Global Policy Forum

The UN Fails to Get Smart

Japan Times
July 14, 2001

The United Nations Security Council failed last week in its attempt to impose "smart sanctions" against Iraq. Fourteen of the 15 Security Council members agreed on a new scheme to monitor imports to Iraq. Unfortunately, the holdout was Russia, and Moscow used its threat of a veto to torpedo the new program. Instead, the council voted to extend the existing program, which has been in effect for four and a half years while the United States and Britain, the two nations leading the attempt to revamp the sanctions, try to overcome Russian objections. The status quo is a poor compromise. The regime continues to flout the U.N.'s authority and ordinary Iraqis continue to suffer.

Sanctions were imposed over a decade ago in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. They were established by Security Council resolutions and allow Iraq to sell unlimited quantities of oil on condition that the proceeds are spent only on food, medicine and other essentials. They are designed to strip Iraq of its ability to threaten neighbors. The sanctions cannot be lifted until U.N. inspectors certify that Baghdad has dismantled its weapons of mass destruction and its long-range missiles.

That has proven to be a difficult objective. The Iraqi government has done its best to frustrate inspectors. Oblivious to the hardships most Iraqis are forced to endure -- and benefiting from the illegal trade the sanctions have created -- the regime has preferred to play a game of cat and mouse with the U.N. Iraq seems to be winning the contest of wills. International attention has focused on the suffering and ignored Baghdad's indifference to its citizens' pain and its disregard for the U.N. and international law.

A turning point was reached in December 1998, when weapons inspectors left Iraq ahead of U.S.-British air strikes. Iraq then barred their return, arguing that it had eliminated the weapons programs and demanding the lifting of sanctions. The West has tried to tailor the sanctions to eliminate restrictions on essential goods and merely control those that can be used for weapons; hence, the term "smart sanctions."

There are two problems with that common-sense approach. First, there are very few items that cannot be used somehow to make weapons. The distinction between "safe" and "dangerous" items is practically nonexistent. Second, Iraq refuses to agree to any new sanctions program, no matter how "smart," that does not include specific criteria for ending the controls. Baghdad may not agree to any sanctions proposal that does not include an immediate termination of sanctions.

That would be a mistake. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's contempt for authority is well known. He has already waged two wars against his neighbors. A series of defectors has revealed his continuing efforts to conceal his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. He suspended oil shipments -- Iraq supplies about 2 million barrels a day, or about 5 percent of world exports -- preferring to squeeze international oil markets and score political points to procuring basic daily goods for his citizens.

Faced with stalemate, the U.S. and Britain put off any vote on the new sanctions, and voted to extend the old program for five months. During that time, the two governments will try to persuade Moscow to lift its objections. There are grounds for optimism. France and China originally objected to the program but they seem to have come around. The U.S. needs to give Russia a sufficient incentive to approve the proposal. President George W. Bush has a number of options -- missile defense, NATO expansion, financial assistance to name three possibilities. The question is whether he is willing to bargain.

The frustrations must be familiar to Mr. Bush, who campaigned on a pledge to overthrow Mr. Hussein. But there is no credible opposition in Iraq. Neighboring states are also uncomfortable with that strategy as they fear that a political vacuum would open the door to Islamic militants who could also threaten their governments.

At a minimum, the inspectors have to return to Iraq. Not only because there are undoubtedly more programs under way to develop weapons of mass destruction, but because no leader can be allowed to flout the will of the U.N. That imperative has not diminished over the decade that Mr. Hussein has practiced his stalling tactics.

He will showcase the poor, the malnourished and the ill-treated citizens of Iraq, but the West will not see the riches he and his cronies accumulate from their black market businesses. The U.S. will respond with the revelations of two recent high-ranking Iraqi defectors. All the while, Iraq's poor will continue to suffer, pawns of both Iraq and the West. There is nothing "smart" about that.

More Information on the Oil for Food Program
More Information on Sanctions Against Iraq
More Information on the Iraq Crisis


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