed that under-five mortality rates had more than doubled in a decade:from 56 per 1000 in 1984-89 to 91.5 for 1989-94 and 130.6 from 1994-99. Infant mortality in central and southern Iraq climbed from 47 per 1000 in 1984-89 to 108 per 1000 in 1994-99. In the three predominantly Kurdish governorates under Kurdish control since late 1991, a survey of 16,000 households showed much higher infant mortality than in the rest of the country but a less dramatic rise during 1989-94 to 90 per 1000. But in contrast to the rest of the country, the rate there actually fell to 72 per 1000 between 1994 and 1999.

Security Council resolution 986 (1995) and its successors, commonly dubbed the Oil-for-Food program, has been in operation since mid-1997, but has had a relatively limited impact on this nexus of infrastructural failures and income deficits. The semi-annual planning horizons built into the program encourage the short-term responses that have characterized international humanitarian programs in Iraq since 1991, while the Iraqi government has concentrated most of the funds at its disposal on food and medicine. The program is certainly not capable of addressing the long-term crisis of poverty, lowered health and education standards and infrastructural collapse that has characterized the last decade.

The rhetoric about “keeping Saddam Hussein in a box” suggests that social and political relations in Iraq are somehow in suspended animation. But arguably, the prolonged embargo has created new social and political dynamics that will plague Iraq for many years to come. The embargo has seriously undermined not only living standards but the outlook and values of the professional classes, as the salaries and prestige of doctors, engineers and professors sink ever lower. Almost a decade of sanctions has left economic, social and psychological marks on the population, especially on the young. A child starting school in 1990 is now 15 or 16, and is likely to view his or her future and relationship to the rest of the world very differently from the previous generation. As a recent report by the American Friends Service Committee noted, when sanctions are lifted, there will be no return to a “normality” that existed before they were imposed. [5] Attitudes, expectations and social structures will have been profoundly altered. These changes are likely to influence the future pattern of political life in Iraq and its external relations.

Unemployment and the falling purchasing power of salaries have deepened social divisions and inequalities. Under an authoritarian regime such as Iraq’s, the embargo has had an uneven impact on different regions and classes. The increased competition for resources has arguably exacerbated ethnic, religious and tribal rivalries. This differential economic impact has been intensified by the regime’s long-established habit of distributing largesse to favored individuals and groups.

Economic sanctions and the resulting shortages have created a small group of winners as well as a large number of losers. A substantial parallel economy based on smuggling and regional currency-dealing has developed both in areas under government control and in Iraqi Kurdistan. In government-controlled areas, the networks controlling this parallel economy have been closely, though not exclusively, linked to the political leadership and security apparatus. The economic opportunities have also created new rivalries. A number of the reported clashes and killings both in Iraq and Jordan since 1991 appear to relate not only to political and clan conflicts but to turf wars over control of this parallel economy.

The erosion of social services has modified the long-time dependence of Iraqis on state funding and services. In government areas, the population remains dependent on the state rationing system, which the government has also used as a means to maintain dependence and exert political control. Failing government services create a gap between ordinary Iraqis and the privileged who can afford private health care and have access to funds from abroad or help from more wealthy relatives.

The parallel economy brings quick profits for the privileged and well-connected at one end of the scale. At the other, it manifests itself in crime, smuggling, petty corruption and reliance on contacts, whether in the army, family or clan group, to get a little extra. Although there are important differences in their respective political situations, we can compare the social consequences of comprehensive UN economic sanctions on Serbia/Montenegro in the 1990s during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to the consequences in Iraq. Observers noted that the embargo consolidated authoritarian rule while society was impoverished and criminalized. The collapse of incomes and services created similar problems for a society that had previously depended heavily on state services. [6]

Iraqi Kurdistan in the Balance

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the double embargo created by sanctions and Iraqi government action between 1991 and 1997, combined with the growing polarization of local political forces, encouraged the development of a non-productive economy, based on regional trade, smuggling and patronage by powerful party and tribal leaders. With government funding cut off, wealth and income for the Kurdish administration was derived primarily from customs revenue and smuggling to Turkey, Iran and government-controlled areas of Iraq. Remittances from overseas also became an important means of survival.

