Select Committee on Economic Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Mr Carne Ross, Independent Diplomat[1] and former British diplomat


  1.  This evidence derives from my work on sanctions, in particular on Iraq, as a British diplomat. I was a member of the Foreign Office from 1989 until my resignation in 2004. From late 1997 until June 2002, I was First Secretary (Political) at the UK Mission to the United Nations in New York. I was head of the Middle East section in the political section of the Mission, where I supervised two other diplomats. My primary responsibility was policy on Iraq, where I was responsible for reporting on and participating in discussions and negotiations at the UN Security Council (UNSC) (I was also responsible for other issues including Israel/Palestine, Libya/Lockerbie, the Western Sahara and Afghanistan). Inter alia, I helped prepare and negotiate many resolutions on Iraq concerning sanctions and weapons inspections, including resolution 1284 (1999) which established UNMOVIC, the UN weapons-inspection agency. As part of this work, I was closely involved in the internal British government review which led to the concept of "smart sanctions" on Iraq, a new design of the sanctions regime which was eventually implemented in 2002.[2] I resigned from the Foreign Office in 2004 after giving testimony to the official inquiry into the uses of intelligence on Iraq's WMD (the "Butler Review").


  2.  There has yet to be an authoritative history of sanctions on Iraq. The Volcker inquiry provides some well-researched, careful and balanced analysis of the oil-for-food programme, and thus some crucial aspects of the Iraq sanctions experience, in particular the UN management of the programme, but—despite its length—the report is by no means comprehensive. Nevertheless, from the considerable evidence so far available, it is possible to draw some important lessons for the future:

  3.  First, and most important, the humanitarian impact of sanctions should be carefully considered in the design of any sanctions regime. The combination of sanctions and Saddam's manipulations of the OFF programme together contributed to considerable suffering and distress among ordinary Iraqis during the sanctions years. During the years I worked on sanctions, I met innumerable international humanitarian groups and ordinary Iraqis who testified to the deleterious effects of sanctions. The OFF programme was designed to ameliorate this suffering but by the time it was implemented (in 1996) enormous damage had already been done. Thanks to the unreliability of Iraqi statistics in this period, we will never know the true effects. But the consensus is clear among NGOs and Iraqis. The weight of evidence clearly indicates that sanctions caused massive human suffering among ordinary Iraqis, in particular children, and equally massive damage to Iraq's economy and civilian infrastructure, damage for which Iraq is still paying today. We—the US and UK governments who were the primary engineers and defenders of sanctions—were well-aware of this evidence at the time, but we largely ignored it or blamed all these effects on the Saddam government. While the Iraqi government did deliberately impede the full implementation of the OFF programme (initially by failing to agree the programme, and later for instance by interfering with distribution of goods or cutting off oil supplies to deny funds to the programme), these manipulations account only for part of the damage done by sanctions. Sanctions effectively destroyed the Iraqi civilian economy, denying the entire population the means to live, and forcing them into dependence on UN and government-supplied rations. The effect of the import ban was primarily felt by the civilian population and not the government elites, who were insulated by illegal oil revenues and sanctions-busting imports. In other words, the sanctions affected precisely the wrong people. Not only was this a grave moral failing, but this also undermined the political support necessary to maintain sanctions (see below).

