Sanctions: Lessons from Iraq

Sanctions: Lessons from Iraq

On the second of August 1990, Iraq, under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, invaded its tiny neighbour to the south, Kuwait. Within four days the United Nations Security Council applied an embargo on conducting any business – purchases, sales or financial transactions- with Iraq[1]. Subsequent to the brief war between Iraq and coalition forces that saw Iraq defeated, Iraq  signed onto a humiliating oil for food programme in which the countries lucrative oil supplies were sold for credit in order to compensate Kuwait and help rebuild Iraqi infrastructure. The sanctions amounted to a near –total financial and trade embargo and stayed largely in force until May 2003 when Saddam was overthrown by a US military lead coalition. Essentially the United States, who manipulated and bent the rules of the UN, was at economic and military war with Iraq for thirteen years; between 1990 – 2003. The initial justification for these sanctions was that Iraq had attacked a sovereign state, with the intention of annexing its territory, and the sanctions were orchestrated to pressure Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait and destroy his supposed weapons of mass destruction. However as the nineties progressed a series of discursive practices surrounding human rights violations began to emerge to justify the application of sanctions. Saddam Hussein was killing “good Kurds” in the north of the country, he was using chemical weapons against his neighbours, and he was terrorizing the Shi’a of the south. The existential threat of an “armed” and “maniacal” Saddam Hussein was also carefully cultivated and constructed by the US political and press establishment whilst overlooking the effects of the UN sanctions[2].

What this briefing will attempt to elucidate, are the hidden imperial agendas behind the implementation of sanctions in regards to Iraq. How and why did the US attitudes towards Saddam Hussein’s transgressions transform from that of undercover accomplice to active policeman and in what way do the inner workings of the UN facilitate US global designs? How were concepts of human rights and international security seized upon by Washington to push through sanctions? What was the human impact upon Iraqi society? This briefing will conclude that US imperial power is ubiquitous on the international stage, and the implementation of sanctions through the UN has always been a tactic to achieve global dominance by a “benevolent hegemon” mercifully refraining from resorting to violence.

The UN: A story of imperial subordination

Iraq had the world’s second largest proven oil reserves according to OPEC in 2011[3]. After coming out of the Second World War as one of the world’s foremost superpowers, the US realised the importance of oil and the Middle East.  State Department planner George Kennan set out a framework for US foreign policy in 1948:

“We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population […] Our real task in this coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity”.[4]

These “pattern of relationships” were the ever changing ties the US had with various Middle Eastern regimes throughout the cold war. Ties to client regimes such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey were fostered in the aim to have regional dictators and juntas ready to coerce noncompliant states and oppress local populations; all financed by stratospheric military aid packages from the US; a two way street of trade emerged, with oil and nods going one way, and dollars and weapons the other. Kennan’s candour in regards to US imperial tactics seems to be at odds with the fact his superior, President Harry S Truman, had enthusiastically signed on to UN three years earlier. Ostensibly, the UN was designed to be a supranational organisation created to ensure prosperity and peace amongst all the nations of the world. However this confusion is based upon overlooking the history of the UN as a very American initiative[5], a history which will be fundamental to understanding the application of crippling sanctions upon Iraq.

Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an expansionist president and had no qualms with anyone who facilitated this vision, supporting Somoza of Nicaragua, Batista of Cuba and even Mussolini for a while. FDR believed that international institutions could serve US imperialism and still retain an ethical face, and the UN was very much FDR’s brainchild. Gowan states that essentially FDR’s designs for the UN was for it to have an external face which would appeal to the international community, as contributing to the common good, with humanitarian organs attached.  Furthermore, “the internal face of the organization could be shaped in an entirely different and indeed opposite way, as a framework for the power politics of the hegemon” this being the basis for the Security Council[6]. During the negotiations for a post war world system, Joseph Stalin of the USSR was guaranteed UN membership, and Britain, France and China were allocated seats on the security council; all of whom would inevitably vote with the US.  Stalin had been outmanoeuvred, having focussed primarily on his sphere of influence in the Eastern Bloc during these negotiations. The attractive cosmopolitan nature of the general assembly was gutted and all decision making was based within the Security Council, isolating Moscow. US foreign policy discourse now perceived the world as divided between the “free”, “communist” and “non-aligned”. The US would come to dominate Security Council decisions as Michael Mann states in his book Incoherent Empire[7]. However, as the USSR imploded and China fell in line with the neoliberal order, Washington would exercise more power within the organisation than FDR could have ever dreamed of.

