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Iraq: 'Petróleo por Alimentos'



Eleven years after the approval of the sanctions on Iraq by the United Nations Security Council, Jutta Burghardt, the former Director of the WFP in the country, reviews the violations of the International Law resulting from the application of the embargo

The humanitarian situation in Iraq, the humanitarian program 'Oil for Food', and Human Rights

Jutta Burghardt
Oficial of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and former Representative and Country Director of the World Food Program in Iraq, 1999-2000

Jutta Burghardt was the Representative and Country Director of the World Food Program in Iraq from January 1999 to March 2000, when she resigned in protest for the prolongation of sanctions against this country and especially after the aproval of the Resolution 1284 by the Security Council in December 1999. This Resolution, which passed with the affirmative votes of USA ang Great Britain and the abstentions of French, Rusia and Chine, brought the question on the embargo against Iraq to a dead end after ten years of continued application of sanctions since Agust 1990. Burghardt´s resignation followed those of the two former Coordinators of the Humanitarian Program of UN for Iraq, Mr. Dennis J. Halliday and Mr. Hans von Sponeck. Both resigned for similar reasons in 1999 and 2000 respectively, protesting against the obstructionist and manipulating policy of USA and Great Britain regarding the 'Oil for Food' Program (SC Resolution 986). In this unpublished paper, Ms. Burghardt reviews the violations of the International Law generated by the application of sanctions against Iraq, and recounts her own experience during her stay in the country. The text, addressed to the Arab Cause Solidarity Committee by her author in July 2001, was previously presented at the International Conference 'Embargo and Human Rights in Iraq' organized in Baghdad on May 8-9th, 2001 by 'Baytol Hikma' institution. Currently, Jutta Burghardt has rejoined the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation in Bonn. [CSCAweb]

Secretary General Kofi Annan has repeatedly said that "(...) the humanitarian situation in Iraq had posed a 'serious moral dilemma' for the Organization. The United Nations had always been on the side of the vulnerable and the weak, and had always sought to relieve suffering, yet here it was accused of 'causing' suffering to an entire population."

Here, the Secretary General points out an important feature of the relationship between the UN and Iraq. I appreciate his awareness, since the Humanitarian Program for Iraq is under his supervision.

Indeed, there is a gap between the actions of the Security Council on Iraq under the provisions of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter and the Human Rights Instruments of the organization. While Article 24 of the UN-Charter binds the Security Council to act in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations, the Sanctions Regime for Iraq issued by that body leads to gross violations of human rights and established international law.

The sanctions on Iraq are the most severe and the most prolonged that had ever been imposed on a country in human history. In addition, the trade embargo established under SCR 661 is accompanied by unilaterally imposed and permanent military aggression of a lower and sometimes greater intensity, thereby constituting, together with the trade sanctions, a classical blockade as we know it since historical times. All of us are aware that this embargo almost exclusively hits the common person.

The humanitarian program in Iraq (issued under Chapter VII and thus being part of the Sanctions Regime) does not provide for the protection of human rights in Iraq. It would not even do so if it were carried out fully, in good faith and without its present politicization. It is a short -breathed care and maintenance- operation of a similar kind as we find in regular emergency operations around the world, treating the Iraqi population as if they lived in a refugee camp. This program cannot compensate for the full-fledged activities of the State, and is no substitute for the economic activities of a whole nation.

Human Rights are valid universally, and they are indivisible. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states expressly, that the rights enshrined in it are to be applied also under circumstances of impeded or reduced sovereignty (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10. December 1948). Thus, they apply in Iraq.

Article II of the Genocide Convention (1949) defines, inter alia, as genocide the "deliberate imposition of conditions of life that are conducive to partially or totally destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."

a) There can be no doubt whatsoever that the imposition of the sanctions on Iraq by the Security Council is leading to partially or totally destroying a nation, and that this concept was and continues to be deliberately and intentionally applied. The Security Council had been very well aware of the situation in Iraq right from the start. Immediately after the Gulf War and as early as 1991, Marti Athissari and Saddruddin Aga Khan made two reports for the Secretary General. Especially the latter devolved the mechanism employed by the Oil for Food Program, saying the situation of the people of Iraq and the destruction of the material infrastructure were so grave, that assistance of international donors would not suffice to save the country from its near apocalyptic situation. Instead, proceeds from Iraqi oil should be used.

b) In addition, Madeleine Albright in an interview with CBS said -while still being Permanent Representative to the UN and in that function the decisive member of the Security Council- hen she was asked whether the death of 500.000 Iraqi children was worth the price: "It was a difficult choice, but -yes- it was worth the price". This statement should be shocking to anybody, but it is especially so for a German before the background of German national history. Ms. Albright indeed underlines that the destruction of a nation - genocide- was and continues to be intended.