  4.  Related to this, the second important lesson is that any sanctions regime should be carefully targeted on those whose behaviour sanctions are trying to affect. Sanctions on Iraq were successful in many significant ways. They prevented Iraq from significantly rearming with either conventional or unconventional weapons. During the period I worked on the subject (until mid-2002), it was the private and considered view of both the UK and US governments that Iraq had no substantial WMD stocks or the means to deliver them. We believed that sanctions had prevented any substantial rearmament by Iraq. And in these terms, sanctions were a success in effecting the US/UK strategy of "containment". But in terms of their stated goals (as elaborated in the Security Council resolutions, and in particular resolution 687), sanctions were only sporadically effective in forcing the Saddam government to comply with Iraq's obligations to cooperate fully with weapons inspections and fully verify its disarmament of WMD. In other ways, sanctions had perverse effects. The Saddam government used sanctions to portray Iraq as a "victim" of unfair US policies, and to portray Saddam Hussein himself as an heroic rebel against western hegemony. Moreover, the design of the OFF programme reinforced the government's control over its population. It did this in two ways: firstly, as sanctions had largely destroyed the non-government civilian economy, ordinary people were denied the means to support themselves, making them dependent on UN and government-distributed rations; secondly, the UN itself was obliged to rely on the government to distribute OFF goods to civilians. This delivered an enormous power to the government, courtesy of the UN Security Council. In the UK and US governments, we were fully aware of this deficiency but did nothing to amend it.

  5.  Third, to be effective, sanctions regimes must be properly supervised and policed. Modern economies are complex. There are innumerable ways in which governments or officials can evade sanctions. The Volcker Report and the Iraq Survey Group's report both describe in detail the many ways that the Saddam regime illegally imported prohibited goods and illegally exported oil, outside of the UN escrow account. The principal source of illegal revenue for the Saddam regime was not, as is commonly believed, abuse of the OFF programme (eg through false pricing or "kickback" bribes from suppliers). Instead, the major source of illegal revenue was oil exports outside of the programme, in particular to Turkey, Jordan, Syria and through the Gulf to other recipients. These illegal exports amounted to an estimated[3] $12 billion, far exceeding the approximately $1.75 billion the regime gained from abuse of the OFF programme. The Saddam government was assisted in this source of illegal revenue by its neighbours, above all Jordan, Turkey and Syria, who allowed and in some cases (particularly Syria) facilitated the exports and sometimes themselves purchased the illegally-exported oil.

  6.  Again, both the US and UK governments were aware of this activity (though we underestimated its true scale), but turned a blind eye to it, since both Turkey and Jordan were regarded as "allies". Officials in both governments on several occasions tried to persuade our governments to take more robust action to stop these illegal exports. But we were not successful. Both the US and UK governments will now argue that they tried to take action against this smuggling but were blocked by French and Russian obstruction in the Security Council. This was true, but it was not the whole truth. In reality, the US turned a very deliberate blind eye to smuggling by Turkey and Jordan in particular, but also the Gulf states. The Iraq Survey Group estimated that most of approx $12 billion in illegal revenues came through the so-called trade protocols with Jordan and Turkey. It would not have required Security Council agreement to persuade the Turks or others of Iraq's neighbours (who at the end of the day were dependent on the US for their security) to stop the smuggling. It would have required a sustained and energetic diplomatic campaign, supported by technical expertise in border monitoring, work to control goods going into and out of Iraq and the tough and complicated work to target Saddam's illegal overseas financial holdings. This was never done. Not only would such a campaign have increased the funds available to the humanitarian programme, but it would also have removed the means on which the Saddam regime relied to pay his troops, build his palaces and, to the limited extent that he did, rearm. Without this illegal income, the regime would have been severely weakened and perhaps would have collapsed. This can now never be proved, but such a policy could have provided an alternative to war.

  7.  Fourth, and following the point above, any sanctions regime, but particularly massive and complex regimes of the kind imposed on Iraq require an enormous amount of official work to monitor, amend and supervise. Although the UK and US devoted more staff to Iraq sanctions than most countries, it is now clear that our resources were inadequate to the enormous and complicated task before us. Volcker took 18 months, spent around $35 million and employed approximately100 experienced investigators to perform his investigation. In both the US and UK governments, the number of officials working directly on sanctions/OFF issues was no more than a handful. Maintaining any sanctions regime requires a constant and detailed effort, involving many different arms of government, as many strands of policy must be brought together, including intelligence, diplomacy, and technical assessment (eg of the complicated technology of so-called "dual-use" goods). We should have established a multi-disciplinary unit of this kind. Instead, both governments relied on a scattered group of officials, who worked hard but whose efforts could have been much more effectively coordinated. Moreover, the "churn" of officials through the desks in London in particular meant that many lessons were repeatedly relearned.

