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New sanctions proposal not much help to Iraqis


Some months ago, as the outlines of the smart sanctions proposal offered by the United States and the United Kingdom were emerging, London’s Economist pointed out that “smart sanctions offer an aspirin where surgery is needed.” Mil Rai, a British author who has led several Voices in the Wilderness delegations to Iraq, wrote that he views the “smart sanctions” as “a powerful sedative, lulling the world’s conscience to sleep.”

Many U.S. people, returning from Iraq, have put a human face on the price of economic sanctions, telling of hardships and sufferings caused by dire lack of needed goods. Now comes this new plan that will allow these needed goods into Iraq. Worldwide, many people would welcome news of an impending end to the sanctions. It would seem the main problem is solved. But hang on.

Bringing commodities into a country doesn’t help if people can’t buy the commodities. Civil servants, such as doctors, sanitation workers and teachers, won’t have purchasing power unless the government of Iraq can pay them better wages in an Iraqi dinar that is worth something. People with low wages or those who are unemployed won’t have cash to pay their rent or to buy needed goods unless the Iraqi economy is restarted so that they can go back to work earning meaningful wages.

Iraq’s infrastructure can’t be repaired by simply bringing equipment and spare parts into the country. Iraq needs to train people, to pay people, and to undertake what some estimate to be 96 billion dollars worth of infrastructure rehabilitation. Yet the original proposal put forward by the United Kingdom would not allow Iraq to receive any foreign or private investment monies. Nor would it allow the Iraqi government revenues to purchase Iraqi-produced food and other goods. If border states were to cooperate with the proposed “smart sanctions” plan, no cash earned through foreign exchange would enter Iraq.

In recent years, Iraq has partially circumvented the U.N. requirement to deposit oil revenues in a U.N. escrow account through smuggling oil to Syria, Turkey and Iran. It has used cash from these sales to pay for maintenance of its military, its intelligence network and its palaces. But it has also used cash from smuggled oil sales for payment of civil servants and some of the expected expenses of running a modern society. Another source of cash has come through surcharges that Iraq recently imposed on each barrel of oil it sells. Iraq lowered the price of each barrel beneath that which the oil for food negotiations called for and then added a surcharge ($.50 per barrel). If a company paid it, (and the companies have been paying), the sum went directly to the government of Iraq.

If the original United Kingdom proposal were to pass, revenues gained from surcharges and smuggled oil sales would be stopped. The United Nations would demand that Jordan, Syria and Turkey channel their compensation for trade with Iraq into a U.N.-monitored escrow account, deposited in their own country, which Iraq could use only to purchase commodities produced by that particular state. In other words, if Iraq sold oil to a neighboring Syria, Syria’s payment would go into an escrow account in Syria, and Iraq could only draw from that account to buy Syrian goods. What if the goods are overpriced? What if they are defective? Are there any guarantees to protect Iraq from unfair trade deals?

Adding salt to the wound, Iraq would have to pay the salaries of the U.N. infrastructure monitoring its borders -- payments to be made out of revenues deposited in the U.N.-controlled escrow account.

Shall we expect the government of Iraq, or any government for that matter, to welcome such a proposal? Is it fair to vilify or further threaten the government of Iraq for rejecting it?

Availability of more commodities will surely alleviate some suffering for some Iraqis. Yet it appears that the original U.K. proposal was crafted to bring Iraq more welfare and not to bring about the kinds of changes that are needed or that the Marshall Plan wrought following World War II.

I’ve traveled to and from Iraq 13 times since 1996. Each time, I feel that I’m leaving behind an imprisoned nation. On the outside, many people may long for a solution to the current problems in Iraq that would sedate pangs of conscience over suffering of the innocents that we’ve helped cause. Inside Iraq, many people feel resigned to being trapped, but nothing can sedate the anguish of loss, the fears of continued punishment, and the bewildered question we hear so often: “Laish? Laish?” Why, why?

Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001