c) The Belgian international law expert Marc Bossuyt is unambiguously clear on this. In his report to the Commission on Human Rights (Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights -E/CN.4/SUB.2/2000/33) of 21 June 2000 he says (Paragraph 72):

"The sanctions regime against Iraq has as its clear purpose the deliberate infliction on the Iraqi people of conditions of life (lack of adequate food, medicines etc.) calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. It does not matter that this deliberate physical destruction has as its ostensible objective the security of the region. Once clear evidence was available that thousands of civilians were dying and that hundreds of thousands would die in future as the Security Council continued the sanctions, the deaths were no longer an unintended side effect ­ the Security Council was responsible for all known consequences of its actions. The sanctioning bodies cannot be absolved from having the 'intent to destroy' the Iraqi people. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations in fact admitted this; when questioned whether the half million deaths were 'worth it', she replied: 'we think the price is worth it'. The states imposing the sanctions could raise questions under the genocide Convention."

In addition, and what is most important, in his recommendations Marc Bossuyt states that sanctions which violate international law, and especially human rights, need not be respected. And he raises the question of compensation.

d) The Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which were endorsed by the General assembly of the United Nations, emphasise that there exists an individual responsibility vis-à-vis instructions. I quote:

"The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

e) In this context, it is important to know -and I wish my former colleagues in the Iraq Programme of the United Nations were aware of it- that the Genocide Convention as well as the Nuremberg Principles establish that complicity to a crime against humanity is a crime under international law. I personally believe that assisting to veil the effects of the sanctions on the Iraqi people amounts to complicity, and I decided that a moral choice had been available to me.

I will now highlight some fundamental human rights provisions and relate them to the situation of the Iraqi people. Naturally, features are overlapping. Often reality covers more than one provision. In addition, what I have to say is certainly not new to this assembly.

Violation of The Right to Life, Liberty and the Security of Person
(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3)

a) SCR 687 stipulates that a cease-fire is in force upon official acceptance of that resolution by Iraq, which had been done. Nevertheless, regular bombardments occur in the unilaterally imposed so-called no fly-zones that have killed and wounded citizens of Basra and elsewhere, including young shepherds. Are those people in the South aware that according to the official version of those who have established these zones the attacks are carried out "for their protection"?

b) Since UNICEF published its carefully elaborated study in 1999 it has become common knowledge and an internationally accepted fact that 500.000 Iraqi children have lost their lives because of the sanctions. Altogether more than 1,4 million Iraqi citizens have become victims of the embargo until today.


Violation of The Right to Adequate Standard of Living

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 11:

"1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right, recognising to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.
"2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognising the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed (...)."

a) Under the embargo almost all domestic industrial economic activities are on hold. As a consequence, there are hardly any jobs and hardly any income possibilities, and no tax revenues for the state.

b) In March 1999, the Iraqi Minister for Labour and Social Affairs told me, that only 40 percent of industries were operational with a production volume of 10 percent. According to his assessment, 90 to 95 percent of the Iraqis live below the poverty line. This Ministry would usually provide those who live in abject poverty with some small means of living. However, in 1994 the registration of the destitute had been halted since the Ministry was no longer able to cope with their increasing numbers.

c) Before sanctions, Iraq had been close to becoming a First World Country, thanks to the efforts of the present government after years of internal unrest and centuries of neglect. Iraq had become indeed a regional Arab power. You still find the relicts of those achievements today.

d) Social data had been excellent before sanctions. According to UNESCO, the rate of literacy had been 95 percent, proving that the Government implemented the Right to Education including the provision on compulsory primary education -which it is unable to enforce any longer- and for which it had been awarded a UNESCO prize. In March 2000 literacy had gone down to just 58 percent with a rate of further reduction expected to be 5 percent per year.

e) The Iraqi society has been almost entirely cut off from interchange with the rest of the world (violates the Right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its application). This gap will be extremely difficult to bridge for the people and especially for the generation growing up today. Even if sanctions were lifted tomorrow, rebuilding the society including the reconstitution of the individual abilities would take many years if that were possible at all. The deterioration of education, including professional education, will have long-term effects on at least one generation. Children who never went to school will never be able to make good for that loss.

f) To be under the daily pressure -for more than ten years now- to support one's family is tremendously exhausting. Illness in one's family if you cannot do much to help as well as dis-investments in lives and dreams lost create depression and hopelessness. I found it extremely heartening to see the loss of opportunities in life of a people of 25 million. Among the personnel of the humanitarian programme we counted 60 percent as being fully qualified professionals doing sub-standard work. Our drivers were mostly engineers and agriculturists. I even had a pilot and a bank director in my team.

