The nature and effects of the United Nations sanctions on Iraq are more complex than has often been supposed. In brief, the UN, largely at the instigation of Britain and the United States, declared comprehensive trade and financial sanctions against Iraq under UN Resolution 661, passed on 6 August 1990, four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. That Iraq was in a position to attack Kuwait at all was largely due to the almost unanimous support, both material and moral, that it had received from the international community in the course of its war with the Islamic Republic of Iran between 1980 and 1988, a war Iraq had started with the tacit encouragement of the United States.
The Gulf War, whose stated and rapidly achieved objective was to remove Iraq from Kuwait, was launched under UN auspices on 17 January 1991 and ended with Iraq's surrender on 24 February of the same year. In the course of this period, Iraqi cities were repeatedly bombed and damage was done not only to military installations but also to the civil infrastructure. The damage included the destruction of water purification and pumping plants, much of the electrical system, and many oil installations.
In April 1991, UN Resolution 687 allowed Iraq to import foodstuffs and materials for "essential civilian needs," although oil exports were not allowed. All restrictions would be lifted if Iraq complied with four principal conditions: the identification and elimination of its weapons of mass destruction; the demarcation of its frontier with Kuwait, to be accompanied by acceptance of Kuwaiti sovereignty; the release of Kuwaiti and other nationals held in Iraq; and the establishment of a compensation commission, which would assess war damage and pay for it by a levy on Iraqi oil revenues. Until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, Iraq only complied fully with one of these conditions: the recognition, in November 1994, of the frontier with and the sovereignty of Kuwait.
It had never been envisaged that the sanctions would still be in place some twelve years after their imposition. In fact, their severity was considerably reduced by the provisions of UN Resolutions 986 (14 April 1995; accepted by Iraq in January 1996) and 1153 (20 February 1998), which permitted Iraq,
under UN supervision, to sell first $2 billion (Resolution 986) and then $3.55 billion (Resolution 1153) net worth of oil in exchange for food every six months; in October 1999, the UN Security Council raised the revenue cap to $8.3 billion.
Oil for Food
Attempts to introduce oil-for-food arrangements had begun on the UN side as early as 1991 but had been continually rejected by Iraq as an intrusion on its sovereignty. These earlier efforts had insisted on a considerable degree of on-site monitoring and also required Iraqi acceptance of the presence of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM, the UN weapons inspectorate), set up in May 1991. What Iraq held out for before January 1996 (when it reluctantly accepted Resolution 986), but could not obtain, was the comprehensive lifting of sanctions. This was not made more likely by continuing revelations of the extent of Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and conventional weapons arsenals. The regime apparently felt this capacity was important enough to sacrifice the well-being of its people in order to maintain it.
The overriding argument against these and other sanctions—that their indiscriminate nature punishes the innocent and has little effect on the guilty (that is, the regime itself)—is persuasive. Various international organizations wrote heartrending reports on the effects of shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines: The monthly food ration was reduced by 40 percent in October 1994, and severe malnutrition among young children was widely reported from 1991 by both internal and external observers. The provision of both education and health care deteriorated noticeably. In education, large numbers of teachers left the profession, with the result that fewer children went to school, while diseases associated with poverty, such as kwashiorkor, tuberculosis, and respiratory and digestive illnesses, reappeared after 1991 after having been virtually eliminated over the previous decades. However shocking these developments may have been, allocating all blame for them on the sanctions is not entirely justified; at least equal blame must be placed at the door of the regime for not taking the necessary steps to ensure that they would be lifted. Historian Pierre-Jean Luizard, in his book La question irakienne, put it thus: "The regime . . . used the embargo to move Western politicians and intellectuals, as if it were not itself responsible for the tragic situation of the Iraqi population, and as if the embargo was not linked to its remaining in power" (p. 270).
The sanctions acted as a major obstacle to Iraq's economic recovery after 1991, but again it is certain from the evidence of both defectors and UNSCOM itself that the regime had been developing biological and chemical weapons in the late 1980s and was working toward the capacity to operate nuclear missiles. There is little doubt that it was no longer able to do so after the early 1990s, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the sanctions played a major role in this. Modification of the sanctions regime in such a way as to make it less onerous to the civilian population was certainly an option, but the oil-for-food arrangements, proposed five years before they were accepted, were intended to ease that particular burden. All in all, however, sanctions both in Iraq and elsewhere have often proved a blunt instrument, whose effect has sometimes been to rally the population around an offensive regime rather than to stimulate the population to overthrow it. In the case of Iraq after the brutal repression of Kurdish and Shiʿite resistance in 1991, a popular rising against the regime was never a realistic option in any case.
In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the UN Security Council voted to lift the sanctions via Security Council Resolution 1483 of 22 May 2003.
see also gulf war (1991).
Farouk-Sluglett, Marion, and Sluglett, Peter. Iraq since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, revised edition. New York; London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
Graham-Brown, Sarah. Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq. New York; London: I.B. Tauris, in association with MERIP, 1999.
Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.