Endless embargo

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST

A decade after the imposition of a sanctions regime, Iraq continues to be a victim of geopolitical manoeuvring and a scapegoat for the insecurities of the United States' client regimes in West Asia.


THE last time the United Nations Security Council discussed the issue of the sanctions against Iraq, there seemed a hesitant and grudging recognition by the main proponents of the punitive regime - the United States and the United Kingdom - of the fact t hat the human costs of the brutal policy have gone far beyond any ethically admissible level. But as the sanctions regime completes a decade in operation, there seems little willingness even to begin to consider its withdrawal. Rather, Iraq continues to be the victim of geopolitical manoeuvring of a particularly sordid kind and a scapegoat for the multiple insecurities of the U.S.' client regimes in the region. And as the U.S.-brokered "peace process" for West Asia stutters into its last phase with litt le possibility that it will go even half way towards meeting Arab aspirations the need to keep Iraq boxed in and isolated would only seem to heighten.

Introducing the discussion in the Security Council, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan effectively conceded that the moral advantage, if at all it existed, had been lost forever: "...the humanitarian situation in Iraq poses a serious moral dilemma for thi s organisation. The United Nations has always been on the side of the vulnerable and the weak, and has always sought to relieve suffering, yet here we are accused of causing suffering to an entire population. We are in danger of losing the argument, or t he propaganda war - if we haven't already lost it - about who is responsible for this situation - President Saddam Hussein or the United Nations."

Tentatively the U.N. has, in seeming recognition of the moral dubiousness of its position, sought to move the notion of "smart sanctions" to the foreground. The groundwork was laid as far back as 1996, six years into the embargo on Iraq. As reported by t he U.N. Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs, the objective was to "protect civilians" from the effects of sanctions, while "sharpening their targeting to increase their impact".

The U.K. envoy broadly endorsed the notion of "smart sanctions", but pointed out that the U.N. needed to acquire a broad range of technical skills to make it work. He thought that "modern technology" could be pressed into service by the Security Council to ensure that sanctions remained generally impermeable. And the technical means adopted, he continued, should have the capability to "tap into national facilities for information and investigation".

The intervention of the U.K. in the debate had the merit of stating with grim clarity that national sovereignty would be the first casualty of any regime of "smart sanctions". The recipients of the Security Council's attentions should in short, be vulner able to advanced espionage techniques that would render even their most sensitive national security matters an open book. In the absence of this condition, it would be subjected to the kind of open-ended and comprehensive embargo that Iraq has suffered n ow for a decade.

The U.S. envoy had by far the most unapologetic and yet self-contradictory contribution to the debate on sanctions. The U.N., he asserted, should recognise "without apology" that sanctions are an instrument of coercion. Sanctimoniously usurping the decis ion-making authority of the entire U.N. membership, he described sanctions as a "means of expressing the will of the international community to end unacceptable behaviour". To be effective, he continued, sanctions needed to be "carefully tailored to the particular situation in which they are to be applied". And then, there should be careful attention paid to the "minimisation, mitigation and management of unintended impacts, especially on vulnerable sectors of the population". With robust cynicism, howe ver, the U.S. representative urged the Security Council to acknowledge the fact that these "unintended impacts" could never be "eliminated entirely".

IN yet another respect, the U.S. behaviour has been contrary to its stated principle that "sanctions regimes must clearly enunciate the standards by which alterations to unacceptable behaviour would be measured". The termination of sanctions, the U.S. en voy declared, "should be directly and transparently linked to confirmation of the changed behaviour". In specific cases, he urged, an incremental relaxation of U.N. sanctions could be considered in response to the measured progress of the target nation i n altering its pattern of behaviour.

The U.S.' actual conduct has, needless to say, been contrary to these principles. Early on in the application of the sanctions it unilaterally inscribed into the U.N.'s stated objectives the tacit aim of effecting a change of regime in Iraq. It has wilfu lly overlooked a favourable report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iraqi cooperation with its disarmament mission. It repeatedly used the now defunct United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) to seek to penetrate the innermost secu rity rings surrounding the top Iraqi leadership and to provoke confrontations with the Iraqi government. Far from maintaining a regime of transparency, it has arrogated to itself the absolute right to judge when Iraq should be deemed to be in non-complia nce with U.N. resolutions. And the punitive air strikes that it continues to carry out against the country have been lacking in any kind of authorisation from the U.N.

Since December 1998, when the U.S. and the U.K. carried out an intensive four-day long bombing campaign against Iraq, the air war has been continuing with little abatement. Iraqi government sources have reported a total of 21,600 violations of the countr y's air space by American and British war planes in this period. On an average there is a bombing run every alternate day, many of them targeted against civilian facilities from the safe altitude of 20,000 feet.

Russia, France and China have repeatedly called into question the rights and wrongs of air strikes against Iraq. In a particularly outspoken reaction, the French Foreign Ministry spokesperson recently described the bombings as "pointless and deadly": "We reaffirm our incomprehension, our profound unease, in relation to the pursuit and intensification of the air strikes against Iraq, in which the people are the principal victims."

This public excoriation coincided with the Security Council debate on the sanctions and drew an angry reaction from the U.S. State Department. But there is little question that American insensitivity has begun to engender a deep sense of unease even with in sections within the U.S. Early this year a group of Congressmen wrote to President Bill Clinton urging that the effort to disarm Iraq be separated from the economic sanctions. There was no need to condemn an entire people to widespread material depriv ation just to compel a government to cooperate in a programme of disarmament, they argued.

