THE SCOURGING OF IRAQ: SANCTIONS, LAW AND NATURAL JUSTICE, by Geoff Simons. St. Martin's Press, New York, NY, US. 1996. pp. 304. Hbk.
In the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the United States and its allies pushed through the UN Security Council a series of resolutions imposing tough sanctions against Iraq. These sanctions, which remain in place today, six years after the eviction of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, have inflicted tremendous hardship and suffering on the innocent civilian population of Iraq.
In his new book, The Scourging of Iraq: Sanctions, Law and Natural Justice, Geoff Simons accuses the US of committing war crimes under the 1977 Protocol 1 Addition to the 1949 Geneva Convention. The Protocol states ‘that the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is illegal and ethically indefensible’ (p. xiii).
Chapter 1 details the effects of the US-led sanctions on the people of Iraq. Simons begins the chapter by giving a brief historical background to the Gulf War. In short, the seeds of this conflict were sown when Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner of Iraq, arbitrarily reorganized the borders of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at the Uqayr conference in November 1922 (p. 2). Since then, western governments have continued to support the status of Kuwait as an independent entity because of its tremendous oil reserves.
Simons proceeds to point out that the stage was set for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait when, in the months leading up to the Gulf crisis, American diplomats stressed for Saddam that the US had no defence treaty with Kuwait and did not relish the idea of becoming involved in inter-Arab conflicts (p. 3).
Yet as soon as Iraq misread American intentions and invaded Kuwait, the US quickly hit Iraq with sweeping economic sanctions meant to bring that country to its knees. These sanctions, which the author views as the main weapon of mass destruction used against the Iraqi people, were followed by a vicious military campaign which included massive and indiscriminate air strikes. Simons charges that among the targets were hospitals and clinics, food processing plants and distribution centres, electric power stations, places of worship, bridges and roads, sewage treatment facilities and nearly 20,000 homes and apartments (p. 12). He contends that these targets were deliberately chosen in order to deepen the debilitating effects of the economic sanctions (p. 17).
Simons maintains that the combination of lack of food and medical supplies, the complete breakdown of sanitation, the spread of epidemics and the effects of environmental warfare, were causing an exponential increase in the number of children suffering from starvation and malnutrition in Iraq each year. Raw sewage flows into rivers which supply Iraq’s drinking water because the sanctions prevent the Iraqis from obtaining material needed for rebuilding sewage treatment plants. As a result, Iraqi civilians, who once enjoyed life expectancies equal to those found in western societies, have seen life expectancies drop by 20 years for men and 11 years for women.
The mortality rate among Iraqi children under the age of five has increased by 380 percent since the sanctions were imposed. According to statistics compiled by the Red Crescent Society (the Arab equivalent of the Red Cross), 3,000 infant deaths could be blamed on the effects of these sanctions as early as 1991 (pp. 17-23).
Given such widespread suffering inflicted upon Iraq’s children, the author poses the question as to why the US continues to insist that the sanctions remain in place. He is adamant that these American-led measures amount to nothing less than a policy of genocide against the civilian population of Iraq.
He proceeds to cite a number of facts and figures showing that the US-led coalition had resorted to biological warfare in its war against Iraq. He sums up his argument saying: ‘In fact, to deny a nation the means to purify water or to treat sewage--and so to encourage the spread of disease--is a form of biological warfare. To deny a nation access to antiseptics, antibiotics and other essential medical supplies--thus to render disease untreatable--is a form of biological warfare. To litter a land with radioactive substances, and to deny the people the necessary remedial means, is again a form of biological warfare--striking not only at the living but also at the unborn generations’ (p. 33).
The embargo, along with the freezing of Iraqi financial assets, has made it more difficult for Iraq to acquire the goods its population needs for survival. By the end of 1991, Iraq had supplied the UN with a list of US$1 billion worth of medical supplies and US$2 billion worth of food supplies its population desperately needed but could not purchase due to the blockage of Iraqi oil sales (p. 52).
Simons predicts that the US will not end the sanctions against Iraq until Saddam is removed from power and his war machine is obliterated. In support of this argument, he points to the continuation of sanctions despite the fact that regular UN investigations have so far failed to corroborate US reports of hidden biological weapons and nuclear reactors. He further provides a long list of materials whose importation into Iraq has been banned by the UN Sanctions Committee.
A quick glance at the list reveals that most of the banned items are of no military value whatsoever. These items include baby food, rice, children’s clothes, leather materials for shoes, paper and pencils, toilet paper, shampoo and toothpaste, medical swabs, gauze and syringes, medical journals, and water purification chemicals (p. 118). This leads the author to conclude that the sanctions continue today for the sole purpose of blocking Iraq from rebuilding its economy and infrastructure.
Chapter 4 represents the most important section of Simons’s book. It discusses the wider ethical and moral implications of the use of sanctions against civilian populations and how this violates human rights as well as a half dozen international treaties. It also wraps up the case, built throughout the previous chapters, for trying the US and its closest allies on charges of war crimes in international courts. Simons opens the chapter by quoting Article 54 of the Geneva Protocol I, which states:
‘1. Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited. 2. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the civilian population... foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population’ (p. 174).
Simons calls the UN a mere tool in the hands of powerful States who use it to impose unjust sanctions against perceived enemies. He emphasizes, in this regard, that the absence of specific guidelines for the use of economic sanctions from the UN Charter facilitates such misuse of the international body (p. 186).
Moreover, the author points out that the US has consistently refused to sign a number of Geneva Convention protocols, including one that bans the use of military weapons in instances where such use causes environmental damage. Nevertheless, he argues that this does not absolve the US of responsibility in violating these protocols during the Gulf War. He cites the historical precedent of the Nuremberg war crimes trials where the court rejected the argument advanced by prominent Nazis that they could not be charged with wrongdoing since Germany had refused to sign relevant international treaties. The truth of this fact notwithstanding, the accused Nazi war criminals were still sentenced to life in prison or death (p. 203).
Finally, Simons argues that if the US is not tried for war crimes, then at the very least its government should be held accountable for violating the American Constitution. He contends that president George Bush had no constitutional authority to deploy such massive forces in the Gulf without prior congressional approval. He also insists that the US president does not have the authority to form coalitions with foreign nations for military action without the consent and oversight of the senate (p. 201). The validity of these arguments is at best tenuous. Following an initial period of hesitation and opposition to the deployment of US forces in the Gulf on Capitol Hill, Bush was able to obtain enough congressional support for his military intervention.
In general, Geoff Simons’s book is effective in revealing the appalling effects the sanctions are visiting upon the civilian population of Iraq. The author makes a compelling case that the US is violating several international agreements as well as acting inhumanely towards an innocent civilian population. Above all, he imparts to his readers the wisdom that, as human civilization stands poised to enter the twenty-first century, the international community should no longer accept genocide as a viable form of a superpower’s foreign policy.
Mohammed H Siddiq is a human rights campaigner and opposition figure in the Arabian Peninsula.
Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1997