Matt Welch

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© 1986-2004

scharacterized in more than a dozen prominent U.S. newspapers

By November, UNICEF was annoyed enough with the misrepresentations to send out a corrective press release insisting that the surveys were never intended to produce an "absolute figure" of deaths, and that the half-million number assumed conditions that just didn't exist: "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."

Sanctions critics almost always leave out one other salient fact: The vast majority of the horror stats they quote apply to the period before March 1997, when an oil-for-food program that had long been rejected by Saddam Hussein finally delivered its first boatload of supplies, nearly six years after the U.N. first proposed the idea. In the past four years, Iraq has sold enough oil to bring in $18 billion worth of humanitarian products and oil-equipment supplies, with another $16 billion on the way.

As the U.N. Office for the Iraqi Program stated in a Sept. 28 report, "With the improved funding level for the program, the government of Iraq is indeed in a position to address the nutritional and health concerns of the Iraqi people, particularly the nutritional status of the children."

What of the other side's obfuscations? They're usually based on the improving mortality rates of the three northern provinces.

The New Republic claims the region "is subject to exactly the same sanctions as the rest of the country." This is false: Under the oil- for-food regime, the north, which contains 13 percent of the Iraqi population, receives 13 percent of all oil proceeds, some of it in cash. Saddam's regions, with 87 percent of population, receive 59 percent of the money (recently increased from 53 percent), none of it in cash.

So whom can you trust?

I was impressed with the way Richard Garfield of Columbia University compared Iraq to other countries under sanctions, picked apart the methodologies of studies that came before, and freely admitted which of his data points were weakest. (You can see for yourself at

His conclusion: Between August 1991 and March 1998, there were between 106,000 and 227,000 excess deaths of children under 5 (he recently updated the "more likely" latter number to 350,000 by the end of last year).

The chief causes, in Garfield's view, were "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 goods." 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.

"Excess deaths should be seen as the tip of the iceberg among damages to occur among under 5-year-olds in Iraq in the 1990s. The humanitarian disaster which has occurred in Iraq far exceeds what may be any reasonable level of acceptable damages according to the principles of discrimination and proportionality used in warfare. To the degree that economic sanctions complicate access to and utilization of essential goods, sanctions regulations should be modified immediately."

Ultimately, the question of sanctions is inextricably tied to the threat of Saddam Hussein developing weapons of mass destruction.

But knowing, or at least estimating honestly, that sanctions have contributed to the deaths of more than 100,000 children is the first step in confronting what seems clearly to be a failed policy.

If the anti-sanctions cause is just, it will survive the truth.

Matt Welch is a journalist living in Los Angeles ( A longer version of this appears in the March 2002 issue of Reason magazine. Reprinted with permission, Copyright 2002 Reason Foundation, 3415 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400, Los Angeles, CA 90034.

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