Clinton responded in the familiar vein of dissimulation that has become customary in U.S. policy towards Iraq. "The greatest problem the people of Iraq face today," he wrote, "is that Baghdad systematically limits the distribution of humanitarian goods t o preserve the suffering of its own people as a diplomatic asset". After this disavowal of all responsibility for the humanitarian suffering, Clinton went on to a broad reaffirmation of the value of sanctions. From seeking legitimacy in the multilateral sanction of the U.N., he quickly shifted focus to a statement of American geopolitical aims in the region: ".. the sanctions on Iraq will remain in place until Iraq has complied with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. The sanctions prevent S addam from rebuilding his military. They deny him the cash that gave him broad influence in the Middle East before the Gulf War. They keep him weak and internationally isolated. They are a constant reminder to his people and to the world that Saddam Huss ein is not fully sovereign in Iraq. They prevent Saddam from disrupting regional stability. Finally, they impede his ability to develop and use weapons of mass destruction."

To bolster its defences, the U.S. administration in league with the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) - one of the most influential lobbies in Washington D.C. - orchestrated a letter from 100 U.S. Congressmen, insisting that sanctions r emain in place till the Iraqi regime is toppled. This was a maladroit move, transparent in its intentions. But it had the salutary effect of bringing to the foreground the Israeli interests that have driven the U.S. and the U.K. in the formulation of the ir policy towards Iraq in the last decade.

The patent falsehood that the Iraqi government is withholding essential supplies from its people, has been exposed as such by U.N. officials in charge of the humanitarian programme. Two of them - Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck - have resigned in pr otest against the persistently obstructive attitude of the U.S. and the U.K. In a recent interview Halliday went to the extent of accusing these two countries of "playing games" with the humanitarian programme through the sanctions committee of the U.N. The procedure is normally to put purchase contracts on hold. A clutch of contracts would be cleared, but one vital input - without which the rest would be rendered useless - would be denied. At last count, the U.S. and the U.K. had between them put on ho ld over 1,000 purchase applications by the Iraqi government, valued at over $1.7 billion. The magnitude may be small in relation to the total purchases that have been cleared under the "Oil For Food" programme. But in stopping essential supplies for infr astructural systems such as water supply, health care delivery, sewage disposal and power, these "holds" have had a lethal effect.

A fresh element has been infused into the debate by Scott Ritter, the former U.S. marine officer who served till 1998 as part of UNSCOM monitoring Iraqi disarmament. In an article that has set off alarm in the U.S. administration, Ritter argued in a rece nt issue of the influential journal Arms Control Today, that intensive weapons inspections between 1991 and 1998 had achieved the "qualitative disarmament" of Iraq. This is the best that can be achieved, since no system of inspections could concei vably achieve a full "quantitative disarmament". In other words, there is no feasible way of tracing every last ounce of potentially lethal material that may exist in Iraq, no way of neutralising the intellectual and scientific capabilities that may have been built up over the years, or of disabling institutional memories.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by Hans Blix, the former chairman of the IAEA, who is scheduled soon to begin a new round of weapons inspections under the aegis of UNSCOM's successor body - the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commissi on (UNMOVIC). Iraq has rejected the proposed regime of inspections, pointing out that the new body has no jurisdiction. The record of seven years of cooperation with the arms control effort, it has urged, should be taken into account and the sanctions li fted with no further delay.

Blix himself is hopeful of cooperation, though he is far from certain whether it will happen. The irritants in relations between the U.N. and Iraq, he has pleaded, are beyond his remit. He has little power to urge an amendment of the sanctions policy or to insist that the regular air strikes against Iraq be halted. Blix is a considerably more sympathetic character than the Australian diplomat Richard Butler, who was the last chairman of UNSCOM and the man principally responsible for bringing it into dis repute. But there is every likelihood of a new confrontation when UNMOVIC seeks to enter Iraq towards the end of August. Since this coincides with the start of the U.S. presidential election campaign, an intensified series of bombing raids ranks high on the list of probabilities.

As brazen and unrepentant as ever, Butler has been seeking to create the appropriate climate of opinion for this outcome. In recent articles and commentaries he has issued monitory warnings that Iraq has utilised the months since UNSCOM was terminated to rearm and rebuild its capacity to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. Significantly, the most recent such warning was delivered before a committee of the Israeli Knesset early in July.

And if all these complications were not enough, the Iraqi people have now been taken hostage in the partisan battles between Republicans and Democrats within the U.S. Richard Perle, a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential contender George Bus h, recently accused the Clinton administration of not doing enough to effect a change of regime in Iraq. Democrat hopeful Al Gore responded by insisting that sanctions would remain in place till Saddam Hussein is removed from power.

The Republicans charge the Clinton-Gore team with failure to utilise the authority granted under the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 to empower opposition forces to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They fail to appreciate that all the funds granted under the act ha ve barely been sufficient to buy the loyalty of the disparate groups that make up the Iraqi Opposition, far less to get them to unite or bestow upon them the legitimacy needed to launch a credible bid for power. Indeed, given the geopolitical complexitie s of the region, sanctions remain the only safe policy for the U.S. An attempt to effect a forcible change of regime could set off shock-waves in the entire region, perhaps destabilising friendly regimes more drastically than the U.S.' proclaimed enemies .

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