Iraq enjoyed a degree of patronage from the US and Saddam found himself in the midst of an informal “special relationship” after the Iranian revolution, political Islam was now seen as a secondary assault, along with Communism, to US hegemony in the oil rich Middle East. Within weeks of the invasion of Iran, the US supplied Iraq with weaponry through Saudi Arabia[8], and helicopters used for dispensing insecticides[9], helicopters, that were actually used for chemical warfare as detailed by the CIA. During this time Saddam was also facing a full scale insurrection in the north from the Kurds, Saddam laid waste to the fertile north and was rewarded with $5 billion of food credits from the Commodity Credit Corporation in the US[10].

Right up to the invasion of Kuwait Iraq was enjoying American military hardware and intelligence; they even managed to accidently bomb a US naval ship without any retaliation. However after Desert Storm and the dawning of the unipolar world the situation had changed. Two  wars against his immediate neighbours and a Scud  attack against their most favoured patron in the region, Israel, was seen by the US as Saddam attempting to realise his centrifugal foreign policy aim; leader of the Arab world and regional hegemon. The US was now the world’s sole superpower, and discursive practices surrounding its position and role in the world began to shift from fighting communism to a focussed endorsement of liberal democracy and human rights through interventionism and economic muscle. The US and its European associates in the Security Council also began to rework the traditional operation of the UN, calling on liberal standards of human rights to withdraw sovereignty of lesser states, in the name of constructed principles of state behaviour, to which of course they would not be accountable[11].  

The construction of “Human Rights” norms: The key to circumventing international law

The initial sanctions programme came under Security Council Resolution (SCR) 661 and were meant as a coercive measure, however by SCR 687 in April 1991 the sanctions can be seen to be punitive, aimed at punishing Iraq, Cuba and Yemen voting against SCR 666. Over the next seven years, the US and Britain would dominate Security Council decisions in regards to Iraq; especially in regards to what could enter the country and what could leave. The aims, would shift, as the US began to realise that even the unprecedented sway it held over the UN was not enough to enforce their imperial desires, and began to work outside the UN mandate.  US ambassador to the UN, Madeline Albright summed up her Washington’s attitude, “We will behave multilaterally when we can, and unilaterally when we must”[12].

President Clinton’s policy towards Iraq began to evolve from the moment he took office. On June 27, 1993, the US launched a cruise missile on Iraq’s intelligence headquarters, causing civilian casualties. In 1998 the Washington Post revealed that previous Iraqi suspicions that the CIA had infiltrated the UN weapons inspecting body, UNSCOM, were well founded[13]. One of the quid pro quos for the lifting of sanctions, as stated in SCR 687 was for Iraq to comply with UNSCOM and allow the destruction of all of its WMD’s[14], however Albright stated in early 1997: “We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning WMD’s, sanctions should be lifted”[15]. In 1998 Clinton asserted that failure by Iraq to comply with weapons inspectors, would result in “the severest of consequences”. This is despite the fact that Russia, China and France had vehemently opposed the use of force and back a SCR 1154 which incorporated a memorandum of understanding between foreign minister Tariq Aziz and UN Secretary General Kofi Anan[16]. US actions and rhetoric were oscillating between unilateralism and multilateralism in an almost schizophrenic manner[17]. Between December 1998 – May 2000, US and UK warplanes rained down some 400 tons of bombs and missiles on Iraq[18]. In order to mask this naked imperialism, US policy makers and the media establishment made sure to slot US attitudes and actions towards Iraq into contemporary discourse surrounding “Human Rights”.

Despite the UN acting as a tool for US imperialism in both its historical makeup and penchant for low level humanitarian work, it still lays down formally, the right of the sovereign state. Furthermore this sovereignty cannot technically be violated outside of the legal monopoly of force held by the UN. With the collapse of the “Global Communist threat”, the US now needed another cause to wave its Policeman’s truncheon at in order to justify its imperial endeavours. Across the spectrum, political theorists, even socialists like Martin Shaw[19], began to argue that the maintenance of human rights was contrary to international law and that sovereign immunity is detrimental to the human rights cause. International law, and all the protections accorded to states were anachronisms, contrary to the new world and the position the US saw herself. In the post-Cold War climate the rights of weaker states can be infringed on the basis of their violation of human rights. A parochial discourse on Human Rights would be produced by the new Neoliberal intelligentsia in various institutions, and subsequently cited and cheerlead by politicians as a reason for the violation of sovereignty, sanctions and interventionism.  Shaw went even further to state that ‘it is unavoidable that global state action will be undertaken largely by states, ad hoc coalitions of states and more permanent regional groupings of states’[20]. This would be the context for NATO intervention in the Balkans, but also the nature of the sanctions and bombing of Iraq, as it was lead almost wholeheartedly by Blair and Clinton. This form of war, Chandler states, knows no legal bounds or parameters, as the rules and guidelines are effectively set by those who wage it.