  8.  Connected to this point is the role of the UN. The Volcker Report has comprehensively described the many failings of the Office of the Iraq Programme (OIP), the UN body which ran the OFF programme. Significantly, Volcker said that the failings of the OIP were typical of broader problems within the UN. The UN itself must bear considerable blame for those failings. There is much to do to remedy and improve management culture and oversight in that body. Reform is underway. The world needs an effective and respected UN: we should all therefore hope and ensure that these reforms are implemented and are successful in producing a transparent, incorrupt and efficient UN. But there are lessons for our own governments too, in this case the US and UK. In retrospect, the member states should have done much more to supervise the OIP and OFF programmes. While we were at the time aware of some of the problems in the programme, for instance kickback payments by suppliers, we did little about them. One clear lesson from the OFF debacle is that those states which care most about such things (in this case the US and UK) must intrude into and interrogate more aggressively the UN bodies charged with implementing such programmes.

  9.  The Volcker inquiry revealed that some 2,200 companies internationally were involved in illegal dealings with Iraq both under and separately from the OFF programme. Some of these companies were American, others were British. The responsibility to investigate and supervise the activities of these companies fell and falls to national governments, not the UN. In most cases, our governments approved and authorised these companies to do business under the OFF programme. Clearly, in retrospect, our governments should have done more in way of supervision of the companies involved (for instance, by examining their accounts, interviewing company officials etc) to prevent and investigate any illegal activity. It is not clear that even today, after the Volcker inquiry, all wrongdoing by these companies will be investigated and, where necessary, punished.

  10.  Fifth, to be effective any international sanctions regime must enjoy broad political support. By the time I worked on Iraq in the UN Security Council in the late 1990's, sanctions were widely seen in the international community as unfair and cruel punishment on the Iraqi people. The evidence of humanitarian distress was mounting. US and UK arguments to sustain sanctions, on the grounds that Iraq had not fully complied with its obligations to disarm, were seen as poorly-founded and were undermined by statements, for instance by then-President Clinton, that sanctions would be maintained as long as Saddam remained in power ie by implication that sanctions would remain even if Iraq fully complied with its disarmament obligations. Weapons inspections were seen as increasingly nugatory: after the mid-1990's the inspectors found no substantial stocks of illegal weapons, but were instead engaged in a confrontational and aggressive cat-and-mouse game with the Iraqi government. We maintained (correctly) that Iraq had failed fully to account for its past WMD holdings or to provide full access to its WMD sites or personnel. But by many this was seen as insufficient grounds to maintain comprehensive economic sanctions. As a result, we had more and more difficulty passing resolutions in the Security Council to maintain the pressure on Iraq. Although there was little chance of sanctions being lifted (which would have required a resolution of the UNSC which we could veto), there was dwindling enthusiasm for their maintenance. France, Russia, China and others (many of whom had significant economic interests in Iraq) became more and more vociferous in attacking sanctions and urging that Iraq be "rewarded" for its progress in disarmament so far (for example, in the nuclear "file", where Iraq had by 1999 substantially cooperated with the IAEA). Sanctions-busting, such as allowing flights to Iraq, became more egregious. Any pressure we put on Iraq's neighbours to comply with sanctions (which was in any case sporadic and inconsistent) was often ignored. The Saddam government began to claim that sanctions were crumbling and it was the US and UK, not Iraq, which faced diplomatic isolation. It took the threat of invasion in 2003 for Iraq finally to accept UNMOVIC, the UN weapons inspection agency, and at last cooperate in the Security Council's demands.

