Government claims of concern for the welfare of ordinary Iraqis ring hollow when set against the damage done by 12 years of sanctions, says Mike Aaronson
[The Independent - Friday February 21, 2003]:
In the debate over the pros and cons of a war in Iraq, the government's new concern for the interests of ordinary Iraqi people is very welcome.
But it rings hollow when one considers that the UK, in its role as a member of the UN security council, could have done so much more to modify a sanctions regime that has brought enormous suffering to Iraqi children and their families over the past 12 years.
Despite the government's insistence that a war would be on humanitarian grounds, no funding has been forthcoming to support efforts to prepare for the potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences of military action.
While the Ministry of Defence has been given a multi-billion pound warchest, the Department for International Development has not received a penny of extra cash, either for its own work or to pass on to humanitarian agencies trying to make contingency plans.
These agencies are deeply concerned that humanitarian preparations are woefully inadequate. They are calling on the government to make funds ensuring that the suffering of Iraqi civilians is minimised available immediately.
Tony Blair has presented us with a choice between war and the continuation of sanctions. There is little evidence of humanitarian concern in this.
The UN predicts that 1 million under-fives in Iraq could die from malnutrition if there is a war. Under the UN's current oil for food programme, 16 million people, or 60% of Iraqis, are dependent on a basic food ration. This is more than the number of people needing food aid in Ethiopia or the whole of southern Africa.
The primary victims of sanctions, the poor, the old, the sick, and women and children, are not responsible for the policies of the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. They are also the least able to change them because of their acute vulnerability.
Furthermore, sanctions have made the Iraqi population dependent on the country's government and the UN for food rations, medicine, and other essentials.
Mortality among under-fives in Iraq has increased by 166% under sanctions. No other country in the world has seen its health standards deteriorate this rapidly. Hundreds of thousands of children have now died, unnecessarily, in Iraq during the last decade.
The Iraqi regime must bear a heavy responsibility for the suffering of its people, but it is an uncomfortable fact that most indices of human development were improving prior to the 1991 war. They have worsened dramatically since the imposition of sanctions.
Part of the blame, therefore, must lie with governments who have supported the sanctions regime, using their powers of veto to block modifications that could have alleviated Iraqi suffering while maintaining pressure on Saddam's government.
British governments, both Conservative and Labour, have been leading exponents of the continuation of sanctions in the UN security council.
On the basis of Save the Children's experience of the effects of sanctions, we have, for more than six years, campaigned for the replacement of the existing sanctions regime with one targeting the Iraqi government and its military machine.
If the British government pursued such a policy, it would represent a much clearer indication of concern for the people of Iraq than Mr Blair's options of war or continuation with the current sanctions regime.
In the event of conflict, it is likely that there would be a sudden collapse of the countrywide food ration distribution system.
Around 1,000 UN staff, upon whom the oil for food programme relies to verify the arrival of imports, pay suppliers, and pass food on to some 45,000 Iraqi food agents, will be evacuated. Within weeks, this will result in real hunger among the poorer sections of the community.
If the electricity infrastructure is bombed, as it was in 1991, water and sewage systems would also collapse, leading to the rapid onset of disease.
Families headed by professionals only have incomes of between $3 and $6 per month, on top of the basic food ration received by Iraq's whole population. Poorer families have no income, and have been selling their basic rations in order to obtain cash for other essentials. They will be the most vulnerable in the event of a conflict.
A British government genuinely committed to putting the interests of ordinary Iraqis first would ensure that any coalition forces took every possible step to protect the vital infrastructure on which food and water supplies depend.
It would ensure that access to food and other humanitarian needs, under the supervision of the UN, not military forces, was secured as soon as possible. It would commit to providing the finance to make this happen, without diverting scarce humanitarian resources from the current enormous food crises afflicting Africa.
Considering all the options from the perspective of Iraqi citizens, and making firm commitments to protect their vital interests, would be much more likely to convince the British public that their government is really committed to the welfare of Iraqi people.
· Mike Aaronson is director-general of Save the Children.
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