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The UN’s Real Disgrace was the Sanctions Regime


As the riptide of voices seeking to drown Kofi Annan and the UN Oil-For-Food Program strengthens, it is interesting to note not only what is being said about the Program’s shortcomings, but also what isn’t being said. In order to do that, however, it is first necessary to at least mention something that many critics of the Oil-For-Food Program seem to have forgotten: the Program’s original intent.

The Oil-For-Food Program was authorized on April 14, 1995 by UN Security Council Resolution 986, which begins with this language: “Concerned by the serious nutritional and health situation of the Iraqi population, and by the risk of a further deterioration in this situation, Convinced of the needto provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people” The Resolution goes on to authorize the sale of Iraqi petroleum expressly “to finance the export to Iraqof medicine, health supplies, foodstuffs, and materials and supplies for essential civilian needs.” In other words, suffocating under a comprehensive embargo for five years, people in Iraq were turning blue and dying, unable to feed themselves, care effectively for their sick, or repair and maintain essential civilian life support systems such as the country’s devastated electrical grid and sewage and water treatment facilities.

There. Now that we,ve said it, and the world hasn’t stopped spinning a risk worth taking we can resume breathing and return to the original point of this article. In the churning, shark-infested waters in which the bloody Oil-For-Food Program now swims, the focus of the sharks is on reports of bribes accepted by Program employees and of kickbacks to Saddam Hussein from the sale of oil, kickbacks which weapons inspector Charles Duelfer estimates at $1.7 billion over the life of the Program. In recent newspaper articles, the Program is variously described as “corrupt,” “evil,” “a scandal,” “a mess,” etc.

In a measure of just how deep and wide is the current of ill-will toward the Oil-For-Food Program, even articles defending Kofi Annan as innocent of any wrongdoing attack the Program without mercy or compunction. Take, for example, Thomas Oliphant writing recently in the Boston Globe, referring to the “notorious and corrupted Oil-For-Food Program.” Eventually, he writes the Program off completely: “Oil-for-food was a worldwide disgrace–a mess. Instead of easing the impact of UN sanctions on Iraqi civilians, the program was an opportunity for profiteering both by businesses and by Saddam Hussein.”

A more balanced and accurate analysis would acknowledge that the Oil-For-Food Program, while obviously no substitute for a complete lifting of sanctions, did succeed in halting the precipitous deterioration in the health of Iraqi children. It accomplished this by piggy-backing on, and supplementing, an existing Iraqi government program of food rationing. By the time the Program was fully operational in the late 1990’s, rising malnutrition levels among children had eased, though they remained at an inhumane and unacceptable level. In accomplishing this, the Program undoubtedly saved and improved lives. Why pretend otherwise?

The Program also served to chronicle the effect of sanctions on ordinary Iraqi people. Particularly during Hans von Sponeck’s tenure as Director, the Program sponsored investigations and produced reports on features of the humanitarian crisis which were all but ignored at the time. These include, for example, the difficult-to-measure psychosocial effects of sanctions. There were numerous other reports which represent another, little-known success.

Lastly, the Program produced the most knowledgeable, and therefore most credible, Western critics of the economic embargo, von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, both of whom were Program Directors who resigned in protest of the embargo’s devastating effects on Iraqi society. This, no doubt, should be considered an unintentional success.

Ironically, von Sponeck and Halliday were also the most credible critics of the Oil-For-Food Program itself. Its successes notwithstanding, the Oil-For-Food Program was doomed to failure, not because of corruption among employees, not because Saddam Hussein was “siphoning” money out of the Program as people are fond of misstating, not because the Iraqi government wouldn’t cooperate with it, but for structural reasons. First, the Program was woefully underfunded, a point which cannot be overstated. And by underfunded, I mean from the perspective of the Iraqi people.

I don’t mean to be naïve. There is no evidence that the architects of US foreign policy care about the people of Iraq, but staff of the Oil-For-Food Program certainly did. Recent attacks on the Program must seem cruelly ironic to many former employees who struggled for years with inadequate resources to address a humanitarian catastrophe that confronted them up close and personal every day.

The Oil-For-Food Program was never intended to generate enough money to reverse the trends in Iraq and bring people back to the standard of health they,d enjoyed prior to the onset of sanctions. This is especially true for the 87% of the population living in the south and center of the country.

The shortfall in monies available to the Program was due in part to requirements written into the original Resolution. Throughout the duration of the Program, in what Denis Halliday has correctly called a crime, 30% of the oil sale proceeds were sent to Kuwait as war reparations. “They gave 30% to Kuwait while Iraqi children were dying for lack of water and adequate foodstuffs. That’s a crime in a sense”. Another 5% went to the United Nations to administer the program. 13%, taken off the top, was set aside for people in the autonomous northern governates. This left approximately 50% of the money for the roughly 20 million people living in the rest of Iraq. If we divide the total amount of money available to these people through the seven years of the Program (roughly $32 billion), we arrive at $225 per person per year, a pathetic amount, hardly enough to fund a healthy society, let alone rebuild one which had been so thoroughly devastated. And so people, many of them children, continued to sicken and die. This is the real disgrace of the Oil-For-food Program.

A lack of money isn’t the only structural problem that Oil-for-Food Program staff faced. Recall that every contract entered into by Iraq had to be approved by the UN Sanctions Committee before it could be finalized and a transaction could take place. Any item which even a single member of the committee questioned could be held up. Eventually, US committee members alone held up 5,000 contracts. The value of contracts on hold in the Program was substantial in the billions of dollars.

Of equal importance is the kind of items held or denied. These include especially items considered “dual use,” having supposedly both a civilian and a military application. The list of these items is astounding. It includes pencils, boots, academic textbooks, refrigerators, electric light bulbs, and many others. It also includes items which go right to the heart of the humanitarian crisis — chlorine, for example, which Iraq needed to purify water, various spare parts needed to repair or maintain water and sewage treatment systems, and medical supplies. Never mind that the Oil-for-Food Program, working jointly with the UN World Health Organization, convincingly and painstakingly proved in the late 1990’s that it could adequately monitor items coming into Iraq, assuring that they both reached their intended destination and were used for their intended purpose. Never mind that some of these held items were potentially life-saving. They were nonetheless held or denied entry.

Finally, the Oil-For-Food Program was hampered by the state of the Iraqi oil industry, which the US military intentionally targeted in 1991. The Program was often unable to meet its quarterly quota of oil sales, in part because Iraq wasn’t able to extract and refine enough oil. From the perspective of the Iraqi people, more oil sales would have meant more food and of higher nutritional value, more supplies, an easing of their plight. The US did nothing to support the rehabilitation of Iraq’s oil industry during this time. In fact, it worked against it. Not only did it hold up or deny spare parts contracts, but it continued to bomb Iraq’s oil industry infrastructure as well.

The real “mess” is the one created by the sanctions and by the 1991 Gulf War: the economic and humanitarian crisis in Iraq. The real “disgrace” is the maintenance of sanctions in the face of incontrovertible evidence of large-scale suffering and death, and the hamstringing of the Oil-For-Food Program, which served as a lifeline for millions of Iraqi people.

DAVID SMITH-FERRI is a member of Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end U.S. economic and military warfare abroad and at home. He lives in Ukiah, CA. He can be reached at:


David Smith-Ferri is a member of Voices for Creative Nonviolence ( and the author, most recently, of  Where Days Are Stones, Afghanistan and Gaza Poems, 2012-2013. He recently returned from a VCNV delegation to Helsinki, where he visited with Iraqi friends who fled their country and are seeking asylum in Finland. He can be reached at

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