by Carolyn Arnold
On August 12, 1991, the United Nations Security Council voted to impose economic sanctions on the nation of Iraq led by Saddam Hussein.
The purpose of the sanctions, at least on paper, was to first force Iraq to withdraw its invading force from Kuwait and then, in subsequent years, to force Iraq to allow United Nations (U.N.) inspectors to conduct searches for indications of a possible nuclear or biological weapons program within Iraq.
While all of this is well known, what is not so commonly discussed is the scale of humanitarian crises that these sanctions, which remained in place until 2003, had on the people of Iraq. There was widespread malnutrition, along with the collapse of every major system needed to sustain human life in a modern society. Some have estimated that as many as 500,000 children may have died as a result of the conditions. Many are unaware of the intense political pressure that the U.S. brought to bear on the U.N. to shape these economic sanctions, at a time when there was little resistance to U.S. political aims.
Dr. Joy Gordon, professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, explored these complex political and international relationships when she wrote Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions. Published by Harvard University Press in 2010, Dr. Gordon’s book examines the economic sanctions that were placed on Iraq from 1991 to 2003 and the nations and international institutions that made it possible for the harshest sanctions policies ever to be imposed by the international community.
The book is a critique of the United States’ foreign policy and has attracted a lot of critical attention. It has been listed by Foreign Policy, the U.S. magazine of politics, economics, and ideas, as one of the 10 best books on the Middle East for 2010. It has also received glowing reviews from the London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, Huffington Post, and the National Catholic Reporter.
Andrew Cockburn wrote in his London Review of Books, “[T]he sanctions against Iraq drew only sporadic public comments, and even less attention was paid to the bureaucratic maneuvers in Washington … which ensured the deaths of half a million children, among other consequences. In her excellent book Dr. Gordon charts these in horrifying detail.”
Dr. Gordon, who received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale and a J.D. from Boston University, began work on the book nearly a decade ago when it was originally intended to be a case study on the ethics of economic sanctions in Iraq. As she began to read the internal documents of the Security Council, the case study became more involved.
“It turned out the documents told a very different story – a story about how the U.S. exerted enormous influence over the U.N. Security Council, in the juncture after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was no longer a counterweight to the U.S.”
While working on the book, Dr. Gordon, who has testified before Congress regarding U.N. sanctions, discovered that much of the information she wanted to examine was not readily available. “It was a long process of following up on leads from many sources, everything from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to tracking down documents in obscure archives,” Dr. Gordon said. In addition, she interviewed many diplomats and U.N. officials to learn about the workings of closed Security Council meetings.
During the time that sanctions were imposed very few goods were allowed into or out of Iraq. Dr. Gordon said, “Initially the sanctions, among other things, blocked food – for a country that imported two-thirds of its food.”
Some nations viewed sanctions as a comparatively benign form of political pressure, a way of compelling a rogue nation to comply with international law by restricting its economic growth, and isolating sectors of its economy from international trade.
But many scholars and foreign policy experts have come to the conclusion that sanctions, while politically attractive, are often ineffective. Dr. Gordon said, “In many cases sanctions do not achieve compliance from the targeted state. There’s often backlash – the civilian population in the targeted country will ‘rally around the flag,’ and defend their leader in the face of what’s viewed as an attack from the outside.” All of these were factors in the case of Iraq.
Ultimately, Dr. Gordon said, “economic sanctions are a form of strangulation.” With the Cold War over, the Soviet Union was replaced by a much weakened Russia, leaving the U.S. in a position to impose its will. It was then possible to achieve a consensus within the Council that approved the most comprehensive sanctions in the history of global governance.
It is the duty of the United Nations Security Council to maintain international peace and security. It also has the authority to establish international sanctions. The Council is made up of 15 members, five of which are permanent members that have the power to veto any resolution: The U.S., the United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia, known as the “P5.” There are also 10 elected members that serve two-year terms, and do not have veto power.
In the case of Iraq, it became apparent to the members of the Security Council that there were high costs to those that opposed the U.S. Dr. Gordon noted that Yemen, which sat on the Security Council at that time, was one country that felt pressure from the U.S. “When Yemen would not support one of the resolutions against Iraq, the U.S. ambassador told the ambassador from Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the region, that ‘that will be the most expensive “no vote” you ever cast in your life.’” Yemen refused to give in. “Within days, a U.S.-backed aid program to Yemen for millions of dollars was cancelled.”
