Sanctions imposed 12 years ago blamed
for a million fatalities
LOS ANGELES - The headline in this Sunday's Albany Times
Union was a sobering slap in the face to those armchair
strategists breezily debating a new invasion of Iraq:
"Sanctions killing Iraq civilians, UN says 1 million --
half children under 5 -- have died for want of food and safe
The article was from the Gannett News Service, a wire that
feeds a chain of 94 newspapers across the United States.
Coming as it did during a week in which plans concerning
Iraq dominated political discussion, the news could not have
been more timely. Too bad it was wrong.
Because Saddam Hussein's government blocks any real
independent inquiry, no one really knows how many civilians
have died as a direct result of United Nations sanctions,
which were originally imposed 12 years ago this past Tuesday
in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
But it is possible to declare, with some precision, that
the UN has never said sanctions have killed 500,000 Iraqi
children under the age of five.
This may surprise readers of just about every newspaper in
North America, who are long accustomed to letters to the
editor and left-of-centre columnists claiming, in the words of
the Hartford Courant's Susan Campbell on June 30, "According
to UNICEF, a half-million children and toddlers have died
since 1990 as a direct result of the sanctions."
That 500,000 number -- and its corollary, the 5,000 Iraqi
children who are said to be dying from sanctions each month --
have proven to be remarkably resilient since first appearing
on the scene in 1995. As Washington prepares for a war based
on Baghdad's flouting of this very same sanctions regime
(which was high on Osama Bin Laden's list of grievances aired
after the Sept. 11 massacre), it's worth trying to figure out
who is closer to the truth: critics, such as former UN
Humanitarian Co-ordinator Denis Haliday, who characterize the
policy as "genocide"; or supporters, such as The New Republic
magazine, who argue that claims of the sanctions' terrible
effects are false.
When people calculate child mortality among the under-fives
in Iraq, the measuring unit is the gruesome euphemism of
"excess deaths" -- the number of children who died "in excess"
of what could be expected in "normal" times.
This immediately begs two questions that are seldom asked:
What is "normal," and how can you assign specific
responsibility for the excess deaths? (A list of candidates
for the latter would include: sanctions, drought, hospital
policy, breast-feeding education, destruction from the
Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars, Saddam's misgovernance,
depressed oil prices, farm policy, overdependence on oil
exports, differences in conditions between the autonomous
north and the Saddam-controlled south, and so on.)
Saddam has not wasted any time on such interpretative
nuance: Every death, "excess" or otherwise, is the embargo's
fault. According to the Iraqi government, in the 10-year
period from 1991-2001, UN policy has killed 670,000 children
under five, and 1.6 million Iraqis overall (5,550 and 13,300
per month, respectively). Curiously, those numbers have grown
over time (the alleged under-five death toll this June was
7,337), despite the introduction of the oil-for-food program,
which has brought approximately US$20-billion of food and
supplies into the country since 1997.
If the dictatorial Iraqi government itself can only come up
with 670,000 under-five deaths in 10 years, how on earth did
elite North American reporters get to a "half-million" as
early as 1996? Through a comedy of error-filled science,
activism and journalism.
In August, 1995, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) gave officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Health a
questionnaire on child mortality, and asked them to conduct a
survey in the capital city of Baghdad. On the basis of this
five-day, 693-household, Iraq-controlled study, the FAO
announced in November that "child mortality had increased
nearly fivefold" since the era before sanctions. As embargo
critic Richard Garfield, a public health specialist at
Columbia University, noted in his own 1999 survey of
under-five deaths, "The 1995 study's conclusions were
subsequently withdrawn by the authors.... [Yet] their estimate
of more than 500,000 excess child deaths due to the embargo is
still often repeated by sanctions critics."
In March, 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO)
published its own report on the humanitarian crisis. It
reprinted figures -- provided solely by the Iraqi Ministry of
Health -- showing that a total of 186,000 children under the
age of five died between 1990 and 1994 in the 15
Saddam-governed provinces. According to these government
figures, the number of deaths jumped from 8,903 in 1990 to
52,905 in 1994.
Then, a New York-based advocacy outfit called the Center
for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) took a look at the Iraqi
government's highest numbers and promptly tripled them. In
May, 1996, CESR concluded "these mortality rates translate
into a figure of over half a million excess child deaths as a
result of sanctions."
That report might well have ended up in the dustbin of bad
partisan mathematics had a CESR "fact-finding" tour of Iraq
not been filmed by Lesley Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes. Instead,
in a May 12, 1996, broadcast that would later, ironically, win
several journalism awards, Stahl threw CESR's bogus numbers at
Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United
"We have heard that a half million children have died,"
Stahl said. "I mean, that's more children than died in
Hiroshima. And -- and you know, is the price worth it?"
Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but
the price -- we think the price is worth it."
It was the non-denial heard round the world. In the hands
of sanctions opponents and U.S. foreign policy critics, it was
portrayed as a confession of fact, even though neither
Albright nor the U.S. government has ever admitted to such a
ghastly number (nor had anybody aside from CESR and Stahl ever
suggested such a thing as of May, 1996).