International aid, which remained at a much higher level per capita for the Kurdish areas than for the rest of Iraq, was the final component of income. There was some success in restoring rural production, though this has been partly undermined by food imports under the Oil-for-Food program, which were regarded as necessary to address the short-term needs of the urban population. At the same time, a good deal of aid found its way into the hands of landowners, contractors and party officials.

This anomalous economic situation, combined with political uncertainty as to the future and status of the Kurdish region, fueled conflict between the two main rival political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each of which sought to control the proceeds of border trade to fill party coffers and build its military forces. The consolidation of power in the two main political parties has strengthened the role of patronage. The parties were also intent on securing the allegiance, or at least the neutrality, of other powerful forces, including tribal leaders. [7]

By 1995, this economic and political rivalry caused the virtual collapse of the fragile Kurdish administration established after the May 1992 elections in the thre enorthern governorates. Since that time there have been two separate administrations in the north, divided along party lines. Between 1994 and 1997, a state of low-level warfare prevailed between the PUK and KDP. This became increasingly entangled with the war between the Turkish military and the PKK, which was largely played out in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since 1998, the increased flow of goods and money created by the Oil-for-Food program, pressure from Washington and London, and the erosion of the PKK’s strength have brought an uneasy peace but no real reconciliation.

The conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and the government that triggered the mass refugee exodus in 1991 still remains unresolved. A decade of sanctions and international involvement has failed to bring any real peace or security to this region. For the moment, the Kurds control their own affairs, but with no formal international status. Continuing contacts with the Iraqi government over these years have produced no tangible progress toward an agreement on a form of autonomy for the Kurdish region. This unresolved issue jeopardizes the future security of the region and raises fears among the population that, when sanctions are lifted, they will be left without protection or support. Such fears keep the Iraqi Kurds from endorsing the lifting of sanctions. Despite the recent improvement in economic conditions, this uncertainty has undoubtedly contributed to the high level of out-migration since the mid-1990s. The loss of people with education and skills will further jeopardize Iraqi Kurdistan’s social and economic prospects.

International Responsibility

The oft-repeated statement that the intention of sanctions against Iraq is “to target the regime and not the people” is at best disingenuous. The Iraqi government cannot be absolved in any way of its responsibility for the damage sanctions have done. But outside powers, represented by the Security Council, need to face squarely the nature of the embargo and their own responsibility for its consequences. Comprehensive economic sanctions inevitably lead to some measure of civilian hardship, since they affect the whole spectrum of civilian life — even when the infrastructure is not damaged or disrupted by war, as it was in Iraq. Allowing oil sales to finance unrestricted imports of food and medicine does not address the broader question of how standards of life for civilians can be protected. Certainly, in the aftermath of war, aid agencies in Iraq realized that neither humanitarian aid nor the piecemeal, short-term approach of the Oil-for-Food program could solve the infrastructural problems of a whole country.

In practice, the hardships created by the embargo are misdirected at the civilian population rather than the regime. The embargo infringes upon the economic and social rights of the population — their rights to life, health, a basic livelihood and education. For this, outside powers, having taken the decision to impose and maintain the embargo in its present form, must take their share of responsibility.

The Iraqi leadership, like that of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, remains in power despite war and sanctions. From the moment when sanctions were imposed on Iraq in August 1990, there could never have been any doubt that the  Iraqi government would make its own survival a priority, even at the expense of the population’s needs. As a recent report from a committee of the British House of Commons points out: “A sanctions regime which relies on the good will of Saddam Hussein is fundamentally flawed.” [8]

At the same time, after almost a decade of sanctions, Iraqis living in areas under government control have seen no improvement in their political and civil rights. The Iraqi government has not been persuaded by international force, pressure or protest to modify its conduct towards its own citizens. The international condemnation of Iraq’s human rights record, and the generally increased profile of human rights issues during the 1990s, have made little difference in Iraq.

