Sanctions against Iraq

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The sanctions against Iraq were a near-total financial and trade embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Ba'athist Iraq. They began August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, stayed largely in force until May 22, 2003 (after Saddam Hussein's being forced from power),[1] and persisted in part, including reparations to Kuwait, through the present.[2][3][4] The original stated purposes of the sanctions were to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, to pay reparations, and to disclose and eliminate any weapons of mass destruction.

Initially, the UN Security Council imposed stringent economic sanctions on Iraq by adopting and enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 661.[5] After the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, those sanctions were extended and elaborated on, including linkage to removal of weapons of mass destruction, by Resolution 687.[6][7] The sanctions banned all trade and financial resources except for medicine and "in humanitarian circumstances" foodstuffs, the import of which into Iraq was tightly regulated.[5]

The effects of the sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq have been disputed.[8][9][10][11] Whereas it was widely believed that the sanctions caused a major rise in child mortality, research following the 2003 invasion of Iraq has shown that commonly cited data were doctored by the Saddam Hussein regime and that "there was no major rise in child mortality in Iraq after 1990 and during the period of the sanctions".[12]


Resolutions 660, 661, 662, 664, 665, 666, 667, 669, 670, 674, 677, 678 and 687 expressed the goals of eliminating weapons of mass destruction and extended-range ballistic missiles, prohibiting any support for terrorism, and forcing Iraq to pay war reparations and all foreign debt.[5][6]


As described by the United Nations Office of the Iraq Programme,[13] the United Nations Security Council Resolution 661 imposed comprehensive sanctions on Iraq following that country's invasion of Kuwait. These sanctions included strict limits both on the items that could be imported into Iraq and on those that could be exported.[14]

Limitations on imports[edit]

Initially, the UN Sanctions Committee issued no complete list of items that could not be imported into Iraq. Instead, it evaluated applications for importing items to Iraq on a case-by-case basis, in theory allowing foodstuffs, medicines and products for essential civilian needs and barring everything else.

Persons wishing to deliver items to Iraq, whether in trade or for charitable donation, were required to apply for export licenses to the authorities of one or more UN member state, who then sent the application to the Sanctions Committee. The committee made its decision in secret; any Committee member could veto a permission without giving any reason. As a rule, anything that could have a conceivable military use was banned, such as computers, tractors, although Committee asserted its sole discretion in determining what is essential for every Iraqi and either permitting or denying any thing to the Iraqi population. If the Committee granted approval, it notified the country where the application came from; that country then informed the applicant; the applicant then shipped the items, but the items remained subject to inspection and risk of impoundment.[citation needed]

In 2002 the process was streamlined, and the sanctions committee established a 'Goods Review List' for certain items. Anything not on the Goods Review list could be imported without restriction, while items with dual-purpose items would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.[15][16]

Limitations on exports and the Oil For Food Programme[edit]

Limitations on Iraqi exports (chiefly oil) made it difficult to fund the import of goods into Iraq. Following the 1991 Gulf War, a United Nations inter-agency mission assessed that "the Iraqi people may soon face a further imminent catastrophe, which could include epidemic and famine, if massive life-supporting needs are not rapidly met."[17] The Government of Iraq declined offers (in UNSRC resolutions 706 and 712) to enable Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to meet its people's needs. Acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council established the Oil for Food Programme via resolution 986 on 14 April 1995 as intended a "temporary measure to provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, until the fulfillment by Iraq of the relevant Security Council resolutions...". Implementation of the Programme started in December 1996; its first shipment of supplies arrived in March 1997. The Programme was funded exclusively with the proceeds from Iraqi oil exports. At first, Iraq was permitted to sell $2 billion worth of oil every six months, with two-thirds of that amount to be used to meet Iraq's humanitarian needs. In 1998, the limit was raised to $5.26 billion every six months. In December 1999, Security Council resolution 1284 removed the limit on the amount of oil exported.

Allocation of export proceeds[edit]

With the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1330 in 2000, Iraqi oil export proceeds were allocated as follows:,[18]

  • 72% was allocated to the humanitarian Programme
  • 25% was allocated to the Compensation Fund for war reparation payments
  • 2.2% for United Nations administrative and operational costs
  • 0.8% for the weapons inspection programme.

Of the 72% allocated to humanitarian purposes:

  • 59% was earmarked for the contracting of supplies and equipment by the Government of Iraq for the 15 central and southern governorates.
  • 13% for the three northern governorates, where the United Nations implemented the Programme on behalf of the Government of Iraq.

