Global Policy Forum

Iraq and Sanctions: An MCC Comment


Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)

May 29, 1998

Sanctions against Iraq present a moral dilemma to peace-loving Christians. During this past year the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has expanded program activity in response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, provoked in part by the effects of broad economic sanctions. In this commentary we explain MCC's position on these sanctions and why we believe the current sanctions policy is ill conceived and immoral. We also comment on ways we believe these sanctions can be changed.

Seven and a half years of UN Security Council imposed broad economic sanctions against Iraq have produced a state of extreme suffering and deprivation. The initial goal of these sanctions was to press the Iraqi Government to give up its long-range weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical and nuclear). Although many in the international community believe Iraqi leaders have not acted in the best interests of their people, the UN Security Council has also contributed significantly to a major humanitarian disaster in Iraq. Current estimates are that one million people have died prematurely as a result of these sanctions. None of the fifteen members of the Security Council have urged a change in the sanctions to alleviate these harsh humanitarian effects. The United States and the United Kingdom especially seem unwilling to temper their political interests with humanitarian concerns.

For the past two decades, this region of the world has experienced war. The country of Iraq has been involved in much of this and is accused of using weapons of mass destruction outlawed by international conventions it has endorsed. The ability of the international community to negotiate with Iraqi leaders is therefore strained and limited. At the same time, overriding national self-interest within the United Nations has at times made it difficult for diplomatic progress to be achieved. There are examples of UN officials being excessively preoccupied with military/security interests, and of the appearance, if not the reality, of a vendetta. Caught in the middle of this are innocent Iraqi citizens, and especially children, who suffer and die at alarming rates.

Moral responsibility for the plight of these innocent people rests not only with the Iraqi Government but also with the UN Security Council. Regardless of Iraqi actions, the international community shares in the responsibility. The Security Council designed these sanctions to provide incentive for disarmament without envisioning the humanitarian crisis. Now that this crisis has become apparent, there must be greater effort to change the sanctions.

MCC believes that adjusting or discontinuing UN sanctions will improve the plight of Iraqi people and that the international community bears a moral responsibility to do so. As participants in this international community, we seek to remind those national leaders and UN staff who manage these sanctions of their primary responsibility to adopt policies that do not worsen the plight of innocent people, especially children.

Several issues must be addressed at the UN in order to help alleviate the suffering of Iraqi people and ensure a secure future. The following five are identified for attention through the MCC UN Liaison Office in New York:

1. MCC recognizes the desire for disarmament expressed by the Security Council in the resolution that first imposed the sanctions, namely that actions taken by Iraq must represent steps toward the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction. Members of the UN Security Council, in particular the permanent five (US, UK, France, Russia, China), must commit themselves to these goals, and limit their own roles in supplying these weapons to the region.

2. The Security Council must specifically consider the actual humanitarian impact of the sanctions they have imposed on Iraq. The Security Council should request UN humanitarian agencies to submit a report which assesses the impact of sanctions, with a view to loosening or better targeting them.

3. Progress in the process of disarmament should result in the immediate loosening of sanctions. Recent reports from the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggest there has been progress, particularly with respect to long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. Where there are definite, positive steps, sanctions should be eased by the Security Council to lessen the humanitarian impact.

4. Individual governments should take a less restrictive approach to approving items classified as dual usage, namely those with either a military or civilian purpose. Through the Security Council's Sanctions Committee, and through national export regulations, governments have often given politics greater priority than humanitarian necessity. Items intended for humanitarian use (such as plastic sheeting for hospital mattresses and truck tires for ambulances) have been blocked, ostensibly because these have a potential military usage. There must be a greater willingness to rely on the professional UN controls established to monitor usage, rather than rely on excessive bureaucratic procedures outside of the country to limit civilian goods. Such controls are already in place and are able to provide the necessary monitoring process and verifying information.

5. The Security Council should reconsider its distribution under the so-called Oil for Food program. Currently, Iraq is allowed to sell US 5 billion dollars of oil every six months, but 30 percent is designated for Gulf War reparations and 3 percent for UN and UNSCOM administrative costs. Reparations in particular should give way to pressing humanitarian needs, as was done after World War II for Germany and Japan.

