For Iraqi Children, Death by Sanctions

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

Stanley Heller

AN UNDERREPORTED CASUALTY in the latest U.S.-Iraq conflict is the “Food for Oil” deal that was agreed upon in May. This was the long awaited relief plan for Iraqi civilians suffering under United Nations sanctions.  While it had never been put into effect, the last U.S. criticisms had supposedly been withdrawn.

Weeks later Iraqi troops moved north and U.S. missiles sped to southern Iraq. U.S. officials curtly announced the UN plan was on indefinite hold and that was that. The ghastly malnutrition caused by the sanctions is to go on without any lessening.

Not that the “Food for Oil” deal promised much relief.  Consider the size of the problem.  After the Gulf war’s end in 1991 several research teams went to Iraq and warned of massive civilian deaths because of the sanctions.  They predicted 100,000 fatalities, estimates which have proved far too conservative.

A careful survey of past mortality and current malnutrition made in the summer and fall of 1995 by a team from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) led team members to calculate that 567,000 children had died because of the sanctions.  The number of deaths was so staggering that the national media, hitherto very careful to talk only of “suffering” in Iraq, actually gave the mortality figures one or two days’ play.

The FAO report was issued late last November.  It was based on the findings of a study team led by Peter Pellett, Professor of Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts.  The team went to Iraq at the end of July 1995, stayed for a month and traveled all over the country.

Taking a carefully scientific sample of the population, the team went out and surveyed households and personally weighed and measured the children.  Though they worked with official Iraqi health personnel, their information was not based on Iraqi government statistics.  They did a mortality study to determine death rates of infants and small children.

The study showed that the death rate of infants was twice what it was before sanctions, and that the death rate of children (under five years of age) is five times what it was before the sanctions! Two FAO researchers, Dr. Mary Smith Fawzi and Dr. Sarah Zaidi, used this latter rate to determine that out of 3.6 million Iraqi children, 567,000 had died.

Iraqi adults have also died from the sanctions, of course, but children under five are the most vulnerable.  Among the children the FAO team measured they found widespread malnutrition.  Twelve percent of children surveyed in Baghdad were “wasted,” that is seriously below normal weight, and 28% “stunted,” meaning below normal height.

The team report states “For stunting, prevalence rates are similar to estimates from Sri Lanka (28%) and the Congo (27%).  The prevalence of wasting in Baghdad is comparable with estimates from Madagascar (12%) and Burma (11%).  The prevalence of severe wasting is comparable to data from northern Sudan (2.3%).”

The Creation of Misery

In 1990 Iraqi children were on par with children in wealthy Kuwait and much of Europe.  Now the size and weight of children in Iraq is equal to that of children in the very poorest parts of the world.  This can be seen graphically in the slides taken of Iraqi children: The worst-off infants looked skeletal with bloated bellies and scarcely human features.

In pictures of elementary school children many appear gaunt and tired.  Others look perfectly normal, but they are malnourished too. They are two or three years older than they appear.

As bad as things are they would be worse but for the fact that Saddam Hussein’s tyranny has provided most Iraqi citizens with a virtually free monthly “food basket” of grain and oil. [Hussein didn’t send Kurds in the U.S. northern protectorate any subsidy.] The amount of food provided met one-half of basic nutritional needs during 1991- 1994.

In 1994, however, this ration was cut. It now satisfies only one-third of a person’s food needs.  To survive all families must buy food on the open market and there they find prices are literally thousands of times higher than in 1990.  For instance, the FAO report mentions the price of wheat last fall was 11,667 times higher than in 1990.

Iraq has tried to increase its own food production but the sanctions hamper it there, too. The UN officially bans the import of spare parts, transport and farm machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and the like. (The rationale is these things might be used to make weapons.)

In practice some of these items are allowed into Iraq, but because of the sanctions on oil sales Iraq just doesn’t have the money to buy much of anything.  Iraqi farm production is not filling in the food gap.

Death from malnutrition isn’t the only terror stalking Iraq. During the war the Allies largely destroyed Iraq’s ability to treat sewage.  Raw sewage was pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates River.  This created massive water pollution that spread disease and death.  A good many repairs were made, often by shutting down some facilities and using their machinery for parts, but water and sewage systems are still not adequate.

