Select Committee on Economic Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum by Mr H C von Sponeck, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (1998-2000).


  Experience in Haiti, Iraq, Liberia, Yugoslavia and elsewhere has shown that humanitarian exemptions for countries against which comprehensive multilateral economic sanctions are levied invariably face a wide range of intricate and serious constraints.

  After decades of sanctions of various degrees of comprehensiveness and severity, a broad array of issues has become known to be important in managing sanctions and implementing humanitarian exemptions. Major ones are identified below:

  At the time of imposing comprehensive sanctions, the UN Security Council has the dual task of (i) passing a resolution which contains measurable objectives for managing economic sanctions and implementing a humanitarian exemption and (ii) carrying out pre-sanctions assessments of the socio-economic conditions of the countries involved in order to define the parameters of the humanitarian exemption.

  From the beginning of comprehensive sanctions, an implementation strategy has to exist. Such a strategy has to be based on a definition of purposes, targets and roles as well as an action plan for all UN entities charged with the implementation of comprehensive sanctions and humanitarian exemptions. Part of this strategy has to be a sanctions time frame with provisions of the terms for termination or renewal.

  A key responsibility of the UN Security Council is to safe-guard the welfare of the civilian population. This implies oversight, ie, on-going monitoring and evaluation of the impact of sanctions and of the effectiveness of the humanitarian exemption.

  As sanctions continue, the UN Security Council has a particular responsibility to assess the impact of sanctions on vulnerable groups (the young, the infirm and sick, the old, pregnant women, etc) and to take special humanitarian exemption measures to protect them. This includes the provision of dedicated (extra) funding.

  In accordance with the UN Charter, there should be regular reviews between the UN Security Council and the targeted party with the ultimate objective of conflict resolution and the end of comprehensive sanctions.

  Not only governments but also parliaments and civil society have a right to be kept informed, by the UN Security Council, of developments as they relate to sanctions and the state of welfare of the civilian population living under sanctions. This includes comprehensive, regular and public reporting on sanctions measures, the humanitarian exemption and the state of the human condition.

  Once sanctions have come to an end in a country, the UN Security Council must carry out final assessments of sanctions and the humanitarian exemption programmes. Part of these assessments has to be the identification of lessons learnt in order to avoid in future the constraints which may have hampered the political dialogue, sanctions management and the protection of the civilian population.


  Comprehensive economic and military sanctions imposed on Iraq in August 1990 lasted for 13 years. The analysis of the handling of this period by the UN Security Council therefore provides an important insight into whether a humanitarian exemption, as it was carried out in Iraq could limit the severity of the human costs of comprehensive economic sanctions sufficiently to make its use legitimate.

  First of all it must be remembered that there has not been a case of similar multilateral comprehensive economic sanctions in recent decades.

  Following UN resolution 661 of 6 August 1990 introducing sanctions, a humanitarian exemption was established, initially financed by voluntary international contributions.[185] The UN humanitarian appeals resulted in less than half of the $1.2 billion the UN wanted to have to finance "emergency needs" for Iraq under sanctions during 1991-95.

Observation No 1

  UN Security Council resolutions 661 (1990) and 687 (1991) pronouncing and defining sanctions were vague and did not define objectives in any detail.

  Having introduced comprehensive economic sanctions (including the freezing of Iraqi accounts, both official and personal), the UN Security Council had an obligation to ensure that (i) the socio-economic conditions of the population at the time were assessed to allow a realistic definition of a humanitarian exemption programme, (ii) sanctions and humanitarian exemption would proceed on the basis of a strategy, (iii) the shortfall between the voluntary funds collected and the funds needed for a survival programme would be made up with the help of the UN Security Council and (iv) a plan of action for the various UN entities playing a role (disarmament, humanitarian assistance, human rights reporting, compensation, etc) would be identified and implemented.

  In the case of Iraq none of this happened. There was no pre-sanctions assessment, no additional funding, no strategy, no action plan. As a result, living conditions of the civilian population deteriorated quickly and significantly.[186]

  In 1995, the UN and the Government of Iraq signed a memorandum of understanding which broadly defined the humanitarian exemption that became known as the "oil-for-food programme".[187] The UN Security Council agreed to a net amount of $1.32 billion per six months phase of oil sales to provide the means of survival for some 22 million people living in Iraq in the mid-1990s.[188]

Observation No 2

  The UN Security Council had decided on this amount using UN projections of the early 1990s to support an "emergency" humanitarian exemption at that time. An allocation of $1.32 billion was equal to 32 cents per day per person. This amount had to cover seven sectors: food, health, water, sanitation, electricity, agriculture and education.

  The UN periodically reminded critics of this severely inadequate amount that the humanitarian exemption was meant to be "supplementary" only. The question to what resources this amount was to be a supplement remained unanswered.[189] Serious deterioration of living conditions, increase in child mortality and malnourishment forced the UN Security Council to allow additional oil sales. These, however, did not fundamentally improve the human condition.