Sanctions and their impact

Within weeks of SCR 661 the Iraqi ministry of trade introduced national food rationing, understanding the scope of these sanctions and what effect they could have upon the food security of the country[21]. Before the sanctions Iraq had been able to maintain living standards comparable to some Western countries, however these standards went into a nosedive after 1990 and Iraq attained the status of a  third world country in a staggeringly short space of time`.  Prior to the Gulf war Iraq had one of the highest per-capita food availability ratings in the region and was able to import large quantities of food[22]. In the “oil-for-food” programme, UN secretary General argued for a six-monthly ceiling of 2.4 billion to help rebuild Iraq, however after Security Council negotiations the aid was reduced to $930 million over six months[23]. This was an obvious attempt to present Saddam with the most unpalatable of packages which he would reject and make him seem responsible for inevitable crisis, he did however accept the terms[24]. The war with the Kurds in the north devastated the fertile farming lands there, and the constant bombing raids by the US and UK as well as the depleted uranium from Desert Storm hampered farming in the South. Iraq began to starve.

US aircraft alone had dropped 88,000 tons of explosives on Iraq, wiping out 30 percent of Iraq’s electrical generating plants and sewage treatment networks. The sanctions barred replacement material for the water treatment facilities and much of Iraq’s water was now contaminated[25]. Those who could afford bottled water would purchase it and those who couldn’t would often fall ill[26]. Child malnutrition in Iraq had been falling since the sixties; however it began to skyrocket after 1990. Vitamin and mineral deficiency were the most common indicators, but diarrhoea was also documented by observers. A UNICEF report found that the increase in mortality reported in public hospitals for children under five years of age was in excess of 40,000 compared with 1989[27]. When activist George Cappaccio visited Bhagdad in 1997 he discovered that the remission rate for leukaemia and other forms of cancer in  the children’s oncology unit of the Saddam Teaching Centre had dropped from 70 percent to 6 and 7 percent since 1990[28].

The impact of the sanctions upon Iraqi society is slightly less easy to collate. In 1999, at a conference regarding the Sanctions, Oxford researcher Harriet Griffin stated that since 1990, Iraqi asylum applications in Western countries had increased exponentially and that this was diminishing Iraq’s professional base[29]. In the same lecture, Iraqi gender academic and activist Nadje Ali spoke of the impact the sanctions had upon women. Ali contextualizes Iraq women’s position with society and described how during the 1970’s and 1980’s women were encouraged to work and be educated which was accompanied with a liberal attitude towards marriage patterns and gender status. This was then contrasted with Iraq under sanctions many women who had been forced out of work by the pressures of looking after, educating and cooking for their families under the stringencies and low wages of sanctioned Iraq. According to Dr Al-Ali, Iraqi society has witnessed a stark increase in prostitution, so called ‘honour crimes’, illegal abortions and the abandonment of babies[30]. Perhaps the most symbolic commentary of the social impact of the sanctions comes from Dennis Halliday, the UN Chief Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq who resigned his untenable position in 1998. In a John Pilger documentary he walks through one of Baghdad’s many souks and shows Pilger Iraqi professionals selling their books and literature in order to feed their families[31].

According to UNICEF 500,000 children died due to the effects of sanctions and war, according to a survey in the British Medical Association the child death toll was over this amount[32]. The number of children who died fluctuates according to methodology, but there is a general consensus amongst humanitarian workers that the sanctions were tantamount to infanticide. When presented with this, Madeline Albright , “We think the price is worth it”. The UN sanctions package that her government designed and aggressively applied amounted to collective punishment, and this was a fact she was not even abashed of, despite it being illegal under the Geneva Convention. According to article 22 “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed”[33]. Sanctions effectively equal collective punishment, and Iraq is an almost farcical representation of this. Saddam Hussein’s regime was meant to be being punished for the invasion of Kuwait, however children who were not even born in 1990 were dying due to the dictator’s transgressions.


Unfortunately, Iraq is far from a unique case when it comes to the application of sanctions at the bequest of US imperial schemes. Cuba represented a threat to the hegemony of the United States in the Latin American world and was sanctioned due to Castro’s closeness with the USSR. Even during the unipolar world, the US discourse surrounding Cuba as “the enemy” due to its rejection of neoliberalism meant that sanctions programmes were tightened under the “Cuban Democracy Act” in 1991. Sudan and N. Korea also face similar treatment. Since the invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam, the US imperial focus has turned to Iran in the aim of isolating and punishing it for its rhetoric against Israel and its nuclear enrichment programme. Iran also holds the second largest gas reserves and third largest oil reserves[34]. Support of the Palestinians, especially the Hamas movement and the resistance organisation in Lebanon, Hezbollah, as well as noncompliance to US economic polices has lead Iran into a position in which multilateral sanctions have been applied by the world’s sole super power and its associates.