MCC calls on humanitarian agencies, and especially those that are Christian or faith-based, to speak with focus and vigor to the suffering that these broad economic sanctions have imposed on Iraqi people, especially children. A reinvigorated moral conviction must drive the international community's relationship with Iraq. Influential nations in the UN, especially the US and Canada, have a moral obligation to respond to the death and suffering of innocents. Disarmament in the Persian Gulf is a legitimate and worthy policy goal, but to do this at the cost of a million sanctions-related deaths, including half a million children, indicates a policy that is morally bankrupt. As Christian people who believe the central human right is the right-to-life, we cannot accept policies that destroy life so blatantly or uncritically. In response, MCC commits itself to the following:

1. Until such time as the broad economic sanctions are lifted, the MCC Washington Office will: 1) regularly report to US Government officials stories about the devastating impact of the sanctions on the Iraqi people, especially children; 2) appeal to the US Government to expedite the licensing procedures for shipment of humanitarian goods to Iraq and to ease the travel restrictions for American humanitarian workers who wish to visit Iraq; 3) together with the MCC Un Liaison Office call for the US Government to advocate in the UN Security Council for a more just response to the current humanitarian crisis; and 4) together with the UN Liaison Office urge the US Government to solicit an independent/objective assessment of the humanitarian impact of sanctions for consideration by the UN Security Council.

2. The MCC Ottawa Office will seek to witness to Canadian government officials on the terrible effects of these broad economic sanctions, and will encourage officials to increase their work in international fora for the purpose of achieving a more just, humane and effective approach toward peace with Iraq and in the region. Together with the UN Liaison Office It will also urge the Canadian Government to solicit an independent/objective assessment of the humanitarian impact of sanctions for Security Council consideration.

3. In Iraq, MCC via the Middle East Office will continue to work with children suffering from leukemia. In addition, MCC will seek ways to address other child health problems, including targeting the vulnerable with nutritional supplements and common medicines. MCC will work in cooperation with hospitals, the Middle East Council of Churches, the Red Crescent Society, and local partners to ensure that resources reach those in need. The ultimate solution to these childhood deprivations is changing or lifting the sanctions, but MCC is committed to doing whatever is possible to alleviate suffering immediately, while petitioning decision makers to change the sanctions causing this suffering.

4. Within this next year, the MCC Peace Office will coordinate several Peace Delegations to visit Iraq. The goal for these visits will be to accompany humanitarian supplies, visit distressed friends and partners, worship with colleagues, and bring the light of Christian concern to people who feel isolated, threatened and cut off from human compassion. Participants will assist with post-visit story-telling and advocacy activities that share direct experience and human images. This effort will counter the definition of Iraqi people as enemies and contribute to building a moral case against prolonged broad economic sanctions against Iraq.

Prepared by:
MCC Peace Office, MCC Middle East Office, MCC Ottawa Office, MCC Washington Office, MCC UN Liaison Office (New York)


(In 1993 the MCC Executive Committee adopted a set of six guidelines for MCC when responding to sanctions regimes imposed as a tool of international relations. Of these six, there may be debate on how the first five relate to Iraq. But on number six, the view of churches and partners in the targeted country, there is no debate. Iraqi citizens, Christian and Muslim alike, seek relief from the regime of international sanctions imposed on them by the United Nations.)

adopted by Executive Committee,
Mennonite Central Committee,
April, 1993.

In considering the issue of sanctions and MCC support for them, the following are some questions to ask:

1. What is the motivation for the imposition of sanctions? Is this an attempt by a government or group of governments to punish an enemy, or is it a method of enforcing international law?

2. Who is asking for sanctions to be imposed? More weight should be given to a broad international consensus, the action of a body like the United Nations, or a broad, grass-roots coalition within the target country. Sanctions imposed by one government alone should be viewed with suspicion.

3. Are the sanctions clearly targeted and is the desired outcome clear? Sanctions are useful when their aim is clearly defined, rather than being open-ended. Nations placed under sanctions should know what they need to do to get these sanctions revoked.

4. Have all possible means of diplomatic pressure been exhausted before imposition of sanctions? Sanctions are blunt instruments which can have long-term effects on economies and quality of life. They should be seen as a drastic measure which is entered into only after efforts to end the problem on other fronts.

5. Do the sanctions make provision of essential food and medicines exempt? Sanctions which starve or endanger ordinary citizens of the targeted country should be opposed.

6. What is the counsel of MCC partner groups within the targeted country? Are the churches and people we relate to calling on us to support sanctions as part of their nonviolent struggle? Or are they asking us to oppose punitive sanctions?


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