Enforcement of sanctions[edit]

An American helicopter shadows the Russian oil tanker Volgoneft-147

Enforcement of the sanctions was primarily by means of military force and legal sanctions. Following the passage of Security Council Resolution 665, a Multinational Interception Force was organized and led by the United States to intercept, inspect and possibly impound vessels, cargoes and crews suspected of carrying freight to or from Iraq.[19]

The legal side of sanctions included enforcement through actions brought by individual governments. In the United States, legal enforcement was handled by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).[14] For example, in 2005 OFAC fined Voices in the Wilderness $20,000 for gifting medicine and other humanitarian supplies to Iraqis without prior acquisition of an export license as required by law.[20] In a similar case, OFAC is still attempting to collect (as of 2011) a $10,000 fine, plus interest, against Bert Sacks for bringing medicine to residents of Basra.[21]


There is a general consensus that the sanctions achieved the express goals of limiting Iraqi arms. For example, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith says that the sanctions diminished Iraq militarily[22] and scholars George A. Lopez and David Cortright say sanctions compelled Iraq to accept inspections and monitoring; winning concessions from Baghdad on political issue such as the border dispute with Kuwait; preventing the rebuilding of Iraqi defenses after the Persian Gulf War; and blocking the import of materials and technologies for producing weapons of mass destruction".[23][24][25] Hussein told his FBI interrogator [26] that Iraq's armaments "had been eliminated by the UN sanctions."[27]

Effects on the Iraqi people during sanctions[edit]

High rates of malnutrition, lack of medical supplies, and diseases from lack of clean water were reported during sanctions.[28] In 2001, the chairman of the Iraqi Medical Association's scientific committee sent a plea to the BMJ to help it raise awareness of the disastrous effects the sanctions were having on the Iraqi healthcare system.[29]

The modern Iraqi economy had been highly dependent on oil exports; in 1989, the oil sector comprised 61% of the GNP. A drawback of this dependence was the narrowing of the economic base, with the agricultural sector rapidly declining in the 1970s. Some claim that, as a result, the post-1990 sanctions had a particularly devastating effect on Iraq's economy and food security levels of the population.[30]

Shortly after the sanctions were imposed, the Iraqi government developed a system of free food rations consisting of 1000 calories per person/day or 40% of the daily requirements, on which an estimated 60% of the population relied for a vital part of their sustenance. With the introduction of the Oil-for-Food Programme in 1997, this situation gradually improved. In May 2000 a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) survey noted that almost half the children under 5 years suffered from diarrhoea, in a country where the population is marked by its youth, with 45% being under 14 years of age in 2000. Power shortages, lack of spare parts and insufficient technical know-how lead to the breakdown of many modern facilities.[30] The per capita income in Iraq dropped from $3510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996, heavily influenced by the rapid devaluation of the Iraqi dinar.[30]

Iraq had been one of the few countries in the Middle East that invested in women's education. But this situation changed from the late eighties on with increasing militarisation and a declining economic situation. Consequently, the economic hardships and war casualties in the last decades have increased the number of women-headed households and working women.[30]

Thomas Nagy argued in September 2001 issue of The Progressive magazine that United States' government intelligence and actions in the previous ten years demonstrates that the United States government had acted to intentionally destroy Iraq's water supply.[31] Michael Rubin criticized Nagy for "selective" use of sources and argued that "the documentary evidence eviscerates Nagy's conclusions":

The oil-for-food program has already spent more than $1 billion in water and sanitation projects in Iraq. Baghdad estimates that providing adequate sanitation and water resources would cost an additional $328 million. However, such an allocation is more than possible given the billions of dollars in oil revenue Baghdad receives each year under sanctions, and the additional $1 billion dollars per year it receives from transport of smuggled oil on the Syrian pipeline alone. Indeed, if Saddam Hussein's government has managed to spend more than $2 billion for new presidential palaces since the end of the Persian Gulf War, and offer to donate nearly $1 billion to support the Palestinian intifada, there is no reason to blame sanctions for any degradation in water and sanitation systems.[10]

