Sanctions are inhumane and hypocritical

I was delighted to discover Mark Passwater’s column in The Minnesota Daily, as I’m interpreting its presence as a sign that those opposed to the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iraq are making enough of an impact to merit his condemnation.
That said, Passwater’s essay wonderfully parroted the conventional wisdom, but did little to elucidate the reasons a broad swath of peace and human rights activists, legal scholars and religious leaders oppose the United States’ and United Nations’ campaign of civilian immiserization in Iraq. While the author is correct in his characterization of Saddam Hussein as a brutal dictator, Hussein’s unsavoriness alone does not warrant the suffering of the Iraqi people.
To employ Passwater’s logic, it is not only acceptable, but indeed desirable, to starve and otherwise destroy a civilian population for the repressive nature of its leadership. To translate this policy formula into human terms, the U.N. sanctions the author advocates have killed several hundred Iraqi children and adults — but mostly children — since his column appeared on Friday.
Passwater noted that “nobody ever concluded” that U.S. regional goals “would be simple or painless,” and thus he counseled “stronger enforcement” of the sanctions regime. The columnist is presumably unaware that this prescription for U.S. policy runs contrary to established international human rights law.
In maintaining the sanctions, the United States is violating fundamental tenets of established and customary international law. The Geneva Conventions, for example, prohibit the “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare,” as well as the attack, destruction, removal or rendering useless of “objects indispensable” to agricultural production and irrigation works “for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.”
Tellingly, the United States has refused to entertain the idea of divorcing military or more targeted sanctions from those now broadly levied against Iraq. The rationale is presumably identical to that presently driving U.S. sanctions policy in Yugoslavia with only the target differing: “A cold and hungry population is more likely to try to overthrow Mr. Milosevic,” writes Steven Erlanger in the New York Times.
The sanctions regime could arguably be justified if it were overwhelmingly supported by the Iraqi civilian population as part of a domestic campaign to democratize Iraq. That was the case, for example, with South Africa in the 1980s, when millions of black South Africans supported the sanctions regime levied against their country in an effort to undermine the white supremacist government. To a lesser extent, that is also the present case with Burma, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and others in the National League for Democracy have called — thus far with only limited success — for international action against the repressive government of Myanmar.
However, this is not the case with Iraq, where the civilian population remains steadfastly opposed to the sanctions, which are responsible for the nation’s severe misery.
One could contest Passwater’s “logic:” (the sanctions have failed for nearly a decade, so they must continue), and the alleged “facts:” (money entering Iraq “goes directly into the coffers of Hussein and his Ba’ath Party”) he marshals to support it, but such an exercise would be missing the larger point.
Passwater does not explain how the United States — which, with its nuclear arsenal, has refused to endorse the concept of “no first use” and which recently failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — acquired the moral authority to condemn Iraq for its “weapons of mass destruction program” while ignoring that of Israel.
Nor does he articulate how Washington can genuinely claim to be acting in the protection of “hundreds of thousands of Israelis, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Iranians and probably Americans (who) would suffer under a Hussein freed from the shackles of sanctions” while having explicitly endorsed the legitimacy of international aggression by illegally invading four countries in the past two years alone: Afghanistan, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Iraq, with the bombing of the last continuing to the present.
Finally, Passwater fails to note that the United States for years supported the Hussein regime as it not only waged war against Iran, but also repressed the democratic aspirations of its domestic population. The United States is now terrorizing these same Iraqi civilians in its alleged effort to undermine the “Hitler” its own policies helped to create.
Cynics might point to Indonesia, Zaire, Panama, the Philippines and other states in which Washington has been forced to reverse its support for murderous clients as kin to the present U.S. relationship with the regime in Baghdad, and thus question what the United States is doing nurturing such governments in the first place.
However, one need only resort to moral considerations in opposing the truly “barbaric” sanctions decimating the civilian population of Iraq. Such critical political analyses are important but unnecessary on this issue. Comprehension of the dilemma is simple: Thousands of innocent children and adults are dying in Iraq every month, and Passwater, echoing the Clinton administration, is insistent this continue. Simple human solidarity demands that this murderous policy be altered.

Scott Laderman is a graduate student in the University’s Program in American Studies.