The government and media in the United States have led a shrill campaign against Saddam Husain for seven years obfuscating truth about the suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people as a result of sanctions. Important chinks from this armour have begun to fall away as truth has slowly emerged piercing the information iron-curtain drawn by the US. Even America’s allies, except Britain, have questioned the wisdom of continuing the sanctions that have led to the deaths of more than one million Iraqis, most of them children.
Leading up to the renewal of UN security council sanctions on December 4, most Arab regimes that were part of the anti-Saddam coalition seven years ago, were conspicuously absent this time. Uncle Sam was not only rebuffed by his client regimes in the Arab world but a number of western organisations have also taken him to task.
The most serious challenge was mounted by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, chaired by Australian law professor Philip Alston. He said at a news conference in New York on December 4 that exemption mechanisms allowing humanitarian goods to be imported into countries under sanctions were ‘completely inadequate’. He readily acknowledged that what his committee was recommending will ‘ruffle some feathers’ in the security council but he was quite emphatic about his position.
‘We believe that while there will always be important reasons for imposing sanctions, there can be no justification for not taking full account of the impact on economic, social and cultural rights,’ Alston said. ‘There is in fact a legal obligation which applies to all countries to respect the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and that neither the United Nations nor any regional body is exempt from that obligation. The bottom line... will be that respect for human rights cannot be left at the door of the Security Council,’ he added.
The statement was adopted the day - December 4 - the Security Council renewed for six months the UN oil-for-food plan for Iraq as a limited exception to sweeping economic sanctions imposed in August 1990. It was issued when the 18 experts wrapped up three weeks of talks on how the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is being respected. Ratified by 137 States, the 1976 pact recognizes rights to work, to form and join trade unions, to social security, as well as to adequate standards of living, health and education.
The UN committee recommendations came in the wake of the UN Children’s Fund survey published on November 26 which pointed out that there had been a dramatic deterioration in the nutritional well-being of Iraqi children since sanctions were imposed. It said that at least one million, and perhaps as many as 1.2 million Iraqi children may have perished as a result of sanctions.
Similar damning testimony has come from American commentators. George Capaccio, a free-lance writer and artist and educator based in Arlington, Massachusetts, is one of them. Defying US restrictions, he travelled to Iraq last March to distribute medical supplies. Capaccio witnessed for himself the effects of sanctions and submitted a devastatingly critical report of US policy.
In an article published in the Baltimore Sun on November 23, he questioned the images of a militarist and belligerent Iraq projected on American television screens. Capaccio had a different message: ‘Having visited Iraq last spring, this is what I see: dignified Muslim women begging on Baghdad street corners; young boys hawking cigarettes and kerosene to help support their families; a father running with his child into a hospital emergency room because there are so few functioning ambulances; a middle aged man with diabetes standing by a hospital entrance and pleading with me for insulin.’
Saying conditions in hospitals were grim, lacking medicine, light or other facilities, Capaccio saw children dying before his eyes. ‘In Iraq, I saw numerous little boys and girls with signs of severe malnutrition - distended bellies, glassy eyes, discolored hair and profound weakness.’ Doctors cannot help them because there is no medicine. Nothing is in the pipeline.
‘What could I have said to these dying children? Should I have said what the American media are now telling us that the suffering of the Iraqi people is due to one man and his intransigence in the face of
international opposition? That whatever the price, the United States must stop this person from manufacturing weapons of mass destruction?
‘The United States and the United Nations are the ones wielding the weapons of mass destruction. These weapons are the sanctions against Iraq,’ wrote the American educator.
He confronted an American official at the US embassy in Amman, Jordan, telling him what it was like to cradle an Iraqi child in his arms, to caress his hair and brow, and to know that this child’s quiet pain and suffering are the fruits of US policy. The official responded that he had a job to do, to clarify US policy, not justify it.
More children have died in Iraq as a result of seven years of sanctions than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the US dropped the atomic bombs during the second world war. Perhaps, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright can now sleep easy.
Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1997