Denis Halliday was appointed United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Iraq as of 1 September 1997, at the Assistant Secretary-General level. In October 1998 he resigned after a 34-year career with the UN in order to have the freedom to criticise the sanctions regime, saying "I don't want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide"[32] However, Sophie Boukhari, a UNESCO Courier journalist, reports that "some legal experts are skeptical about or even against using such terminology" and quotes Mario Bettati for the view that "People who talk like that don’t know anything about law. The embargo has certainly affected the Iraqi people badly, but that’s not at all a crime against humanity or genocide."[33]

Halliday's successor, Hans von Sponeck, subsequently also resigned in protest, calling the effects of the sanctions a "true human tragedy".[34] Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Program in Iraq, followed them.[35]

Estimates of deaths due to sanctions[edit]

Estimates of excess deaths during the sanctions vary widely, use different methodologies and cover different time-frames.[8][36][37] The figure of 500,000 child deaths was for a long period widely cited, but recent research has shown that that figure was the result of survey data manipulated by the Saddam Hussein regime.[12][38] A 1995 Lancet estimate put the number of child deaths at 567,000,[39] but when one of the authors of the study followed up on it a year later, "many of the deaths were not confirmed in the reinterviews. Moreover, it emerged that some miscarriages and stillbirths had been wrongly classified as child deaths in 1995."[12][40] A 1999 UNICEF report found that 500,000 children died as a result of sanctions,[41] but comprehensive surveys after 2003 failed to find such child mortality rates.[12] A 2017 study in the British Medical Journal described "the rigging of the 1999 Unicef survey" as "an especially masterful fraud".[12] The three comprehensive surveys conducted since 2003 all found that the child mortality rate in the period 1995-2000 was approximately 40 per 1000, which means that there was no major rise in child mortality in Iraq after sanctions were implemented.[12]

Oil for Food[edit]

As the sanctions faced mounting condemnation for its humanitarian impacts,[42] several UN resolutions were introduced that allowed Iraq to trade its oil for goods such as food and medicines. The earliest of these, Resolution 706 of 15 August 1991, allowed the sale of Iraqi oil in exchange for food. Resolution 712 of 19 September 1991 confirmed that Iraq could sell up to US$1.6 billion in oil to fund an Oil For Food program.

In 1996, Iraq was allowed under the UN Oil-for-Food Programme (under Security Council Resolution 986) to export US$5.2 billion of oil every 6 months with which to purchase items needed to sustain the civilian population. After an initial refusal, Iraq signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in May 1996 for implementation of that resolution. The Oil-for-Food Programme started in October 1997, and the first shipments of food arrived in March 1998. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds were redirected to a Persian Gulf War reparations account, and three percent into United Nations programs related to Iraq.

While the programme is credited with improving the conditions of the population, it was not free from controversy. Denis Halliday, who oversaw the Programme, believed it was inadequate to compensate for the adverse humanitarian impacts of the sanctions. The U.S. State Department criticized the Iraqi government for inadequately spending the money, exporting food, and refusing to accept the program for several years after it was offered in 1991.[43] In 2004/5 the Programme became the subject of major media attention over corruption, as allegations surfaced such as that Iraq had systematically sold allocations of oil at below-market prices in return for some of the proceeds from the resale outside the scope of the Programme; investigations implicated individuals and companies from dozens of countries. See Oil For Food Programme - Investigations.

Lifting of sanctions[edit]

Following the 2003 Iraq War, the sanctions regime was largely ended on May 22, 2003 (with certain exceptions related to arms and to oil revenue) by paragraph 10 of UN Security Council Resolution 1483.[44]

Sanctions which gave the US and UK control over Iraq's oil revenue were not removed until December 2010.[2] Chapter VII sanctions which required 5% of Iraq's oil and natural gas revenue to be paid to Kuwait as reparations for Saddam Hussain's invasion have since been lifted, leaving approximately US$11 billion unpaid to the government of Kuwait. Khudheir Mussa Al-Khuzaie, Vice-President of Iraq, Addresses General Assembly, 68th session, 2013



Scholar Ramon Das, in the Human Rights Research Journal of the New Zealand Center for Public Law, examined each of the "most widely accepted ethical frameworks" in the context of violations of Iraqi human rights under the sanctions, finding that "primary responsibility rests with the UNSC [United Nations Security Council]" under these frameworks, including rights-utilitarianism, moral Kantianism, and consequentialism.[45][46]