  11.  In relation to this point, sixthly, it can be seen from the above that support for sanctions, and thus their effectiveness, in any particular case, is related to whether they are seen internationally as legitimate. When agreed in 1990, comprehensive sanctions were widely regarded as a proportionate response to Iraq's illegal invasion of Kuwait. But as time went by, and the humanitarian damage wrought by sanctions became clearer (and as Iraq complied to some extent, but never fully, with its disarmament obligations), international support waned. By contrast, in the case of sanctions on Libya (imposed after the indictment of two Libyan agents for the Lockerbie bombing), which I also worked on in the UN Security Council, sanctions were much more narrowly targeted (an arms embargo, and bans on flights and associated aviation activities). Although Libya complained loudly at the "injustice" of sanctions, and attempted to claim that they were causing humanitarian damage, the Security Council maintained the sanctions with fewer breaches and greater political pressure on Libya to comply (though even here it took a major change in the terms of compliance for Libya eventually to comply).

  12.  This point leads on to an important conclusion about the objectives of sanctions. With Libya, the aim of sanctions was clear and easily-stated: the handover of those indicted for Lockerbie to the courts concerned (first a Scottish court, but later amended to a Scottish court convened in The Hague). In theory, Security Council resolution (SCR) 687 clearly stated the requirements for Iraq to fulfil in order for sanctions to be lifted: the verifiable disarmament of its WMD and missiles, and Iraq's continuing cooperation with the weapons inspectors and ongoing monitoring. But in practice these conditions proved highly disputable: what comprised full cooperation? If the weapons inspectors could find no weapons surely Iraq had verifiably disarmed? If not, what comprised verifiable disarmament? These debates occupied us in the Security Council for years, and led to highly-complex elaborations of these conditions in SCR 1284, which restated the conditions for sanctions "lift". The lesson is clear: to be widely-supported and therefore effective, sanctions need conditions which can be stated as clearly and unambiguously as possible, and ideally conditions which can be fulfilled in a binary (yes or no) fashion.

  13.  Finally, there is a broader argument about the political credibility and consistency of those who propose and defend UN sanctions. The UN Security Council, where UN sanctions regimes must be agreed, is not a court of law. It is a deeply political body where decisions are made only partly on the basis of what is right, but more on the basis of who has most power and influence. No one issue, whether Iraq, Iran or Sudan, is seen in isolation but as part of a complex power-play of how the world should be arbitrated. In the Council, you have to cajole, persuade and sometimes (if necessary) bully in order to get your way. Perceptions of any country's standing and integrity form part of that power to influence.[4] During my spell on the Council, and to this day, British (and American) standing and influence in the Security Council has been consistently undermined by what many see as western "double standards" over the Middle East, and in particular Israel/Palestine. Many countries, and not only Arab countries, felt that the US and UK demanded compliance with the resolutions to the letter by Iraq, while punishing its civilian population. Meanwhile, it was felt, the US allowed Israel to ignore Security Council resolutions (SCRs 242 and 338 in particular) which demanded that it relinquish the Occupied Territories. This perception continues to weaken American and British arguments today, over Iran or Sudan, that the Council must stand up for international law and right. In the Security Council, it is naïve, in the case of Iran, Sudan or elsewhere, to pretend that American or British wishes or arguments will be seen in isolation.

July 2006

1   Independent Diplomat is a non-profit diplomatic advisory group founded in 2004; it provides advice and assistance to those countries or political groups which may lack experience or resources in diplomacy. Back

2   In general terms, from 1990 onwards all imports and exports were prohibited to and from Iraq except those goods which were explicitly authorised by the 661 Committee. The smart sanctions concept, which was developed-tardily-in response to concern at the humanitarian effects of sanctions, reversed this system to allow Iraq to import all goods except those explicitly prohibited on a list agreed by the Security Council. This new system took many months, if not years, to agree in the UNSC and was only implemented in 2002. Back

3   Estimates taken from the US government Iraq Survey Group, whose figures are roughly consistent with the Volcker report. Back

4   US academic Joseph Nye has termed this power of moral suasion and reputation, "soft power". Back

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