Global Policy Forum

U.S. Policy Triumphs In The Security Council


The "Lift the Sanctions" Resolution that Doesn't

By Phyllis Bennis

Institute for Policy Studies
January 11, 2000

Many of the U.S. press reports on the UN's newest Iraq resolution have erroneously described it as "lifting sanctions." It does not. It creates a new arms inspection agency, it tinkers around the edges of some implementation regulations of the oil for food program, it poses hypothetical possibilities of future conditions under which some sanctions might be partially and temporarily suspended -- what it does not do is lift the sanctions.

The AP got much of it right. Describing the 17 December 1999 vote, it said "the Security Council narrowly approved a new UN policy for Iraq today that would restart weapons inspections and offer to suspend sanctions if Baghdad cooperates."

The key points are in the primacy of place given to the weapons inspections, and to the "offer" to "suspend" sanctions. It is also supremely important that the "narrow" vote included abstentions by three of the five permanent members of the Council: only Britain joined the U.S. in voting yes; China, Russia and France, along with non-permanent member Malaysia, all abstained. AP called it "a major blow to U.S. and British efforts to send Baghdad a united signal that the Security Council would stand for nothing less than full compliance with its demands."

Why is the U.S. still pressing this failed sanctions policy? Certainly domestic politics play a key role. The Clinton administration, fearing attacks from the Republican rightwing as the U.S. moves into election frenzy, was eager to look like it was "doing something" -- doing ANYTHING -- to get past the long UN paralysis. And doing something against Iraq, anything that can be morphed into doing something against demon du decade Saddam Hussein, is always a useful political move in Washington. On the day the resolution was signed White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, describing its call for the Iraqi leader to accept UNMOVIC, said "if he doesn't do that he [sic] continues to live in a world of sanctions." Not the Iraq people, of course, only the ubiquitous "he".

Beyond the partisan political factors, the long UN stalemate was also caused partly because of Washington's policy inertia. Two factors combined to make existing policy acceptable: the lack of viable and politically attractive alternatives (Read: telegenic but risk-free attacks on Iraq are not so easy to find), and the fact that the anti-sanctions movement, while stronger than ever, is not yet capable on its own of exacting a high enough political price from supporters of the current sanctions policy. What changed over the course of 1999, and led to a grudging acceptance of the British-Dutch "tinker on the edges" resolution, was primarily a growing concern in Washington for the eroding consensus among Council members, including close allies, in support of the status quo. That discomfiture was helped along by incremental unease over grassroots-driven media attacks, and initial murmurings in congress, about the civilian impact of U.S. economic sanctions.

So what does the resolution actually say? There are essentially four operative parts: first is the creation of a new arms inspection/monitoring agency, called UNMOVIC (UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission), to replace the spy-ridden and discredited UNSCOM. Second is a brief reiteration of earlier demands on Iraq involving repatriation of alleged Kuwaiti and third-country nationals and return of Kuwaiti property.

Third is a set of adjustments to the current oil-for-food regulations, which if implemented would likely result in some incremental improvement in the system's working. And last, the Council indicates its "intention" to temporarily suspend certain parts of the sanctions regime, under specific conditions, for discrete and limited periods of time. The earliest such suspensions could begin would total about a year after passage of the resolution, and the default position would remain that full sanctions stand -- an affirmative Council vote to extend the suspension would be required each time a four-month suspension of part of the sanctions expired.

The resolution does conclude that the Security Council will remain "actively seized of the matter." That is an important, if often ignored, statement that the Council as a whole, not the U.S. or any other country acting alone, holds decision-making power on this issue. But too often in the past Washington has ignored this prohibition on unilateral acts.

So what will be the result of the resolution? On the U.S. media and government propaganda side of things, it likely means greater confusion about current realities, and a more difficult task for the anti-sanctions movement to explain what is going on. We can anticipate new assertions that "Saddam Hussein is responsible" for the suffering of the Iraqi people, that Iraq's rejection of the resolution "proves" its government doesn't care about the suffering of the population, etc.

The Iraqi government did indeed reject the resolution, at least for now, which had been widely expected. Why? Aside from likely concerns about broad questions of sovereignty, the bottom line seems to be the fact that the resolution does not actually lift the sanctions at all -- or even begin the process of lifting. Last September Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told congressional staffers in Baghdad that while his government understood that lifting sanctions might have to be carried out in stages rather than all at once, "the offer cannot be suspension of sanctions, it must be a full lifting."