Many academics, American and UN officials, and Iraqi citizens contend that this ignores the overriding control of Saddam Hussein and the corrupt contractors who maintained it, as well as the consequences of allowing Hussein to continue his policies with no deterrence and unlimited capacity.[47] During its last decade, the regime of Saddam Hussein cut public health funding by 90 percent, contributing to a substantial deterioration in health care.[48]

Controversy about regional differences[edit]

Some commentators blame Saddam Hussein for the excess deaths during this period. For example, Rubin argued that the Kurdish and the Iraqi governments handled Oil For Food aid differently, and that therefore the Iraqi government policy, rather than the sanctions themselves, should be held responsible for any negative effects.[49][10] Likewise, David Cortright claimed: "The tens of thousands of excess deaths in the south-center, compared to the similarly sanctioned but UN-administered north, are the result of Baghdad's failure to accept and properly manage the UN humanitarian relief effort."[24] In the run-up to the Iraq War, some[50] disputed the idea that excess mortality exceeded 500,000, because the Iraqi government had interfered with objective collection of statistics (independent experts were barred).[51]

Other Western observers, such as Matt Welch and Anthony Arnove, argue that the differences in results noted by authors such as Rubin (above) may have been because the sanctions were not the same in the two parts of Iraq, due to several regional differences: in the per capita money,[52] in war damage to infrastructure and in the relative ease with which smugglers evaded sanctions through the porous Northern borders.[53] This argument was debunked by several UN-sponsored studies taken after the overthrow of Saddam's regime, which revealed that the previous childhood mortality figures for South/Central Iraq were inflated by more than a factor of two and that the childhood mortality rate in those regions was even lower than the rate in northern Iraq.[9]

Arguments about the sanctions and the Iraq War[edit]

Protesters in Washington DC against sanctions and invasion of Iraq, 2002 or 2003

Some persons, such as Walter Russell Mead, accepted a large estimate of casualties due to sanctions,[54] but argued that invading Iraq was better than continuing the sanctions regime, since "Each year of containment is a new Gulf War."[55][56][57] Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry, also argued that ending sanctions was one benefit of the war. Citing recent studies disproving any increase in childhood mortality in Iraq under the sanctions regime, Michael Spagat declared "this claim should now take up its rightful place in the historical record next to Iraq's mythical weapons of mass destruction."[9]

There were also arguments saying the sanctions had not been as effective as people had thought, due to reports of companies not following trade sanctions on Iraq during this time. One of those countries being France as shown in The Guardian,[58] Washington Times [59] according to Bill Gertz, and New York Times [60] articles that they had been trading Iraq weapons, supplies and nuclear technology leading up to and some argue after the sanctions helping support the Iraq government. So overall the sanctions didn't help in the way it was intended or at least were not successful.

Albright interview[edit]

On May 12, 1996, Madeleine Albright (then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) appeared on a 60 Minutes segment in which Lesley Stahl asked her "We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" and Albright replied "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it." Albright wrote later that Saddam Hussein, not the sanctions, was to blame. She criticized Stahl's segment as "amount[ing] to Iraqi propaganda"; said that her question was a loaded question;[61][62] wrote "I had fallen into a trap and said something I did not mean";[63] and regretted coming "across as cold-blooded and cruel".[64] The segment won an Emmy Award.[9][65] Albright's "non-denial" was taken by sanctions opponents as confirmation of a high number of sanctions related casualties.[52][61]

Iraqi government reaction to sanctions[edit]

There is evidence that the Iraqi government did not fully cooperate with the sanctions. For example, Hussein's son-in-law is heard speaking of concealing information from UN inspectors on audiotapes released in 2006. "I go back to the question of whether we should reveal everything or continue to be silent. Sir, since the meeting has taken this direction, I would say it is in our interest not to reveal."[66][67] Hussein may have considered the many governments' displeasure with him, but particularly that of two veto-wielding UNSC members, the United States and United Kingdom (both of which took the hardest lines on Iraq), as a no-win situation and disincentive to cooperation in the process.[68]

It has been alleged that UNSCOM had been infiltrated by British and American spies for purposes other than determining if Iraq possessed WMDs.[69][70] Former inspector Scott Ritter was a prominent source of these charges.[citation needed] Former UNSCOM chief inspector David Kay said "the longer it continued, the more the intelligence agencies would, often for very legitimate reasons, decide that they had to use the access they got through cooperation with UNSCOM to carry out their missions".[71][72]

Renewed pressure in 2002 led to the entry of UNMOVIC, which eventually received some degree of cooperation; before it could complete its work, the United States required it to leave Iraq to avoid its impending 2003 invasion of Iraq.

