As nodes on America's Middle East policy have proliferated in recent weeks, I have seen many references to the fact that UN sanctions have caused the death of as many as half a million Iraqi children. Many of these nodes laid blame for these deaths at America's door. I decided to investigate the claims.

On July 23, 2000, UNICEF reported that:

During the 1980s substantial progress was made in reducing child mortality throughout Iraq. If this reduction in child mortality had {continued} through the 1990s, there would have been half a million fewer child deaths (under-five) in the country as a whole during the eight year period 1991 to 1998. (emphasis added)

This caused quite a sensation in the international press.

Economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq by the United Nations following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait. This sanctions regime (authorized by UN Resolution 661 of 6 August 1990) was quite strict; in fact, in the aftermath of the Gulf War it was realized by the UN that Iraq was facing "an imminent catastrophe … if minimum life supporting needs are not rapidly met" (UN Report S/22366). In August 1991, the UN passed Resolution 706 to allow Iraq to export oil in order to purchase basic necessities, while the Resolution 661 sanctions remained in place. The Iraqi government refused to accept it. While a substantial amount of aid (totaling some US $964 million) was distributed in Iraq under the auspices of the UN Inter-Agency Humanitarian Programme, this was not enough to prevent hardship. 1

The following five years brought a great deal of suffering to the Iraqi people. Infant and child mortality rates shot up as food, medicine, and basic health services became more scarce. In northern Iraq, for instance, infant mortality (defined as deaths of children under the age of one year) rose from 63.9 deaths per 1,000 live births for the period 1984-1989 to 71.5 for the 1989-94 period. The child mortality rate (deaths of children under five years) rose in the area from 80.2 to 89.5. The rise in these rates in the south, where some 85% of the Iraqi population is concentrated, were higher. 2

On 20 May 1996, Iraq finally relented, and agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding providing for an oil-for-food program designed by UN Resolution 986, which had been passed by the UN on 14 April 1995. This would allow Iraq to sell up to US $2 billion in oil per 180-day phase, and to use those proceeds to purchase contracts for foreign goods and services (in February 1998, the limit on oil sales was increased to US $5.265 billion). These contracts would be reviewed by a committee in New York for compliance with UN resolutions (forbidding, for example, purchases of military equipment). As a concession to concerns about Iraq's sovereignty, Iraq agreed to accept responsibility for establishing a distribution program to ensure that humanitarian assistance was distributed in an equitable fashion. 1, 3

From the inception of the program through August 31, 2001, Iraq placed orders for some US $33.7 billion in goods and services, including nearly $16 billion for food, food handling services, and healthcare. All told, only $3.75 billion of the total contract amount has been put "on hold" by the Resolution 661 compliance committee for further investigation. No food contracts have been put on hold. As a result of these procedures, the daily food ration (the total nutritional value of food aid divided by the population of Iraq) has increased from 1,275 calories in 1996 to 2,229 calories as of September 2001. The latest figure represents 90% the calorie targets established by the UN. 1, 4

Yet problems persist. One long-standing row concerns the reluctance of the Iraqi government to issue visas to UN personnel. The Secretary-General has stated on a number of occasions that such behavior has had a detrimental impact on the ability of Iraq to improve its infrastructure. Iraq has also been criticized for using too little of its oil revenue to purchase basic necessities. The Secretary-General's latest report on the Resolution 986 program concludes that Iraq is indeed in a position to improve the health and nutritional status of its citizens. 4

According to UNICEF, infant mortality in central and southern Iraq climbed from a rate of 56 per 1,000 for the 1984-89 period to 131 per 1,000 during 1994-99, and under-five mortality climbed from 47 to 108 children per 1,000 live births. At the same time, mortality rates in the north have declined over the same period. This is considered to be a symptom of the inequitable distribution of food and health services by the Iraqi government. 2

Conclusion It cannot be denied that child mortality rates have increased dramatically through the Gulf War and the application of UN sanctions in its aftermath. But it must also be granted that the Iraqi government is at least partially to blame, if not for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait that sparked the sanctions regime, then for five years of stalling before entering into the oil-for-food program, the pledge to undertake distribution responsibilities it could not and cannot handle, the persistent denial of visas to UN aid workers, chronic underspending of oil revenues on food and health, and the inequitable distribution of the food aid it does receive.

These deaths are certainly tragic, and the innocent victims should be mourned. But the issue should not be looked at one dimensionally, outside the context of Iraqi government action (or inaction).


1: United Nations Office of the Iraq Programme
3: UN Memorandum of Understanding, 20 May 1996
4: "Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 5 of resolution 1360 (2001)," Phase X 90-day update, September 28, 2001

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