g) The Iraqi middle class is not only impoverished because of lack of work and income possibilities, but also because their savings and former investments have shrunk to zero. The depreciation of the Iraqi Dinar vis-à-vis the US-$ amounts to 6,000 percent, while the average income amounts to 5,000 to 6,000 Dinar. Theses are approximately 2,5 to 3 US-$. (Before sanctions the Dinar was worth 3.3 US-$, today it is 0,004 US-$.)

h) It is the cumulative effect of sanctions, the continuing deprivation for more than ten years in a continuing war situation that causes the Iraqi society to disintegrate and the Iraqi people to be destroyed. Many Iraqi people told me that each day they survive is a miracle to them.

i) Since more than ten years, the Iraqi people receive just staple food: wheat flour, rice, some beans or lentils, some milk powder, vegetable oil, salt, sugar and tea -no fresh food such as vegetables, fruit, fresh milk products and meat (infringes upon The Right to Food). Many who have no other sources of income have to barter food basket items for other means of livelihood. In the years 1999/2000 our routine observation showed that two thirds of the population in Center/South of Iraq had their monthly food ration consumed within 20 days. We have always asked ourselves, how this group lived during the rest of the month. To make things worse, there had been a Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in 1999 in Iraq that killed more than a million animals. There also had been since the end of 1998 a severe drought in the region, which had additional harmful effects on the domestic harvest, on the animal owners and on the supply of clean water to the people. On both issues the Sanctions Committee had provided insufficient relief to Iraq. Just contrast this to the panic that was seizing the European Community on the issue of Foot and Mouth Disease!

j) That the condition of the society is not even worse than it is today is admirable and must be in my view attributed to the great discipline, industriousness, practical intelligence and unbelievable stamina of the Iraqi people.

The Right to Health

International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Article 12:

"1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
"2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realisation of this right shall include those necessary for:
(a) The provision for the reduction of still-birth and of infant mortality
And for the healthy development of the child;
(b) The improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene;
(c) The prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases;
(d) The creation of conditions, which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness."

a) Before sanctions, the health system of Iraq had been the envy of the region. We all know that today the health condition of the Iraqis as well as the health care system is in a desolate situation. Life expectancy is reduced. Many Iraqi children are stunted from lack of adequate food. But a chronic food deficiency does not only create physical insufficiencies, it has negative effects on mental abilities as well. On the occasion of a program that we carried out in Iraq, the Government told us they had registered 700.000 malnourished children under the age of five.

b) Not only had Iraq been heavily destroyed during the Gulf War; ammunition coated with depleted uranium had been used for the first time. During my visits to the South I had been alerted and shocked. My impression was: This area is no longer inhabitable for human beings.

c) Most of you here will be aware of the facts, but I will repeat here the information received from the WHO Representative in Iraq, from Iraqi experts and from the German Professors Günther and Schott. The issue at hand relates of course also to the Right to Life and the Genocide Convention. When used the DU-ammunition releases chemically toxic and radioactive particles in form of an aerosol. DU emits mainly alpha particles and has a half-life of 4,5 billion years. In the human body it is chiefly deposited in the bones, and attacks the bone marrow as well as the DNA. In Iraq the toxic materials have now entered the food chain. Particularly in Basra Province much of it was absorbed into the ground waters. All in all, more than 300 t of DU-materials are still buried in Iraqi grounds.

d) The Iraqi administration has more than 1000 persons -soldiers and their families- under observation. An increase in cancer cases was observed only as late as 1996/97 -five years after the events. Further increases are expected over the coming years. The Iraqi experts assume, but were not able to prove -in spite of having approached relevant organizations several times, including WHO since 1995- that the increase in leukemia, the appearance of rare types of cancer, of lymphoma, of cancer of kidneys, lung and pancreas, are due to DU - ammunitions that were used by USA (and to a lesser extent by UK). The Iraqi experts have also observed sterility in men and women (especially in youth), and rare deformations, such as children without or with deformed arms, without fingers, with deformed heads, without or with deformed eyes, or without ears. They also observed an especially high increase in breast cancer, particularly in young women of 17 to 20 years. Also observed was deformation in animals.

The Right to Self-determination

Part I Article 1, International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966:

"1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
"2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principal of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.
"3. The States Parties to the present Covenant (...) shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations."

a) The key element of the sanctions, including the mechanisms established under the Oil for Food-Program, is: the Government of Iraq must not trade, and especially not receive any proceeds from the oil sales, in other words not generate any foreign exchange. The exemption to the sanctions regime -the Oil for Food-Program- makes that very clear: the proceeds from the sale of oil go to an Escrow Account, which is controlled by the United Nations. We learned that Iraq couldn't even receive outdated equipment purchased by its own money. We were instructed to destroy these items instead.