  The inadequacy of finance allowed by the UN Security Council was compounded by a wide range of other factors. Among these were micro-management of the humanitarian exemption by the UN Iraq Sanctions Committee, large temporary or permanent blocking of humanitarian supplies, complicated UN procurement rules, absence of cash components,[190] diversion of funds to the UN Compensation Commission,[191] fragmented and inconsistent management of sanctions by individual UN entities and management incapacity of the Iraqi administrative system. The overall impact on the performance of the humanitarian exemption was significant.

Observation No 3

  During the 6½ years of the oil-for-food programme, a total of $43.1 billion was available to finance the humanitarian exemption. This resulted in the totally inadequate amount of $284 per person/year. As a result of the factors identified above, the utilization rate of the available funds came to only to 65 per cent or $28.1 billion corresponding to $185 per person/year.[192] Even if the entire amount of "extra" income from smuggling of oil, surcharges and over pricing estimated as between $1-2 billion per year had become available to the humanitarian exemption, ie, a maximum of $13 billion in additional funding, the then total amount of $56.1 billion ($43.1 billion plus $13 billion) would have resulted in $374 per person/year only. According to the World Bank definition of poverty, a person living on less then $2 per day is a person living in poverty.

Observation No 4

  The UN Security Council failed to carry out its oversight mandate in a continuous and comprehensive manner. The humanitarian exemption was reviewed by the UN Security Council, often, however, without a debate and rarely with the political will and sense of urgency to implement improvements to lessen the human misery in Iraq. With one single exception,[193] there were no visits to Iraq by members of the UN Security Council during the 13 year sanctions period. Briefings of the UN Security Council by UN officials serving in Baghdad were rare, often blocked and generally discouraged by the representatives of the US and the UK in the Security Council. Reviews between the UN Security Council and the Government of Iraq were exceedingly rare and unconstructive. Standard UN reporting focused on sector details of the humanitarian exemption and largely ignored an assessment of the adequacy of this exemption for the survival of the civilian population.[194]


  The humanitarian exemption for Iraq constituted an important yet severely inadequate intervention for the people of Iraq. It clearly failed to reduce the severity of the human cost of comprehensive sanctions and crossed the border between bearable inconvenience of sanctions for an innocent population and violation of international law including humanitarian and human rights law.

  The UN Security Council, it must be stressed, had a wide range of options to stay within the boundary of legitimacy. Instead it chose a hard-line and punitive approach preferred by two of its permanent members. It was within the purview of the UN Security Council to raise the level of finance, to de-bureaucratize the procurement of humanitarian goods, to promote dialogue and conflict resolution and to ensure integrated UN System management.

  The fact that all of this did not happen is an indication that the chances are slim that under conditions of political conflict, the welfare of an innocent population remains more than of secondary concern on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Comprehensive economic sanctions should therefore no longer be seen as an option consistent with article 41 of the UN Charter.[195] The danger that the United Nations becomes responsible for death, destitution and injustice including an "undue future burden" impact on youth is simply too compelling.

26 September 2006

185   There is a range of professional publications providing information on the reasons for the five-year delay in reaching agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Iraq on the "oil-for-food" programme as a humanitarian exemption. Back

186   A review of socio-economic indicators, especially those for mortality, morbidity, nutrition, health, education and employment bear this out. Back

187   The Memorandum of Understanding was based on UN Resolution 986 (1995) concerning the sale of petroleum and petroleum products. Back

188   The gross allocation was $2billion per phase, 34 per cent were deducted for compensation payments to victims of Iraq's invasion into Kuwait (30 per cent) and overheads for UN administrative costs plus a contingency reserve (4 per cent). Back

189   There were no taxpayers in Iraq in the mid-1990s. The limited amount of allowable oil production was practically the only source of licit national income. Illicit income from smuggling of oil, surcharges and overpricing was in large part consumed by the costs of running the nation (civil service salaries, maintenance of the infrastructure, health and education systems, foreign service, etc). Back

190   UN sanctions rules did not permit the disbursement to Iraq of any cash. Not infrequently the humanitarian exemption was hampered by this as there were no funds for transport of goods, repair and maintenance of public installations, training for new equipment, etc. This only changed in early 2000 when the UN Security Council agreed to small allocations for such purposes. Back

191   In the course of the oil-for-food programme period some $17 billion of oil revenue were deducted from the humanitarian exemption to make payments to claimants. This happened at a time when the human conditions in Iraq were characterized by exceptionally high child mortality and nutritional deficiency levels. Back

192   This calculation is based on a mean population size of 23 million during the period 1996-2003. Back

193   Ambassador Antonio Monteiro, Permanent Representative of Portugal to the United Nations and Chairman of the Iraq Sanction Committee visited Iraq briefly in 1998. Back

194   The one significant exception is the special report on the humanitarian condition presented by Ambassador Celso N Amorim, Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations. The recommendations of his courageous review were either ignored or taken into account by the UN Security Council with much delay. Back

195   What should remain are targeted (focused) sanctions applied in conjunction with continuous political dialogue between the UN and the targeted party. The UK House of Commons in its 27 January 2000 report on sanctions, the Interlaken process parties (1998-2003), the UN High Level Panel on the Role of Sanctions (2005) as well as the UN Sanctions Assessment Handbook (2004) come to the same conclusion. Back

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