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ a b "UN lifts sanctions against Iraq (BBC)". BBC News. 2010-12-15.
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  6. ^ a b "United Nations Security Council Resolution 687".
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  8. ^ a b Iraq surveys show 'humanitarian emergency' UNICEF Newsline August 12, 1999
  9. ^ a b c d Spagat, Michael (September 2010). "Truth and death in Iraq under sanctions" (PDF). Significance.
  10. ^ a b c Rubin, Michael (December 2001). "Sanctions on Iraq: A Valid Anti-American Grievance?". 5 (4). Middle East Review of International Affairs: 100–115. Archived from the original on 2012-10-28. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) "The per capita income available in Saddam’s Iraq is now far higher than it was in Iraqi Kurdistan, and yet the Iraqi government continues to either not spend the revenue available, or not spend it wisely. Most damning to arguments about disproportionate funding in the north is that, according to Oil-for-food coordinators in Irbil, northern Iraq has so far only spent half the money actually allocated to it."
  11. ^ Dyson, T. (2009). New evidence on child mortality in Iraq. Economic and Political Weekly, 56-59.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Dyson, Tim; Cetorelli, Valeria (2017-07-01). "Changing views on child mortality and economic sanctions in Iraq: a history of lies, damned lies and statistics". BMJ Global Health. 2 (2): e000311. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2017-000311. ISSN 2059-7908. PMC 5717930. PMID 29225933.
  13. ^ "Fact Sheet". Office of the Iraq Oil-For-Food Programme. 2003-11-21. Retrieved 2011-06-07.
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  15. ^ Schmemann, Serge (May 9, 2002). "U.N. Plans Soon to Streamline Application of Iraq Sanctions (Published 2002)" – via
  16. ^ ""Goods Review List" for Iraq". 2002-05-14.
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  27. ^ Kessler, Glenn (2009-07-02). "Saddam Hussein Said WMD Talk Helped Him Look Strong to Iran". Retrieved 2009-07-06.
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  29. ^ Adnan Al-Araji (2001). "Iraqi doctors appeal for help from doctors in other countries". BMJ. 323 (7303): 53. doi:10.1136/bmj.323.7303.53/b (inactive 31 May 2021). JSTOR 25467323. PMC 1120689. PMID 11464839.CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of May 2021 (link)

    "The Iraqi Medical Association would like to thank the BMA for the donation of medical books and journals that it made to Iraqi medical schools and the association last year. Because of the sanctions on Iraq, however, none of the books have arrived yet and we have received only a few copies of the BMJ.

    The sanctions have led to the deterioration of what was an extremely good national health service. In 2001, thousands of Iraqis are still dying from malnutrition, infectious diseases, and the effects of shortages or unavailability of essential drugs. More and more children are dying from cancer, probably related to contamination of the environment with depleted uranium.

    Iraqi doctors are suffering greatly from the intellectual embargo. Recent medical textbooks and journals are difficult to obtain. It is extremely difficult for Iraqi doctors to travel abroad to attend medical conferences or training courses. In hospitals and clinics our doctors are facing great difficulties providing good medical service to their patients."

  30. ^ a b c d "UNICEF Evaluation report 2003 IRQ: Iraq Watching Briefs — Overview Report, July 2003". 2007-04-09. Retrieved 2009-06-15.
  31. ^ "The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply," The Progressive, September 2001, reprinted in Third World Traveler
  32. ^ John Pilger New Statesman - John Pilger on why we ignored Iraq in the 1990s on why we ignored Iraq in the 1990s New Statesman, 4 October 2004
  33. ^ Sophie Boukhari Embargo against Iraq: Crime and punishment UNESCO website.
  34. ^ "BBC News - MIDDLE EAST - UN sanctions rebel resigns".
  35. ^ Neilan, Terence (16 February 2000). "WORLD BRIEFING". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 December 2016. See also "Corrections". The New York Times. 17 February 2000. Retrieved 24 December 2016.
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  39. ^ "Lewiston Morning Tribune - Google News Archive Search".
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  47. ^ Rieff, David (July 27, 2003). "Were Sanctions Right? (Published 2003)" – via
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  52. ^ a b Welch, Matt. "Reason Magazine - The Politics of Dead Children". Retrieved 2010-10-06.
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