It’s not just lack of money.  All spare parts and machinery are on the embargo list. They cannot legally be brought into Iraq. Even chemicals needed to purify water are under the UN embargo.  The UN Sanctions Committee has banned over 300 items for import into Iraq, ranging from light bulbs to refrigerators.

The life-and-death decisions of the Sanctions Committee do not have to be justified.  They cannot be appealed.

The main excuse for all the deprivations and deaths is that Saddam Hussein must be made unable to make war again.  It’s an excuse, because it’s well known that Iraq’s military is in no position to attack any armed nation.  It hasn’t the weapons and knows it would be met by overwhelming force.

At a conference in South Florida last October 30th Rolf Ekeus, the UN official in charge of dismantling Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, stated that his staff has succeeded in “destroying every known production facility for missiles, chemical weapons and nuclear” in Iraq.

Ekeus says he won’t certify Hussein as tamed until he finds proof that Iraq destroyed its germ warfare capabilities, yet he doesn’t maintain that the germs actually exist.  To find proof that something doesn’t exist is an open-ended project if there ever was one. The U.S. could keep his investigation going on for years.

The Profits of Starvation

Keeping the investigation going would be just fine with U.S. friends like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the oil companies because all that time Iraqi oil will be off the market.  Meanwhile they will be able to sell their oil for several dollars more a barrel.  By now that’s the main reason the sanctions continue.

It sounds terribly simplistic and vulgar to say that children are dying for oil company profits, but it’s truth, and not even much of a secret.  On January 25 the “New York Times” used “Oil Markets Shuddering” as a headline in a front-page story describing feelings of oil executives about the possibility of limited Iraq oil sales.  The article used words like “havoc” and “collapse” at the prospect that oil prices would drop $1 or $2 a barrel.

In view of the magnitude of the Iraqi people’s catastrophe, the “Oil for Food” deal was no solution.  Iraq was going to be allowed to sell $4 billion worth of petroleum over a year’s time, but this would only decrease the scale of the dying.  The reason is the money Iraq would have kept from the sale was far too little.

Iraq used to export $15 billion a year in oil. Under the now-defunct plan it would be allowed to sell $4 billion.  From this amount, 30% was to be taken out to compensate Kuwaitis, 15% deducted for Iraqi Kurds and 10% sent to the UN itself.  So Iraq would have kept only $1.8 billion.

Last fall’s FAO report said Iraq immediately needed $2.7 billion in the year ahead just for food. Even counting the $600 million going to Iraqi Kurds, Iraq’s share was hundreds of millions of dollars less than what was needed to end malnutrition.  Obviously extra money for medicine was not an option; the Iraqi government could only buy more medicine by accepting a smaller cut in malnutrition deaths.

It also must be understood that the money raised by the oil sale was to be used to buy “medicine, health supplies, foodstuffs and materials and supplies for essential civilian needs.”  It couldn’t be spent to fix the Iraqi water purification and sewage systems.  It couldn’t be spent to revive Iraqi farms, industry or transportation.  None of the import bans were to have been eased one bit.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.  It’s all academic at this point.  The “Food for Oil” deal is dead. Nothing at all is going to happen until well after the election.  The UN-managed malnutrition campaign will continue full speed ahead.

The number of civilians killed by the sanctions is immense.  Since the FAO figures are almost a year old now, the number of children dead is well over 600,000.  We’re talking about a number larger than the population of Boston.

One would think that the deliberate killing of so many children would cause worldwide horror and indignation, but that hasn’t happened.  It should be obvious that killing hundreds of thousands of kids is an infamy no matter what crimes Hussein has committed.

Yet it is not obvious.  The common attitude is, “Saddam Hussein is the enemy.  What happens to the Iraqis is just too bad.”  With a few honorable exceptions the intellectuals are silent, too. Except by their families the Iraqi children die unmourned and unmentioned.

The number of civilian dead in Iraq is much larger than civilians killed in Bosnia.  Yet while the names like Karadzic and Milosevic are commonly spoken of with contempt and disgust, names like Powell, Albright and Clinton are mentioned with respect and admiration.

Stan Heller is editor of “The Struggle”, published by the Middle East Crisis Committee (Box 8993, New Haven, CT 06532)

ATC 65, November-December 1996