The Vulnerable Are 70% of the Population

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

interview with Professor Peter Pellett

[The following is an interview conducted by Stanley Heller on June 27, 1996 with Professor Peter Pcllett, of the University of Massachusetts, who led last year’s UN study team in Iraq.]

Against the Current: Members of your study team estimated that 567,000 Iraqi children had died because of the sanctions. Has any social scientist or government leader denied that hundreds of thousands of children have died?

Peter Pellett: Not to my knowledge. Sanctions are designed to produce deprivation and suffering: that is their purpose. It is thus not surprising that the poor and vulnerable, especially the children, are most affected and hence mortality is increased. (Since the report was published) mortality has almost certainly continued at the same, if not a faster rate. Probably, therefore, another 100,000 cases of excess mortality in the under fives have occurred.

Malnutrition and infection and disease go hand-in-hand. Children are dying because they are getting a disease, often a simple preventable disease such as gastroenteritis, and this disease is far more virulent than it would have been if they had been well nourished. Good nutrition protects the immune system.

ATC: Will the money that Iraq gets from the Oil for Food deal be enough to end deaths of children from malnutrition?

PP: Absolutely not. There will, of course, be a slight improvement but the amount of money from oil sales will be about twenty-five cents per day per individual in the main part of Iraq. A whole new layer of U.N. food distribution supervision bureaucracy (paid for by Iraq) will need to be installed before any significant effect on ordinary people will be felt.

ATC: What long term effects does malnutrition have on children who survive it?

PP: They remain vulnerable to infective disease and hence increased mortality. They are also diminished in body size and are probably affected in their mental development and leaning ability. They also need increased food of higher nutritional value to permit catch-up growth.

ATC: There was hope that food production in Iraq would increase, particularly within cereal crops.

PP: It hasn’t. Part of the problem is that agricultural chemicals such as fertilizer and pesticides could theoretically have a war-making potential. They can negotiate with the Sanctions Committee to get these things into Iraq, but they remain hard to come by.

The possibility for military usage is also claimed for equipment like trench diggers, road graders and the like. You need UN licenses for almost everything. There is a wonderful cannibalization of parts to keep some machinery running, but the situation is deteriorating.

Because of difficulties in getting equipment and Iraq’s lack of foreign exchange cereal production in Iraq has dropped. During 1995 it was estimated that there was 10% less production than in the previous year and remained far below overall needs.

ATC: The Iraqi government rations food and gives out a free food basket. Why isn’t this enough to meet minimum needs?

PP: The food given by the government is not absolutely free, but its price hasn’t gone up since 1989-1990, so because of the huge price inflation that has occurred it is now practically free. It originally met 50-60% of an adult’s caloric needs, but gradually reduced so now it meets only 1/3 the needs of an active adult.

What is provided is grain, oil, sugar and tea and very little else. All other items must be purchased on the open market where prices may be several thousand times what they were in early 1990. To give you an idea of inflation, an Iraqi 100 dinar note was worth $320 in 1989. In the summer of 1995 the same note was worth five cents.

ATC: What about diseases not connected with poor nutrition? During the war sewage lines were blown up, all electric power was cut off, water purification couldn’t take place, rivers were polluted.

PP: It’s desperately bad. Basra is the worst case, partially because when the sanctions started it was in the process of redeveloping the whole sewage system for the city and foreign contracts were never completed. This then combined with war damage and the lack of repairs.

There are pools of highly smelly liquid all around. You can smell the sewage in the streets. There is typhoid and a considerable increase in other diseases including cholera. The amazing thing is there apparently hasn’t been a severe epidemic.

ATC: Has the 11.5. government ever contacted you or your team about your findings?

PP: No. I have had absolutely no contact nor has interest been shown by anyone at the governmental level. Even the media interest was decidedly low key. The Administration is probably somewhat embarrassed, and perhaps they feel the best thing to do is to be silent.

The sanctions were supposed to affect Saddam Hussein and his power elite, but they have not. Instead we are causing suffering and large numbers of deaths particularly among the vulnerable. The vulnerable are now, by our estimate, 70% of the population.

ATC 65, November-December 1996