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Questioning sanctions step in right direction

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in comments at the start of a recent debate at the world agency, summed up the quandary many face over the U.S.-inspired economic sanctions against Iraq.

“The United Nations has always been on the side of the vulnerable and the weak and has always sought to relieve suffering,” Annan said. “Yet here we are accused of causing suffering to an entire population.”

Whether a reaction to a recent spate of bad press or a realization that the United Nations is actually complicit in causing not only suffering but death to thousands of Iraqi children, Annan’s words are a step in the right direction. The comments came in a growing stream of statements from the White House and the United Nations that indicate a revision of policy. They signal a new attitude and softening of the line on sanctions that is surely the result of months of campaigning by religious activists opposed to the deadly sanctions; to the latest two resignations of career U.N. personnel in protest of the sanctions; to the scathing critique of the sanctions by a U.S. congressional delegation that visited Iraq last year; and to the growing discontent of other countries that have grown weary of the strategy.

Earlier, Annan had commented, “There’s been a lot of discussion in the United Nations generally that as we move into the future we should be looking at smarter sanctions that focus on the individuals whose behavior we want to target rather than a blunt instrument that may affect the entire population.”

A few weeks before, an unnamed Clinton administration source hinted at the intent to ease the sanctions. “We want to go at it with a scalpel instead of a sledge hammer.” U.S. officials then agreed to ease restrictions on machinery, oil industry spare parts, pesticides and other industrial products.

Other initiatives are afoot. One would suspend, not end the sanctions - a clear signal that what gets lifted can be dropped again. More recently, the United States seemed ready to ease the hold it has placed, under the sanctions regimen, on 70 contracts worth $100 million.

The sanctions simply have not worked. They have been counterproductive, inspiring deep enmity among a population that once regarded the United States favorably; increasing the credibility of young hard-liners moving through the ranks of the Baath Party and the military; and forcing Saddam Hussein and his family to increase their hold on the political and military machinery of Iraq.

The futility of the sanctions highlights not only the ineffectiveness of U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past three decades but also the stupidity of the Bush administration’s misadventure in the 1990 Gulf War, a stupidity that is compounded by the Clinton administration, which continues bombing areas of Iraq to this day.

Saddam is a dictator, a brutal man. But he is a dictator, it must be remembered, who was armed by the United States for years and who received, under licensing of the U.S. Commerce Department, the materials for the weapons of mass destruction that we now say he must give up. He is a dangerous leader in a region of dangerous leaders and alliances. The sanctions have done little but strengthen his hand.

The most credible understanding of the situation lies with the United Nations and its personnel, who have been on the ground in Iraq for years. It is telling that two heads of the U.N. humanitarian effort in Iraq - Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck - have resigned in protest of the sanctions that directly kill thousands of Iraqi children each month.

These are not sentimental do-gooders. They are career U.N. employees familiar with the extremes of human suffering. Their departures reveal the sanctions are indeed a vicious blunt instrument being used against the most vulnerable in Iraqi society.

Their resignations are a warning that in Iraq the United Nations is jeopardizing its core mission - literally splitting itself in two. For, on one hand, it is the vehicle through which these brutal sanctions are being administered. At the same time it has deployed its humanitarian workers to try to counter the effects of the sanctions.

Annan’s simple words need little elaboration. The sanctions are causing suffering to an entire people. It is time to stop taking halting little steps and end the sanctions outright. Complicity in killing kids is evil, no matter what the political end.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000