The consequences of the Gulf War and the effects of the economic sanctions on Iraq

The purpose of this article is to analyze the socio-economic effects of the sanctions imposed on the Iraqi population after the invasion of Kuwait and the consequent war. This analysis will focus on the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions on a country destroyed by bombing, suffocated by an unlimited and vindictive economic embargo which seemed to have no end and left the Iraq’s population without food, health or basic resources.

In international law, sanctions are not punitive, but only have the purpose of ending an illegal conduct and preserving or restoring international peace and security. According to the Charter of the United Nations, the Security Council is entitled to decide collective sanctions for the maintenance of international peace and security. As stated in the article 39 of the charter “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.” [1]  Therefore, the Council may recur to measures that do not require the use of armed forces (art. 41) or that require them (art. 42). As provided in article 41: “These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.”[2] The growing use of this kind of sanctions has raised several objections related to their application, in particular when the economic embargo is total, as in the case of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein found himself in political difficulties in 1988, due to the inconclusive results of the long war against Iran. The conflict was concluded without having obtained what Hussein was hoping for: widen borders and more power over oil extraction and export. Moreover, the country was left with a huge debt towards Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates due to the purchase of weapons. However, Saddam refused to pay back and accused Kuwait of extracting quantities of oil higher than the quotas set by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), thus contributing to the fall in prices on international markets, and therefore to a collapse in Iraq’s revenue, which was 90% dependent on oil. During a summit in Baghdad in May 1990, Saddam declared that a dollar less in the international oil price meant Iraq’s annual loss of a billion. But Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates continued to sell quantities of oil that exceeded the quotas set by OPEC by 30 or 40 per cent, reducing the price of oil and costing Iraq billions. Therefore, on August 1990 Hussein invaded Kuwait, a country endowed with rich oil reserves and in close relations with the US, and justified the invasion by claiming that Kuwait historically belonged to Iraq and that it had been unfairly recognized as a separate country by the League of Nations. However, Kuwait actually became independent before Iraq sovereignty.

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait was immediately condemned by the United Nations Security Council, which responded by imposing the withdrawal of the Iraqi troops by January 15th 1991, in the resolution 678 (1990). On January 16th 1991 the offensive against Iraq’s army began, fought by a broad coalition of armed forces. A massive bombing campaign, denominated “Operation Desert Storm” targeted for about 40 days Iraqi aircrafts, oil refineries, communication lines and weapon factories using the latest American military technologies. On February 28th the Iraqi government accepted the UN resolutions and withdrew from Kuwait. While Iraq lost around 30 thousand soldiers, America and its allies only lost 292 in total.

The winning coalition decided not to depose Saddam Hussein, as it probably believed that a regime change would cause a wave of political instability, shaking the equilibrium of the country, and that it would have been their responsibility to maintain the order, costing them many more military resources. As a matter of fact, at the tail end of the Gulf War, Kurds and Shiites Iraqis rose up against Saddam who in return brutally crushed their rebellions. After the UN accused him of using chemical weapons against his own civilians, Saddam was forced to allow UN inspectors into Iraq.

The UN resolution 688(1991) condemned the repression of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites by the regime of Saddam Hussein, giving birth to a “no fly zone” north of the 36th parallel and south of the 32nd parallel, forbidding Iraqi planes in the north and south of the country. Despite the many and continuous sanctions, Saddam Hussein remained in power until the American second invasion in 2003.

Picture taken from “FORCES AND FIREPOWER | Containment: The Iraqi No-Fly Zones,” December 29, 1998,

The sanctions imposed on Iraq and adopted by the Security Council four days after Iraq’s invasion in the resolution 661(1990), were confirmed at the end of the first Gulf War with the resolution 687(1991).  In this resolution the Security Council demanded “that Iraq and Kuwait respect the inviolability of  the international boundary”[3], ordered Iraq’s payment of war damages, the destruction of chemical and biological weapons and long-range ballistic missiles under the vision of a special commission (Unscom); Iraq was also forced to reaffirm its adherence to the “Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty” and agree not to purchase or develop nuclear weapons and any other related materials and systems. Paragraph F of the resolution 687 regulated the economic sanctions: it prohibited UN member countries to import from, and at the same time export to Iraq goods and products; therefore Iraq’s sale of oil was banned and the access to international financial markets was blocked. Because of the economic sanctions imposed against Saddam Hussein at the end of the war, Iraq’s economy crashed and people began starving and dying for the lack of food, medicines and basic needs.

After 4 years of this dramatic situation, in 1995 the resolution 986 of the Security Council gave birth to the “Oil for Food” Program (OFP), in order to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people. The resolution stated that the UN would have managed the sale of Iraq’s oil and used the profits to provide humanitarian support to the population. The OFP was designed to provide Iraqi citizens what they needed to survive while at the same time preventing Saddam from developing weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi oil was sold under the UN supervision at market prices to pay for humanitarian aid. The whole program was at the beginning limited to two billion dollars every six months, subsequently raised to 5.2 billion by resolution 1153 (1998) and Resolution 1284 (1999) abolished the limit. However, all costs were supported by Iraq, so the Oil for Food program cannot be called “humanitarian aid”.