An interesting new perspective on Stahl's reporting emerged
earlier this year when a former 60 Minutes producer colleague
of hers, Maurice Murad, wrote in the new book Into the Buzzsaw
about trying to track down the sanctions-deaths story in late
1995. Murad, whose parents were born and raised in Baghdad,
travelled to his ancestral home to see how sanctions were
"killing my people."
Instead, after weeks of visiting various cities and
literally begging the government and everyone he met to show
him starving people, Murad concluded "there was no food crisis
in Iraq." He prepared a "detailed rendering of what was wrong
with all the other stories" about sanctions, and left it at
that. "The last thing I wanted to do was get into a pissing
match with broadcasts in my own news division. Even now I am
loath to do it because most of the people involved are
first-rate journalists who seldom get snookered. And anyway,
they know who they are."
Albright's inhumane response actually helped motivate the
nascent anti-sanctions campaign, which began gathering steam
in 1997 and 1998. The new movement internalized the two main
numbers -- the 500,000 under-five deaths from 60 Minutes and
the 5,000-dead-children-a-month from the Iraqi government --
and regurgitated them in college dailies, liberal journals of
opinion and on the letters pages of daily newspapers.
Ironically, this happened just after Saddam finally agreed to
the UN's six-year-old proposal to permit oil exports in
exchange for humanitarian products and oil-equipment
But before anyone thought to recalculate the numbers, the
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) seemed to confirm
them. In 1999, UNICEF released a pair of studies -- one on the
autonomous north, the other on the Saddam-controlled south --
that concluded, after interviewing 40,000 households: "If the
substantial reduction in the under-five mortality rate during
the 1980s had continued through the 1990s, there would have
been half a million fewer deaths of children under five in the
country as a whole during the eight-year period 1991 to
But the "substantial reduction" was historic; if the rate
had merely held firm at 1989 levels, the number of "excess
deaths" would have been 420,000. And there is a huge gap
between UNICEF's "if" and the Gannett article's claim that the
agency (along with the WHO) had attributed "1 million deaths,
half of which are children younger than five," to "the ongoing
collateral damage of the war and sanctions on Iraqi
In November of last year, after sanctions critics and
journalists responded to Sept. 11 with misquotations in dozens
of major publications, UNICEF felt compelled to send out a
corrective press release. The surveys, UNICEF reiterated, were
never intended to produce an "absolute figure" of deaths, and
the half-million number was based on false assumptions: "In
other words, if there hadn't been two wars, if sanctions
hadn't been introduced and if investment in social services
had been maintained -- there would have been 500,000 fewer
deaths of children under five."
The UNICEF studies also produced fodder for the
pro-sanctions crowd: namely, that child mortality actually
decreased in the no-fly-zone north (from 80 per 1,000 in
1984-89 to 71 in 1994-98) while more than doubling in Saddam's
south (from 56 per 1,000 to 131).
When the report was released, UNICEF executive director
Carol Bellamy attributed this discrepancy to "the large amount
of international aid pumped into northern Iraq at the end of
the [Persian Gulf] war." Increased mortality in the south,
UNICEF concluded, was due to several factors including a
dramatic decrease in the breast-feeding of infants in favour
of bottle-only feeding. "It's very important not to just say
that everything rests on sanctions," Bellamy said in one
interview. "It is also the result of wars and the reduction in
investment in resources for primary health care."
From the standpoint of on-the-ground research, the UNICEF
report is by far the best we have. For interpretation of the
scores of other studies, I have been impressed with the
aforementioned Richard Garfield, whose major work (available
picked apart others' methodologies and freely admitted which
of his data points were weakest.
Garfield's conclusion: Between August, 1991, and March,
1998, there were between 106,000 and 227,000 excess deaths of
children under five. Recently, he has estimated the latter,
less conservative number at 500,000 plus between 1990 and
The chief causes? "Contaminated water, lack of high-quality
foods, inadequate breast-feeding, poor weaning practices and
inadequate supplies in the curative health care system. This
was the product of both a lack of some essential goods, and
inadequate or inefficient use of existing essential
And, of course, sanctions. "Even a small number of
documentable excess deaths is an expression of a humanitarian
disaster, and this number is not small," he concluded.
Garfield believes that during the last few years of
oil-for-food, most of the blame for poor child mortality
figures can be laid on the government of Iraq. And he also
believes that if the country is bombed heavily, "it will be a
Which brings us back to the current debate, or lack
thereof. After Sept. 11, when people (mostly from the
political left) brought up Iraq, it was frequently to suggest
that the sanctions-influenced humanitarian crisis may be
contributing to the wellspring of anti-American sentiment in
the Arab world. Last week, in two full days of hearings in the
U.S. Senate, the subject of humanitarian effects barely came
The centre of the discussion has shifted from the concept
of "smart sanctions" to the doctrine of "anticipatory
self-defence." With the focus on plotting "regime change" and
guessing about weapons programs, sorting through disputed
mortality statistics is just not a priority.
The United States is in an expansive, pre-emptive mood.
Awkward diplomatic arrangements -- such as the country's
bizarre "friendship" with terrorist-producing Saudi Arabia --
feel vulnerable to restless public opinion and the
alliance-shifting War on Terror. Punitive sanctions without
weapons inspections will no longer do. As the embargo turns
12, only one bet seems safe: It won't see 13.