What's the difference, and why is this so important? Because of investments. Iraq's oil infrastructure, to look at just one aspect of the multi-faceted problem, has never been repaired from the devastation of Desert Storm's bombing. Since then, without funds or spare parts for repairs, it has eroded further. Estimates are that multi-billions of dollars will be needed to invest in repairing the oil drilling and refining equipment to bring it up to speed for full capacity production. That means massive investment from foreign oil companies -- none of whom will be likely to invest more than token "hold my place" amounts of money into Iraq while sanctions are only "suspended," knowing that the default keep-the-sanctions-on position remains, and that any delay or lack of majority in a Security Council vote would mean the reimposition of sanctions, and a new prohibition against repatriating their profits.

The resolution does call for the secretary-general to create a panel of experts to investigate the needs of Iraq's oil industry, including "the options for involving foreign oil companies in Iraq's oil sector, including investments, subject to appropriate monitoring and controls." But it is precisely those controls -- which keep any suspension of sanctions temporary and subject to the political winds of the U.S.-dominated Security Council -- that will prevent serious large-scale investment by any oil company worth its stockholders. However much big oil -- including, undoubtedly, U.S. oil companies -- may WANT to make serious investments in Iraq's once and future oil riches, UN massaging of oil company executives is unlikely to change the stark reality of oil giants not being willing to risk giant investments..

The refusal of this resolution does not reflect an absolutist rejection of any kind of arms monitoring. Aziz also said that if it emerged in the context of simultaneously beginning the lifting of sanctions, "We would accept monitoring to confirm disarmament... If they decide to lift sanctions and say they just want to come to inspect the military for that, it would be hard for our people to understand if we rejected that." Precisely what that means, how serious it is, or how it might be implemented remains unclear. But the key point is that the widely trumped-up claim that Iraq is turning down a reasonable chance to get sanctions lifted just because they won't accept arms monitoring, is false.

One smaller, but important point, is that the common description of UNSCOM being "thrown out of Iraq" is false. Throughout 1998, Baghdad had denied the inspectors access to a small number of particularly sensitive "presidential sites." But most inspections continued. In fact, the November 1998 UNSCOM report that became the pretext for the Desert Fox bombings in December 1998 admitted that "the majority of the inspections of facilities and sites under the ongoing monitoring system were carried out with Iraq's cooperation." Despite that admission in the main body of his report, UNSCOM chief Richard Butler's account (issued after extensive consultations with Sen. Joseph Biden and other U.S. officials at the U.S. Mission to the UN, before the report was even submitted to the Security Council), concluded that his "Commission is not able to conduct the substantive disarmament work mandated to it by the Security Council." In response, and having been given advance notice by Washington of the imminent bombings, Butler withdrew the UNSCOM staff just ahead of the Desert Fox airstrikes, claiming it was solely for the protection of his inspectors. They left, they were not thrown out.


A number of aspects of the new inspection agency reflect international anger at the secret hijacking of UNSCOM's work by intelligence operatives answerable to the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. agreed, under French duress and with some unease that continued a Council stalemate might result in no agreement at all, to create the new agency with greater accountability to the Secretary-General, rather than to the Council alone. The resolution states that UNMOVIC's staff will be "international civil servants subject to Article 100 of the Charter." That refers to the requirement that UN "staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the Organization." Further, "Each Member of the United Nations undertakes to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff, and not seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities."

In practice, it means that UNMOVIC's expert technicians will be UN staff members accountable to the UN Secretariat (not least because they will be paid by the secretariat). They will not be military or intelligence personnel temporarily seconded to a Council-controlled agency like UNSCOM. The UNSCOM staff, mostly U.S., continued to be paid by, and remained accountable to, their national military or intelligence agency superiors. As well, there is a specific call for UNMOVIC's experts to be "drawn from the broadest possible geographical base," and for them to receive not only technical but "high quality ... cultural training." Including that language does not, of course, guarantee that the Pentagon, the CIA, and/or the Mossad will not try to infiltrate spies into UNMOVIC's staff. But it does identify such efforts, publicly and in advance, as illegal, and puts the question of geographical diversity, especially North-South representation, high on the agenda.

But the new agency will still remain focused on finding whatever last shreds of evidence may remain of Iraq's past weapons of mass destruction programs. Its job will be to "undertake the responsibilities mandated to the Special Commission [UNSCOM] by the Council ... [It] will establish and operate ... a reinforced system of ongoing monitoring and verification, which will implement the plan approved BY the Council in resolution 715 (1991) and address unresolved disarmament issues." It will not take up the requirements of Article 14 of Resolution 687, or the goals set in its Preamble, to create a nuclear weapons-free zone, or a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, or a global ban on chemical weapons. It says nothing regarding the release of UNSCOM's still-classified records documenting the sources of Iraq's weapons materials (mostly the U.S., France and Russia), even though it specifically "decides that UNMOVIC shall take over all ... archives of the Special Commission." And it does nothing even to begin monitoring, let alone stopping, the flood of weapons, overwhelmingly from the U.S., conventional or not, into Iraq's neighborhood, whether the nuclear-armed Israel or the rest of the arms-glutted region.