Workers load wheat flour from a World Food Programme warehouse in Erbil, northern Iraq, for distribution in monthly rations provided under the Oil-for-Food Programme.
PHOTO: Sonia Dumont – UNOHCI/OIP Oil-for-Food Programme (February 2003)

To fully understand the disastrous consequences of the embargo on the population, it is important to take into account the total destruction in which Iraq found itself at the end of the military intervention: five weeks of bombing destroyed water distribution systems, power plants, factories, telephone lines, bridges, railway lines, oil pumps, refineries, hospitals and clinics.  Moreover, the high prices of essential goods, the reduction of wages, the high percentage of unemployment led to a situation of economic insecurity.  According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Iraq’s gross domestic product decreased by 75% in 1991 compared to 1989, returning to the levels of the 1940s, before the oil boom and the modernization of the country.[4]

Agriculture’s contribution to the country’s economy before 1990 was minimal (just 5% of the gross domestic product) because Iraq used to import two-thirds of the food consumed by the population. Therefore, the embargo led the country to a state of serious food insecurity. Although the rationing system implemented by the Oil for Food program theoretically met the calorie needs of Iraqis(2470 kcal), malnutrition persisted due to the impossibility to rebuild the economy. People had become so poor that in some cases they couldn’t even eat the food they received for free because for many of them the food represented most of their income and they had to sell it in order to buy all the other things they needed, such as clothes. Malnutrition is not only a cause to nutritional disorders, but also determines a state of physical weakness that further facilitates the spread of infectious diseases, which found fertile ground in the precariousness of the water and environmental situation.  Indeed, one of the greatest threats to the health and well-being of the Iraqi population was the joint action of the collapse of the health system and the deterioration of the water purification systems and sewerage network caused by damages to electric grids. As an inevitable consequence, there had been a notable increase in mortality rates, especially infant mortality. According to a UNICEF survey of 1999, “5000 children under the age of five die every month.”[5]

An underweight infant in an incubator at a children’s hospital in Baghdad.
PHOTO: UN/DPI P.Sudhakaran (May 1997)

Thanks to the Oil for Food program(OFP), the UN sought to improve the socio-economic conditions of the country by protecting public services and infrastructures. Between December 1996 and March 2003 “Some 3.4 billion barrels of Iraqi oil valued at about $65 billion were exported under the Programme.”[6] Of this amount, 72% of the total was allocated towards humanitarian needs, 25% was allocated towards the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC), in order to pay for war damages, and the remaining 3% was used for the costs of the UN program (personnel expenses, bank accounts, administrative accounts,etc). Great accomplishments were achieved by the OFP: in the health sector “between 1997 and 2002, the capacity to undertake major surgeries increased by 40%” and “communicable diseases, including cholera, malaria, measles, mumps, meningitis and tuberculosis were reduced in the centre/south during this period.”[7] Moreover, “in the period to 20 March 2003, the deterioration of water facilities was halted. Oil-for-Food Programme supplies and equipment improved access to potable water, and helped to reduce the incidence of water-borne illnesses.”[8] From a nutritional point of view, “malnutrition rates in 2002 in the centre/south were half those of 1996 among children under the age of five.”[9]

A young girl collects water. Her village has benefitted from the Hujran village water project in the northern governorate of Erbil.
PHOTO: Sonia Dumont – UNOHCI/Oil-for Food (November 2002)

Although this humanitarian program had achieved important objectives, with such a big amount of money corruption couldn’t be missing.  The people or companies who had the possibility of obtaining contracts for the sale of oil through the Oil for Food program resold again the contracts obtained, adding a surcharge between 0.15 and 0.50 dollars per barrel. Everything happened under the control of Saddam Hussein’s government, who would receive a percentage of sales and freely reinvest the money in armaments and supplies for the army. It was only after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that evidence of the existence of a corruption scheme was obtained. In January 2004, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada published a list showing that both private individuals and international organizations had received bribes thanks to the Oil for Food program. The United Nations appointed an inquiry commission headed by the former chairman of the America’s Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, and after a series of investigations the commission “found that 2,253 firms, many of them household names, had made illegal payments totalling $1.8 billion to the Saddam regime”[10], thus confirming the charges.

The Security Council lifted civilian sanctions on Iraq after thirteen years with the adoption of resolution 1483(2003). During those thirteen years tons of bombs had been dropped, epidemics developed across the country, hospitals were in catastrophic situations with very few medicines and resources available. The consequences of the sanctions and the embargo have been catastrophic for Iraq’s population and economy, punishing the people more than the government. Important are also the long-term effects that this situation generated: the strengthening of nationalistic sentiments and strong resentment in the Iraqi population towards western powers, considered responsible for their sufferings. The Oil for Food program was created to lessen the consequences of the sanctions, but the program did not relieve the Iraqi civilian population enough from the state of suffering. A more appropriate action would have probably been to cancel the sanctions altogether. Measures such as embargoes should be limited in time, and possibly be taken before a war and not after. They should in no way affect the innocent population and, for obvious humanitarian reasons, should be revoked whenever these measures do not protect the universal human rights.

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[1] United Nations, Charter of the United Nations(San Francisco, 24 October 1945),Art.39

[2] Ibid.,Art.41

[3] United Nations Security Council, resolution 687(1991), par. A

[4] Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU Country Profile of Iraq 1995-96, par. 13, cited in Center for Economic and Social Rights, Unsanctioned Suffering: a Human Rights Assessment of United Nations Sanctions on Iraq, cit., p.7.

[5] UNICEF, Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Surveys, 1999

[6] UN Office of the Iraq Program – Oil for Food

[7] UN Office of the Iraq Program – Oil for Food: About the Programme

[8] UN Office of the Iraq Program – Oil for Food: About the Programme

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Rolling up the Culprits – The Economist,” March 13, 2008.

Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq (CASI), January 10, 2006.

Fondazione Luigi Cipriani Iraq.studi e ricerche di carattere storico e sulle strategie del potere

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