A key issue in the conduct of sanctions policy has been the persistent overlap between judgments on humanitarian needs and political decision-making in the Security Council, which has been largely driven by US priorities. The re-introduction of the oil-for-food proposals in 1995 (after the failure of an earlier initiative) was primarily motivated by fears that some Council members might call for the lifting of sanctions. The tactical need to head off any challenge to the continuation of sanctions has always trumped humanitarian concerns. [9] This motive still underpins US and British thinking, in the absence of any clear strategy to address the question of Iraq’s future position in the Gulf region. The conflict of political and humanitarian interests has also been evident in the work of the Iraq Sanctions Committee (the so-called 661 Committee) on which all 15 Security Council members are represented. Ever since the committee was set up in 1990, observers have worried that political considerations and the priorities of arms control influence judgments about humanitarian needs. The former coordinator in Baghdad, Hans von Sponeck, has frequently called for the delinking of humanitarian discussions from issues of arms control, most recently on Capitol Hill at a briefing sponsored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich on May 3. Until this year, the committee did not have a clear definition of “humanitarian”goods, and the definition of “dual-use” items, the term employed most often by the US representative to hold up or block orders, is also fluid.

In the light of the damage sanctions have caused in Iraq, questions have arisen inside and outside the UN about the effectiveness of comprehensive embargoes of this kind. The difficulties raised by the Iraq case certainly suggest that rethinking the criteria for applying sanctions, as well as mechanisms and targeting, is overdue. [10] There is no denying that Iraq is a particularly intractable case. Many of those who are critical of the way the US in particular has used sanctions have concerns about what would happen if they were lifted unconditionally.

But lifting economic sanctions completely is not the only alternative to continuing with the present policy. It would be possible to end the comprehensive economic embargo that so evidently damages civilian life, while retaining more targeted economic sanctions focusing on the regime’s assets. Whatever form future international action might take, its impact inside Iraq must be properly monitored. A major weakness of the present embargo is that systematic impact assessment was not included in its terms, and monitoring of its socioeconomic impact has been very limited.

A stringent arms embargo would also be needed. A weakness in the last decade’s response has been the failure to achieve any region-wide control of arms purchases. Now all Iraq’s neighbors have major conventional arsenals. Some also have weapons of mass destruction.

Overall, Security Council policy towards Iraq since 1990 offers very stark illustration of the tensions between national policy goals among the leading Security Council members, especially the US, and the creation of a multilateral consensus on more humane alternatives to war. As the UN Security Council Panel on Humanitarian Issues concluded in March 1999: “Even if not all the suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war.” [11]


[1] DefenseLINK News, February 23, 1999.
[2] On March 24, 2000, Russian representative Sergei Lavrov told the Security Council that 144 civilians had died in bombing raids in 1999. Reuters, March 25, 2000. Hans von Sponeck’s investigations, conducted by UN officials before von Sponeck left Iraq, yielded the same figure. This number, it should be noted, is lower than various Government of Iraq estimates that have been reported.
[3] One of the most definitive studies is found in Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott and Kimberley Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered: History and Current Policy, second edition (Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 1990). See also David Cortright and George A. Lopez, eds., Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peace Building in a Post-Cold War World (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995).
[4] UNICEF/Iraqi Ministry of Health, Child and Maternal Mortality Survey 1999, Preliminary Report, Baghdad, July 1999.
[5] American Friends Service Committee, Living under Sanctions in Iraq: The Oil-for-Food Program and the Intellectual Embargo (Philadelphia, revised November 1999).
[6] See Susan L. Woodward, “The Use of Sanctions in Former Yugoslavia: Misunderstanding Political Realities” in Cortright and Lopez, pp. 141-151.
[7] Michiel Leezenberg, “Iraqi Kurdistan Since the Second Gulf War,” in Ethnizitat, Nationalismus, Religion und Politik in Kurdistan, eds. C. Borck, S. Hajo and E. Savelsberg (Munster: LIT Verlag, 1997) [German].
[8] House of Commons, International Select Committee, Second Report: “The Future of Sanctions,” February 10, 2000.
[9] For details of the oil-for-food proposals, see Sarah Graham-Brown, Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), ch. 2.
[10] For a discussion of the future of sanctions, see The Humanitarian Policy Group and the Relief and Rehabilitation Network, Overseas Development Institute, “Can Sanctions Be Smarter? The Current Debate.” Report of a conference held in London, December 16-17, 1998 (London:Overseas Development Institute, 1999).
[11] Quoted in UNICEF, “Questions and Answers for the Iraq Child Mortality Surveys,” Baghdad, August 16, 1999.

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Sanctioning Iraq," Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000).

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