No country had ever been subjected to more comprehensive economic sanctions than Iraq, enforced mainly by US and UK.
They must have known, mustn’t they? How could they not? Perhaps they chose not to know. With the world commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the nazi-run death camps the question of what ordinary Germans knew (and did) about the genocide their government was perpetrating has once again been in the news.
Of course, the assumption behind much of the coverage of the liberation of Belsen and other camps is that we, living enlightened lives in contemporary Britain, are lucky to live in a society where horrendous crimes do not happen. And if they did, they would be quickly reported by our free and stroppy media and quickly halted.
But what if our own government has been responsible for genocide-level suffering, without the media raising the alarm and therefore leaving the general public in a state of ignorance?
What would this say about our political class? What would it say about the media? And what would it say about us?
Unfortunately this isn’t a hypothetical debate but the cold, brutal reality.
To understand this distressing fact we need to return to February 1991 when the US-led coalition kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, which it had illegally invaded in August 1990.
According to John Hoskins, a Canadian doctor leading a Harvard study team, the US-led air assault “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq — electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and healthcare.” Purportedly to compel Saddam Hussein’s government to give up its weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the UN imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, which lasted until the 2003 invasion. The sanctions regime was enforced by the US and Britain which took the toughest line on compliance.
“No country had ever been subjected to more comprehensive economic sanctions by the United Nations than Iraq,” notes Hans Von Sponeck, the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, in his 2006 book A Different Kind of War.
“Communicable diseases in the 1980s not considered public health hazards, such as measles, polio, cholera, typhoid, marasmus and kwashiorkor, reappeared on epidemic scales.”
In 1999 the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimated that over 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died because of a lack of medication, food or safe water supplies.
To counter some of the worst effects of sanctions, in 1996 the UN set up the Oil-For-Food Programme, which allowed Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other goods.
However, the programme was far from adequate. “At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food Programme”, Von Sponeck notes in his book.
In 1998/99, each Iraqi received a food allocation of $49 (£32) — 27 (19p) cents a day – for a six month period. In contrast, the dogs the UN used to help de-mine Iraq each received a food allocation of $160.
In protest at what 70 members of the US congress called “infanticide masquerading as policy,” Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq who ran the sanctions regime, resigned in 1998. Noting the sanctions were causing the deaths of up to 5,000 children a month, Halliday bluntly stated: “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.”
Speaking to journalist John Pilger, Halliday later explained: “I was instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide — a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.”
Halliday’s successor Von Sponeck resigned in protest two years later, asking in his resignation letter: “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Later he told Pilger: “I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable.”
Making a hat-trick, Jutta Burghardt, head of the UN World Food Programme in Iraq, resigned two days after Von Sponeck, describing the sanctions regime as “a true humanitarian tragedy.”
With a few honourable exceptions such as Pilger, Tony Benn and George Galloway, the response of the British political class and media was either to ignore or dismiss the fact sanctions were killing Iraqis on a mass scale.
According to the media watchdog Media Lens, in 2003 Halliday was mentioned in just two of the 12,366 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning Iraq. Von Sponeck was mentioned a grand total of five times in the same year. Von Sponeck’s book on the sanctions has never been reviewed in the British press, and has been mentioned just once — by the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk.
Echoing the denials of new Labour ministers such as Peter Hain and Robin Cook, in 2002 Observer Editor Roger Alton responded to a reader challenging him about the sanctions, stating: “It’s Saddam who’s killing all the bloody children, not sanctions. Sorry.” The highly respected Middle East specialist Professor Fred Halliday was equally dismissive, rubbishing “claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food” in a book review in the Independent in 1999.
The governing elite, assisted by a pliant media and the silence of much of academia, have carried out a magic trick of epic, sinister proportions. In a world of 24-hour news culture they have effectively managed to bury the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a direct result of British foreign policy.
The lack of coverage, concern or discussion today about the sanctions shows how shockingly successful they have been in this endeavour.
As Harold Pinter sarcastically noted in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”
No conspiracy is needed. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban,” George Orwell argued in his censored preface to Animal Farm.
He provides two reasons for thought control in democratic society — first, the owners of the British press, socially, politically and economically part of the governing elite, “have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.” And second, he explains: “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.
As always, it’s up to those who care about the lives of people regardless of their nationality or skin colour, who care about truth, who take their responsibility as world citizens seriously, to raise their voice and remember this moral and historical outrage.
- Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair.