Global Policy Forum

Sanctions Against Iraq

Picture Credit: Dan Delong

The UN Security Council imposed comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq on August 6, 1990, just after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When the coalition war had ousted Iraq from Kuwait the following year, the Council did not lift the sanctions, keeping them in place as leverage to press for Iraqi disarmament and other goals. The sanctions remained in place thereafter, despite a harsh impact on innocent Iraqi civilians and an evident lack of pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. A UN "Oil-for-Food Programme," started in late 1997, offered some relief to Iraqis, but the humanitarian crisis continued.

The US and UK governments always made it clear that they would block any lifting or serious reforming of sanctions as long as Hussein remained in power. After more than twelve years of sanctions had passed, the US and the UK made war on Iraq again in March, 2003, sweeping away Hussein's government. Soon after, Washington called for and obtained the lifting of sanctions, a step that gave the US occupation authority full control over Iraq's oil sales and oil industry. This section covers a wide range of sanction issues, including the humanitarian impact, the Oil-for-Food Programme, criticisms of the sanctions and the debate that took place about their termination.

Oil-for-Food Programme

After widespread criticism of Iraq's humanitarian crisis under sanctions, the Security Council adopted the Oil for Food Programme, which began to operate in 1997. The US-UK blocked many contracts, however, and serious humanitarian problems remained. The Program was suspended during the US-led war, and soon afterwards the Council adjusted it to provide temporary humanitarian supplies. The adoption of Resolution 1483 in May 2003 put an end to sanctions and foresaw the phasing out of the Program over 6 months and the gradual transfer of its administration to the US-UK authorities in Iraq.

UN Security Council: Disagreements and Debates on the Sanctions

Russia and France, along with many elected members, were critical of the Iraq sanctions and tried to lift or substantially reform them. The United States and the UK used their political muscle and veto power to keep sanctions in force and to allow minor reforms. But shortly after the US invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power, President George W. Bush urged the United Nations to lift its comprehensive economic sanctions against Iraq. Though all members of the Security Council agreed in principle that sanctions had to end, many Council members were concerned that a resolution would indirectly justify the war and acknowledge the US occupation. For many Council members, Resolution 1483 fails to give an adequate role to the UN in post-war Iraq and to arrange for the return of the UN arms inspectors to certify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Criticism of the Sanctions

From the earliest days of the sanctions, critics pointed to many serious flaws, including the humanitarian suffering of innocent civilians, the lack of clear criteria for lifting, and the failure of the sanctions to put direct pressure on Iraq's leaders.

Statements Against Sanctions by NGOs and Prominent Figures

Statements opposing sanctions against Iraq by several NGOs, members of US Congress, and individuals such as Archbishop James Weisgerber, former chief of UNSCOM Richard Butler, former UN Humanitarian Coordinators in Iraq Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday.

Studies and Recommendations

In more than a dozen years of sanctions, hundreds of reports and policy papers were written. Many such reports, discuss the humanitarian impact of sanctions, the sanctions' implications for international law, and related peace and security issues.

Civilian Flights to Iraq

Those seeking an end to Iraq sanctions have organized civilian flights in contravention of the sanctions prohibitions. Such flights came to symbolize crumbling international support for the sanctions, stirring hope that the sanctions would eventually be lifted.

Tables and Charts on the Sanctions Against Iraq

Tables and charts showing infant mortality rates and contracts on holds by holder.

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