e-mail us


Lifting sanctions won’t end pain, and it could fuel new aggression


The May 21 NCR eloquently describes the suffering of the Iraqi people. It also lays the blame for that suffering on the United States and the sanctions program being enforced by the United Nations. I believe that is a severe misreading of the situation.

As the President’s National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, points out: “Saddam’s intent is clear: He is cynically trying to exploit the suffering of his people for which he is responsible to build support for eroding sanctions so that he can resume his efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”

Berger said that the United States is prepared to lift the ceiling on how much oil Iraq is able to export and to use as much oil revenue as is necessary to meet humanitarian needs as long as it is done under the strict supervision of sanctions. “Critics,” he said, “forget that starving Iraq is Saddam’s strategy. The oil-for-food program ... further restrains him while relieving the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.”

There is practically no human rights violation that Saddam Hussein has not perpetrated in attempting to achieve his objectives of maintaining control of his country and of conquering or dominating his oil-producing neighbors. A brief review of that record:

Saddam invaded Iran in the 1980s using poison gas. In the 1990s he conquered Kuwait and launched missiles against Israel. In Iraq’s forced retreat, he set fire to hundreds of oil wells.

After the Persian Gulf War, Baghdad used military force to suppress rebellions by Shiites and Kurds. In 1994, Iraq continued its efforts to crush internal resistance with an economic embargo of the Kurdish North and a military campaign against Shiite Muslim region in the South.

The following is from a statement made by Mr. Max Van Der Stoel, the Special Rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Iraq in 1998: “The ordinary situation in the country is one of widespread, systematic and constant denial of basic human rights. The regime assassinates religious leaders and carries out terrorist attacks and mass executions against any person who might be perceived as a threat to the Iraqi government. The government has also displaced well over 150,000 persons of Kurdish origin to secure the wealth of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk.”

The government uses its resources to rebuild its military forces and to construct numerous elaborate palaces. Despite the expanded “oil-for-food” program, the government bears primary responsibility for the continuing suffering of the Iraqi people.

Nonetheless, there is a belief by some that lifting the sanctions would improve the lot of the Iraqi people. Again, the record shows otherwise: In August, 1998, a State Department communique said: “Since the implementation of the oil-for-food program in 1991, the Iraqi regime has drastically reduced its own food purchases by some $300 [million] to $500 million per year. ... Were the sanctions lifted today, Saddam Hussein would doubtless divert the vast sums he could generate in oil sales to reconstituting his arsenal.”

And Iraq is close to achieving a nuclear weapons capability. Paul Levanthal and Steven Dolley wrote in The Washington Post in 1998 that Scott Ritter, previously of the U.N. Weapons Inspection Team, testified to Congress that “UNSCOM had received evidence of some credibility which indicated that Iraq had the components to assemble three implosion type [nuclear] devices minus the fissile material.” Levanthal and Dolley say the prudent assumption should be that even the possibility that Iraq has already procured this fissile material cannot be ruled out.

Philip Shenon, a reporter for The Washington Post, wrote in 1998 that sanctions accomplish two fundamental goals: “Under the ‘oil-for-food’ program, they enable the Iraqi people to get food and medicine, and they have deprived Iraq of the ability to buy advanced weapons and so-called dual-use technology that would allow Iraq to make arms of mass destruction.”

To my mind, if Iraq were to spend its oil revenues on arms, the world would again see a repetition of Saddam’s previous atrocities: use of poison gas, invasions of its neighbors, environmental destruction, missiles launched against Jerusalem and cities in other countries this time armed with nuclear warheads.

Removal of sanctions would also almost certainly not improve the lot of the people. “The oil-for-food program” would be cut off and the funds from oil exports would not go to the people but to the military. In this event, Americans would be barred from the country so that they could not report on continued Iraqi suffering.

In the late 1950s, Charles N. Davis flew antisubmarine warfare missions for the United States Navy. He later became an analyst of political and military affairs in the Soviet Union for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council. Now retired, Davis writes on arms control issues and church reform, especially divorce and remarriage.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999