b) The Oil for Food-Program is supposed to guarantee the supply of essential goods for the population of Iraq and to provide for investments in key infrastructure. It operates in the areas of food, medicine and medical equipment, electricity, agriculture, irrigation, water supply and sanitation, primary and higher education, transport and communication, building of houses, and the maintenance and rehabilitation of the oil production, the latter being the key income source for the financing of those humanitarian supplies.

c) All the goods that had been received by end-2000 represent a per capita outlay or investment of approximately 100 US-$ per person/year, of which about 75 US-$ are spent on the food basket alone, which is usually the most expensive item in any emergency program. Under the program, components are often lacking and specifications are not met. Although the Memorandum of Understanding provides for the application of normal commercial practices, until today Iraq is not allowed to apply them in the contracting of food items. This leads, of course, to suppliers potentially and actually exploiting the Iraqi situation. Thus, in addition to the low performance rate of the program because of so many blocked contracts (value as of today 9 April 2001 3.4 billion US-$), many of the items that are in the hands of the Iraqis are useless (especially in the agriculture, food and medical sectors).

d) When I arrived in January 1999, the Iraqi Government needed money for the internal transport, storage, handling and administration of the food operation alone in the amount of 160 billion Dinars per year. There are of course additional internal costs for all the other sectors of the Program, but especially for the oil sector. Clearly, this "humanitarian program" is harmful to the Iraqi economy in two ways:

e) First, until today the Government cannot use its money to cover their internal cost and is, therefore, forced to print the respective amounts -thereby increasing inflation and contributing to the depreciation of its currency. Secondly, all items of the program must be imported even if they are available in the country such as wheat, vegetable oil and salt. Its not only huge business for the rest of the world. Its also detrimental to the already suffering Iraqi economy.

f) However, in spite of the tremendous restrictions that the Government activities experience (reduced personnel, minimal salaries, hardly any possibility to check on companies abroad and deliveries, reduced transport facilities, tremendous restrictions in communication), the Ministry of Trade carries out the food supply operation -possibly the largest on the globe for such a long time- in the most efficient and effective manner. In Iraq, each and every of the almost 25 million citizens receives regularly his/her monthly ration.

g) In SCR 1284 (12 December 1999, the so-called Comprehensive Resolution introduced by the UK and relating to Kuwait compensation, humanitarian and disarmament chapters, an effort is made to give Iraq an incentive to co-operate in the disarmament area by introducing simplifications of procedure and other measures in the humanitarian area. However, instead of the lifting of sanctions (22, SCR 687) the resolution introduces a new element: a suspension of sanctions. And according to the Explanation of Vote by the US, such a suspension would not imply that the Iraqi Government would regain control over their oil proceeds.

h) In addition, the present deliberations of the US to introduce smart sanctions aim at tightening the UN-control over the oil proceeds, and promise more civilian goods to reach the country. However, without the Iraqi Government having control over its money, the logical conclusion would be that UN-activities are being enlarged accordingly. I believe it is impossible to manage the needs of a whole nation by an Office in New York, and through the cumbersome procedures that include the wilful holding of contracts . To me this would seem to be worse than the economic processes we have seen working in the most inefficiently organized centrally controlled economies of the past.

Prohibition of the State to Fulfil its Obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

"1. Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures (Article 2)."

a) According to letter and spirit of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a Government is responsible for the welfare of its people and obliged to promote it. The Humanitarian Program is supposed to provide only the bare minimum of basic needs to the people in co-operation between the Government and the UN. However, the obstacles created by two members of the Sanctions Committee lead to a situation where the Government cannot fulfil even this task appropriately. And since hardly anybody is knowledgeable of the complicated set-up of the Program, it is easy for those same members to take advantage of this circumstance and reproach the Government for not fulfilling these basic tasks.

b) To conclude: Only a country that is able to exercise its right of self-determination is in a position to implement the International Covenant and fulfil the obligations it entered into when acceding to it. Iraq is being denied this right, which it had aptly fulfilled before sanctions by investing in education, health, infrastructure, and to which it is still committed as I was able to witness.


a) I am pessimistic that the sanctions will ever be lifted. They are too good to be true! With sanctions in place, the Arabic Oil Region is under control, huge amounts of arms can be sold to the neighboring countries, and the potential regional power Iraq is reduced to a weak, disintegrating society -which if continued will pose another regional political problem.

b) However, in order for the Security Council to have no longer any pretext to prolong or continue to re-arrange the sanctions regime, Iraq should as soon as possible receive an endorsement by UNMOVIC that it is clear of weapons of mass destruction. And I am confident that the Iraqi Government will be ready to co-operate, if -but only if- they can expect fair treatment and the actual lifting of sanctions. A dialogue to this effect had been started at the United Nations. Iraq must as soon as possible regain its right to self-determination in order to be able to resume its rightful place in the international community, including as a full OPEC-member and as a constructive actor in the regional context.

(July, 2001)