Whether or not other countries thought that the sanctions were too harsh – and within the U.N. support for the sanctions eroded very quickly – the U.N. Charter requires all member nations of the U.N. to enforce Council measures in response to aggression, breaches of the peace, and threats to the peace as outlined in Chapter VII.
The U.S. pressed the Council to adopt such extreme measures because they were focused on containing Hussein and wanted to force a regime change, no matter what the cost. When then Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked by Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes if she thought that the immense amount of child fatalities were worth the price of sanctions, Albright replied, “We think it’s worth the price.”
“Iraq went from the highest standard of living in the Arab world to one of the lowest in the world,” Dr. Gordon said. In 1991 the U.S.-led bombing destroyed every major factory, as well as roads and bridges. Electrical generators and water treatment plants were not spared. “An envoy from the U.N. Secretary General who visited shortly after the war said that Iraq had been reduced to a ‘pre-industrial condition,’ and described the situation as ‘near apocalyptic.’” Dr. Gordon reported.
But after the massive bombing campaign, the sanctions prevented Iraq from rebuilding or restoring its infrastructure. These extreme measures continued for over a decade, until May of 2003, after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown.
Goods meant for Iraqi civilians were blocked or delayed by the Security Council because the U.S. unilaterally interpreted “dual use” items (goods that could be used for both peaceful and military purposes) as including such innocuous things as water pipes, laundry detergent, paper, olive oil, and child vaccines. The U.S.’ decisions to block these supplies – joined by no one else on the Council – made it impossible for them to be distributed to the Iraqi people.
As U.N. agencies reported on the dire humanitarian situation that was building in Iraq and tried to pressure the U.N. to permit sending humanitarian aid, the U.S. continued to delay basic goods or placed them on hold indefinitely, “preventing the goods from getting to Iraq, without the political costs of explicitly denying them,” said Dr. Gordon.
“Military historians have noted that in the twentieth century economic sanctions did more harm than the use of all weapons of mass destruction combined. Certainly that was true of Iraq, which lost half a century of economic development, and caused irreversible damage to an entire generation,” Dr. Gordon noted.
Clearly unchecked power at this level has extraordinary consequences. This, Dr. Gordon noted, brings up a legal constitutional question as well as an historical question with important implications for the future. Because of the way the Security Council is organized, a permanent member could potentially engage in aggression with impunity: and if there is agreement among the P5 the Council could impose measures that violate human rights, while requiring every nation in the U.N. to enforce them.
How did the Council gain so much unchecked power? According to Dr. Gordon, “This was understood and foreseen when the Charter was drafted in the 1940s. But the Allies who were victorious in World War II – and then became the P5 members of the Council – would not agree to the establishment of the U.N. unless the Council held these extraordinary powers.”
She continued: “As I’ve been giving talks at universities, I’m struck by how few people know much about the structure of the U.N., particularly the power and impunity of the P5.” When lecturing about the topic, Dr. Gordon asks who is familiar with Chapter VII of the Charter. “That’s the part of the Charter that gives enormous power to the Council, and requires that every nation in the U.N. enforce its measures, while there are no explicit limits on the use of that power.”
Calls for reform within the Council have been raised before. Indeed Dr. Gordon noted that the issue has been raised repeatedly but each time it has been opposed by the P5. As one person remarked to Dr. Gordon upon hearing her lecture, “Turkeys don’t vote for Thanksgiving.”
Since Invisible War has been published it has generated a lot of interest, particularly noting Dr. Gordon’s meticulous documentation and analysis of hundreds of U.N. documents and the broader implications for foreign policy.
Because of the book’s growing reputation, Dr. Gordon has been the invited guest lecturer at many prestigious academic and international institutions. Her book tour in Britain included lectures at Oxford University, the University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics, Durham University, and the University of St. Andrews. In London, the Council for Arab-British Understanding arranged for her to speak at British Parliament at an event chaired and sponsored by a Member of Parliament. In addition, she recently spoke at the United Nations Foundation and Yale Law School.
She also spoke last fall at Fairfield as the recipient of the Robert E. Wall award to discuss her new project, which concerns the question of whether or not the Council is bound by international law.
When asked about the interest the book has generated, Dr. Gordon, who is spending this year working on a new book on the ethics of economic sanctions, sponsored by a fellowship from the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities, said, “It’s because it’s not just about the sanctions on Iraq. It’s the inside story of how the Council works when it’s behind closed doors.”
Dr. Gordon noted that she did not think the constitutional defects of the Council could be resolved because she could imagine no circumstance where the U.S. or any other P5 member would give up their veto power on the council. But, she added, “We hope that our memories are not short and that we can remember what can happen with unchecked power.”