For the people of Iraq, normality died in August 1990. Today, in formerly high-tech hospitals, built with petro-dollars and staffed with people who have completed postgraduate training in Britain, Canada and the US, surgery is frequently carried out without anaesthetic; the simplest items, from painkillers to antibiotics, are unavailable. Scanners, X-ray machinery and incubators lie idle for want of spare parts.
To witness the effect of the United Nations embargo is to live with images that haunt. To walk into any hospital ward is to see a look in the eyes of parents of a desperately sick child, which can be instantly translated: one is from outside, so possibly important, can perhaps wave a magic wand, help. Then the look dies...
On a visit to one ward I saw two children with acute myeloid leukaemia - cancers have risen fivefold since the Gulf War; a rise some experts have linked to the depleted uranium weapons used primarily by the US, Britain and France, which left a residue of radioactive dust throughout the country. The younger child, just three, his little body bloated with oedema, bleeding internally, in terrible pain, was making tiny mewing noises. His eyes were filled with tears but he had learned not to cry since it wracked his small frame further and increased the agony. His name translated as the vital one.
The older child, aged five, was in a similar condition, yet when I bent to stroke the pathetic, puffy little face, damp with perspiration, a small hand grabbed mine and he squeezed with all his might. I knew then that it is possible to die of shame.
In 1989 the World Health Organization recorded Iraq as having 92-per-cent access to clean water, 93-per-cent access to high-quality healthcare and with high educational and nutritional standards. By 1995 the World Food Programme noted that: time is running out for the children of Iraq. Figures verified by UNICEF record that 1,211,285 children died of embargo-related causes between August 1990 and August 1997. A silent holocaust in the name of the UN, these numbers are similar to those lost in Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia. It is three times the population of Kuwait in small lives lost. And it is broadly ten times the 130,000 people that Amnesty International estimated to have died in Iraq in the ten years to 1989 as a result of the country's woeful human-rights record.
After 24 years in the field, starting with Biafra, I didn't think anything could shock me, I wrote Dieter Hannusch of the World Food Programme in 1995. But this was comparable to the worst scenarios I had ever seen.
Inflation is stratospheric. When a child who had fainted in school was asked what was wrong, she replied: 'It is not my turn to eat today'. Families eat in rotation so that there is a little more for the others. A new medical diagnosis has manifested itself. Mothers too malnourished to breastfeed and unable to afford milk powder (a tin exceeds a doctor's monthly salary ) feed their babies on sugared water or sugared tea. These babies become chronically malnourished, terribly bloated and almost all die. Doctors call them the 'sugar babies'.
The embargo has meant the death of childhood for those who do survive. There are no birthday parties any more: no-one has the money for presents. Most children since the embargo have never tasted chocolate on a recent visit I bought two chocolate bars and tubes of sweets for a child. They came to 3,000 Iraqi dinars. I realized with shock that I had just spent the monthly salary of my interpreter, who speaks seven languages and has worked all over the world.
Children's bikes, toys, pencils, erasers and exercise books have all been vetoed by the Sanctions Committee; so too have lipstick, sanitary towels and shoelaces. A grandmother living in Britain sent a pair of hand-knitted leggings to her new grandchild in Baghdad and had them returned by the Post Office with the information that she would have to apply to the Department of Trade and Industry for an export licence.
Knowledge itself is embargoed too; medical journals are not allowed. Neither, in 1994, were 500 tonnes of shroud cloth. Sanctions reach beyond the grave - when children born after 1990 die, parents do not even have a photograph to remember them by. Film, even if you can find it, exceeds the average professional's monthly salary - and is always out of date.
Former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark has described the blockade as the most draconian in modern history. In 1919, US President Woodrow Wilson advocated sanctions as a 'quiet but most lethal weapon that exerts a pressure no nation can withstand'.
From 1945 to 1990 there were just three embargoes: Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); South Africa and Cuba. The first two, largely big-business related, affected the populace but did not put them in a straitjacket. The embargo on Cuba has affected normality from medical treatment to pencils, as with Iraq.
From 1990 to 1994 embargoes were implemented against nine countries. In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein remains unaffected while his people suffer. 'Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited,' says the Geneva Convention. Such treatment of civilians - however unscrupulous their ruler - defies international law and runs counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights concluded in 1994 that blockades, sanctions and freezing of assets are 'terrorist acts'. In August 1997 it passed a unanimous resolution condemning the 'adverse consequences of economic sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights'.
The draconian implementation of sanctions has been a war of moving goalposts. The world has mostly forgotten that sanctions were implemented as an alternative to war. Iraq is now a country bombed back to a pre-industrial age for a considerable time to come, according to the UN Special Rapporteur back in 1991. It has suffered grievously from the double standards of the UN, to whom it was one of the first signatories.
It is not the first time. When the Iraqis revolted against British domination in 1919, the Royal Air Force requested authorization from Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State at the War Office, to use chemical weapons 'against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment'. Churchill sanctioned their use, saying: 'I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using [it] against uncivilized tribes.'
Demonizing a nation into sub-humanity was justification for genocide then as now. Whilst the UN and the US deem nations 'pariah states', it is the people not the regimes which suffer. Every time Iraq complies with one condition for the lifting of sanctions, another appears. These include recognizing the border with Kuwait (done); monitoring cameras being installed (done); destruction of armaments (stated by the weapons inspectors as done but since they cannot prove there is not a weapon left in the country this can be open-ended).
While international bureaucrats wrangle at the United Nations, Iraq must prove what few other countries are in a position to prove - that it is adhering to the highest standards of human rights. In the absence of a concrete enemy post-Cold War, Saddam is a convenient demon; a dictator who is also a Muslim. Though Iraq is a Muslim country, it is not militantly so.
In a small grocery store in a poor area of Baghdad early one morning I watched a child of perhaps five, in the mode of small children everywhere, proudly doing a terribly important errand: he bought one egg. A tray of 30 eggs exceeds a university professor's monthly salary. To go to the home of professional, relatively wealthy people and have a dish with tiny pieces of egg in it is to be honoured indeed.
As he left, the child dropped the egg. He fell to the floor, frantically trying to pick the shell, yolk and white, with his small hands, tears streaming down his face. As I reached in my pocket, the shopkeeper gently tapped him on the shoulder and gave him another.
Trauma is everywhere, in every small act. That child will never forget that egg - it could be a metaphor for Iraq, for human rights, for the UN and for the embargo itself, 'the quiet but most lethal weapon'.
Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist specializing in environmental and social issues. She has written and broadcast widely on sanctions in Iraq.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.