Six years ago The US and Europe put the first raft of measures which would by 2012 send the Iranian Rial into a tailspin, since 2011 it has depreciated by over 80% and unemployment is thought to be around three times higher than the official rate of 12%[35]. During the presidential elections both Obama and Romney aggressively championed the sanctions on Iran, citing reports of gross human rights violations by the regime and its supposed desire to build a nuclear weapon as a reason for extending them. Obama has said in front of the UN that the U.S. will “do what we must”[36] to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, with the far from latent suggestion of a pre-emptive strike. The US however is already at economic war with Iran, through the banking institutions it dominates and global institutions it controls. Iran’s influence extends throughout the region and represents a counterbalance to Israeli and US dominance- and if the history of Iraq and the UN shows us, the US will use any means to check a challenge to its dominance.




[2] Abunimah, A., Masri, R., “The Media’s Deadly Spin on Iraq” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War” (Pluto Press, 2000). Pg  77 – 78


[4] State Department Policy Planning Study, February 23, 1948, cited in Chomsky, N., “On Power and Ideology: The Mangua Lectures” (Boston: South End Press, 1987), pg. 15 – 16

[5] Gowan, P., “US:UN”(New Left Review 6, December – November, 200), pg. 2

[6] Ibid, pg. 5

[7] Mann, M., “Incoherent Empire” (Verso, 2003)

[8] Hiro, D., The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (Routledge, 1990), pg. 75

[9] 1982. Source: Declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, available at, last update 25 February 2003, visited on 06/01/2013

[10] Naylor, R, T., Economic Warfare: Sanctions, Embargo Busting, and Their Human Cost (Northeastern Unversity Press, 2001) pg. 289

[11] Gowan, P., “US:UN”, pg. 27

[12] Chomsky, N., “Rogue States”, (Z Magazine accessed online at–.htm)

[13] Gellman, B., “US Spied on Iraqi Military Via UN” (Washington Post, March 2, 1999)

[14] Graham-Brown, S., “Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq” (I.B Tauris, 999), pg. 58

[15] Dejevsky, M., “US committed to Hardline against Saddam’s Iraq” (Independent, March 27, 1997)

[16] Aruri, N., “America’s War Against Iraq: 1990 – 1999” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”,  pg. 29.

[17] Mann, M., “Incoherent Empire”, pg. 83

[18] Ali, T., “Throttling Iraq” (New Left Review 5, September – October 2000), pg. 1.

[19] Martin Shaw, Global Society and International Relations: Sociological Concepts and Political Perspectives, (Cambridge 1994),  pg. 134–5

[20] Ibid, pg. 186

[21] Dr Pellet, P, L., “Sanctions, Food, Nutrition and Health in Iraq” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”, pg. 151

[22] Ibid, pg. 155

[23] Graham-Brown, S., “Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq” pg. 75

[24] Fine, J., “The Iraq Sanctions Catastrophe” (Middle East Report, no. 174, January – February 1992), pg.  39

[25] Capaccio, G., “Sanctions: Killing a Country and a People” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”,  pg. 140

[26] Kelly, K., “Raising voices: The Children of Iraq, 1990 – 1999” in in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”, pg.  118

[27] UNICEF, Situation Analysis of Children and Women in Iraq (Bhagdad: Unicef, 1997), pg. 42

[28] Capaccio, G., “Sanctions: Killing a Country and a People” in ed. Arnove, A., “Iraq Under Siege: The deadly impact of sanctions and war”,  pg. 142

[29] Griffin, H., Society and Culture: The Iraqi Exodus, (Proceedings of the Conference hosted by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq 13–14 November 1999, Cambridge- ), pg. 66

[30] Al-Ali, N., “Sanctions and Women in Iraq” , (Proceedings of the Conference hosted by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq 13–14 November 1999, Cambridge-

[31] Pilger, J., Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq (Documentary available online at

[32] Fawzi Smith, M., Zaidi S., “Sanctions against Iraq” (The Lancet, Volume 347, Issue 8995, 20 January 1996), pg. 198-200.

[33] Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949. Article 33 (


[35] “A red line and a reeling rial” (The Economist, October 6th 2012)

[36] Bruce, M., “Obama: U.S. Will Do ‘What We Must’ To Block Iran Nukes” (ABC News, September 25th 2012)

Help us reach more people and raise more awareness by sharing this page