UNMOVIC, like UNSCOM, demands "immediate, unconditional and unrestricted access to any and all areas, facilities, equipment, records and means of transport which they wish to inspect," thus laying a foundation for future disagreements. It should not be forgotten that one incident of alleged Iraqi non-compliance highlighted in Butler's 1998 report involved UNSCOM's demand for unfettered access to the top Ba'ath Party headquarters. While arguably included in Iraq's promise earlier that year to allow "unrestricted" access, it was hardly a politically reasonable request -- if the goal was real disarmament rather than political provocation.

Unlike its predecessor, UNMOVIC is charged with identifying "the key remaining disarmament tasks to be completed by Iraq pursuant to its obligations ... [and] what is required of Iraq for the implementation of each task shall be clearly defined and precise." While it remains uncertain how this might be interpreted, it leaves open the future possibility of putting the Council -- and the U.S. -- on record in stating once and for all just what would constitute fulfillment of Iraq's obligations leading to the complete lifting of economic sanctions. HOWEVER -- that remains only a future possibility. As written, the resolution does not provide any substantive guidelines for what actions would satisfy the U.S. and the Council.


This brief section reiterates Iraq's obligations to cooperate with the ICRC and facilitate the repatriation of Kuwaiti and other nationals, and calls on the secretary-general to report to the Council every four months regarding Iraq's compliance with its requirements for repatriation and return of allegedly stolen Kuwaiti property.

The significance here is in the shift from using this issue as a pretext, as the U.S. did until last year, to explain why sanctions would remain even if Iraq complied with all UN weapons requirements. Now the Council put it on the back burner, linking it to some future lifting of sanctions but decoupling the issue from the current call for suspension.


This section was drafted based on the accurate if unspoken assumption that economic sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future. It modifies some aspects of the oil for food program, in order to claim the Council is "doing something" to improve the lot of the Iraqi people, but it does nothing to change, or even mitigate, the program's complete inability even to begin the costly rehabilitation of Iraq's human, social, and physical infrastructure. It does not return control of its revenues to Iraq, and does not end the "dual use" restrictions on purchased goods.

The resolution begins by lifting the cap on amounts of oil Iraq can sell. That may have some significance in the short-term, while oil prices remain high, but is unlikely to remain permanently important. The reason has to do with the degradation of Iraq's oil infrastructure; it is pumping now at virtually top capacity, and is just barely over the edge of the earlier $5.2 billion/six months export limit. When oil prices drop back down, Iraq will be unlikely to be able to increase production anywhere near enough to keep income levels up.

Some modicum of streamlining is made in how the oil for food process operates. Article 27 calls for the Council to compile "lists of humanitarian items, including foodstuffs, pharmaceutical and medical supplies, as well as basic or standard medical and agricultural equipment and basic or standard educational items" to be pre-approved for purchase with oil for food funds. That would mean that contracts for those items, once the list is approved, would not have to be submitted to the Council at all; rather Iraq would only have to notify the secretary-general (meaning the secretariat staff, not the Council's "661 Committee") of purchases made of those items. Council approval for each separate shipment of rice or tea or aspirin, with the likelihood of U.S. obstructionism at every turn, would not be required for items on the pre-approved list.

However, the "dual use" restrictions remain in effect, so the items that can be pre-approved will be limited. Contracts for "dual use" items -- which as before will likely be identifiable more by their exclusion from the pre-approved list than from any existing or future list of dual use restrictions -- will still have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the 661 Committee, with all of its existing problems caused by deliberate politically-motivated delays; inadequate, delayed and/or poor quality fulfillment of contracts; bureaucratic snags, etc. A rather confusing reference (Article 25) sets a goal of two days for the 661 Committee to make decisions on all applications for humanitarian and "essential civilian needs" -- one can assume that that refers to the "dual use" items that remain under the 661 Committee's control, as well as humanitarian items not included in the food, medical, agricultural or educational pre-approved lists.

A new panel of experts, appointed jointly by the 661 Committee and the secretary-general, will be created to "approve speedily" oil parts and equipment contracts, with the goal of "enabling Iraq to increase its exports of petroleum and petroleum products." But the distant and temporary nature of the sanctions' suspension means serious rehabilitation of the oil equipment remains far off.

The resolution calls on the secretariat to minimize the cost of implementing the oil for food program, including the cost of inspection agents and accountants, but it still makes Iraq, through oil for food revenues, "liable for the full costs of UNMOVIC and the IAEA," thus insuring that not all the money earned through oil for food will be available for humanitarian purposes. However, the resolution does temporarily suspend (for six months beginning with the date the resolution passes) the current diversion of 30% of oil for food money off the top to the Kuwait reparations fund. This may be the one aspect of the resolution with the potential to actually improve, if only incrementally, the humanitarian situation in Iraq, by releasing an additional 30% of oil for food funds for purchase of civilian goods.

(It is likely quite deliberate that the paragraph mandating suspension of that 30% diversion is written in a diplo-speak more densely impenetrable than any other part of the resolution. It requires deconstructing the Council decision "to suspend, for an initial period of six months from the date of the adoption of this resolution and subject to review, the implementation of paragraph 8(g) of resolution 986 (1995)." Paragraph 8(g) of 986 refers to making available without explanation "up to 10 million U.S. dollars every 90 days ... for the payments envisaged under paragraph 6 of resolution 778 (1992.)" Resolution 778, with no further clarification, turns out to refer back further still to resolutions 706 and 712, both of 1991.... and etc. One can only assume that the drafters' goals included making sure that casual readers and congressional Republicans did not easily grasp the reference to abandoning, at least for a moment, Washington's near decade-long commitment to restoring treasures lost by the Kuwaiti emir and millions lost by U.S. oil companies. The small portions of the reparations fund that go to Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Palestinians and others who lost everything during the brief Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and its much longer bitter aftermath, are likely of far less political consequence.)

The resolution calls on UN member states and non-governmental organizations to supplement the oil for food program with additional humanitarian assistance to Iraq. While not a new proposal for the UN resolutions, it does provide an opportunity to show the dissociation between the harsh U.S. unilateral sanctions that prohibit most such humanitarian assistance, and the ostensibly humanitarian goal of [at least this paragraph] the UN resolution.

The resolution calls on Iraq to extend "full cooperation" with the UN's de-mining operation throughout northern Iraq. Currently de-mining operations are underway only in the South. Given the continuing U.S. acceptance of Turkey's periodic invasions and temporary occupations of parts of northern Iraq within the U.S. "no fly zone," there may be significant Iraqi resistance to this. And one can envision such rejection being used as a further U.S. excuse to claim Iraqi "non-compliance" with the resolution as a whole, thus delaying even the "suspension" of sanctions.

Part D -- A Possible Future Partial Temporary Suspension of Some Sanctions

In a consciously complex delineation of time-lines and requirements in Article 33, the Council "expresses its intention" after a host of waiting periods and provision of evidence of Iraqi compliance, "to suspend ... for a period of 120 days ... prohibitions against the import of commodities and products originating in Iraq, and prohibitions against the sale, supply and delivery to Iraq of civilian commodities..."

The suspension of import and export sanctions could be renewed by the Council by a new vote. Or it could not. Without such an affirmative vote the suspension would collapse, and the default position of existing sanctions would be reimposed. Sanctions would also resume "if at any time the Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC or the Director General of the IAEA reports that Iraq is not cooperating fully with UNMOVIC or the IAEA or if Iraq is in the process of acquiring any prohibited items." In such a case, presumably after the mere assertion of such violations by the head of either agency, the suspension "shall terminate on the fifth working day following the report, unless the Council decides to the contrary." Again, default return to sanctions absent an affirmative Council vote.

The timing provides even more restrictions. Article 33's temporary suspension would only begin after reports by the UNMOVIC and IAEA chiefs that Iraq has cooperated fully with the new monitoring system for 120 days. Working backwards, that four months cannot begin until after the Council receives reports that the new monitoring system is operational -- and those first reports can begin only three months after work on the Council-approved plan starts. Council approval of the work plan and preparation of the list of remaining tasks for Iraq to complete, can take place sixty days after UNMOVIC begins work in Iraq. The new UNMOVIC chairman will submit his or her organizational and staffing plan to the Council 45 days after being selected. And selection of the new UNMOVIC chair must be appointed within 30 days of the resolution's December 17 passage.

So -- assuming everything runs exactly on time, and assuming no political or diplomatic delays (a dicey proposition at best), the EARLIEST some economic sanctions might be considered for temporary suspension would be eleven and one-half months, almost a year, after 17 December 1999.

One year longer means an awful lot more dying babies.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is "Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN."

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