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Program 0111
March 13, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

Pierette Vu Thi: There has been a progression of malnutrition of children under five. And that over the past two years there’s sort of a leveling off of malnutrition rates. But at a level that is considered quite alarming and unacceptable by the international community.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the impact of sanctions.

ARYEH NEIER: I do think that it’s important to examine those sanctions closely and see whether it’s the sanctions themselves, or whether the way they are manipulated by Saddam Hussein’s government that is actually the cause of the damage that is done.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Ten years after the Gulf War, President George W. Bush is facing the same foreign policy headache that caused his father so much grief, Iraq. Saddam Hussein is still in power and UN weapons inspectors haven’t been allowed in the country for more than two years, leading many to speculate that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction.

MCHUGH: Despite the UN’s oil for food program, life after a decade of sanctions is difficult for the most vulnerable of Iraq’s 23 million citizens. Common Ground Correspondent Chris Lehman reports from Basra, Iraq.

[sounds of children]

CHRIS LEHMAN: At Basra Maternity and Children’s Hospital, Dr. Ali Al-Basawiji [sic], says the roof leaks, air conditioners are broken, and the linens aren’t changed nearly as often as they should be. But more importantly, he says he only has 40 percent of the medicine he needs to treat his patients. As a result, he says many children are dying of treatable diseases.

Dr. Ali Al-Basawiji [sic]: This child is Ali Abdul-Aman. He is five months old, admitted two days ago with a history of chest infection-pneumonia. As you look, he’s malnourished, one of the problems that we suffer from. The oxygen itself. Because we use the industrial one, not the medical gauze. So now he is in a bad situation. And to me I didn’t, for that he can live. He is at the end stage, as you see.

LEHMAN: Fifteen minutes later the child is dead. According to UNICEF the mortality rate of Iraqi children under the age of five has doubled since the Gulf War and there’s been a ten-fold increase in deaths caused by infectious diseases. In southern Iraq one in five children suffers from malnutrition, says UNICEF’s Iraq Program Coordinator, Pierette Vu Thi.

Pierette Vu Thi: The surveys show that there has been a progression of malnutrition of children under five. And that over the past two years there’s sort of a leveling off of malnutrition rates. But at a level that is considered quite alarming and unacceptable by the international community.

LEHMAN: Doctors in Basra and in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad report increased cases of leukemia, cancer, and miscarriages since the war. But most people in Iraq trace the problems not to the war itself but to the UN sanctions which were imposed on the country shortly after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The sanctions are meant to weaken Saddam Hussein’s government both militarily and economically. But while Hussein and members of his inner circle are by all accounts as wealthy as they’ve ever been, the average Iraqi citizen has been hit hard by the sanctions, which ban the import of most consumer goods and closely regulates imports of food and medicine. Under the UN-approved oil for food program, the Iraqi government is permitted to sell a limited amount of oil in exchange for certain pre-approved humanitarian items. But Pierette Vu Thi of UNICEF, says the program has some gaping holes. For instance, she says it doesn’t specifically address the needs of children.

Vu Thi: This is something that, you know, we’ve been advocating about whether it’s with the government or, or the, or the UN. I mean, on both sides we’ve been advocating about that. Now the response of the government has been to say that, of course, they recognize that it’s a priority but there are so many other priorities that this one, they’re sort of counting on UNICEF to address this.

LEHMAN: But she says UNICEF doesn’t have the resources to adequately address the needs of all Iraqi children, particularly when it comes to the country’s struggling educational system, which Vu Thi says has been most severely affected by the sanctions. She estimates at last half of all Iraqi schools have an unfit learning environment.

Vu Thi: And when I say that, I mean walls crumbling, roofs caving in, yards flooded, sanitary installation, you know, sort of nonexistent. I mean, things like that. Really basic, basic things.

LEHMAN: She says the sanctions have exacerbated a problem that dates back to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Many of the schools have simply closed.

Vu Thi: So what happens now is that in many schools there are up to, there are two and even in some instances, up to three shifts a day. Which means basically that children go in the morning, you know, for four hours of teaching, then get out. Then another batch comes in. Then eventually, in some cases, a third batch comes in.

LEHMAN: Vu Thi says the oil for food program does supply material resources for schools, but it doesn’t provide money for badly needed repairs to buildings.

Vu Thi: So what happens is that there are desks coming in, for example. Or blackboards, or whatever. But still, there’s no money for the rehabilitation of schools. There is no money to increase teacher salary. There is no money for the transportation of supplies. There’s no money for training of teachers.

LEHMAN: Inflation has been a major problem in the country, forcing many people to take on second jobs as taxi drivers or cigarette vendors. The fortunate have family members living abroad who send in highly sought after foreign currency. A typical middle class salary before the war was 250 Iraqi dinar per month, the equivalent of $750 US dollars. Now that same 250 dinar note is worth about 15 cents. Father Masis Shaninean, of Basra’s Armenian Orthodox church, says many members of his congregation haven’t had steady employment since the Gulf War devastated the region’s infrastructure and economy a decade ago.

FATHER MASIS SHANINEAN: [via a translator] Most of people, they are start to sell their thing from their homes. For example, the furniture, the refrigerator, even some of the people sell their refrigerator, which is, you know, the weather in Basra, it’s warming in the summer. They are drinking the cold water from the refrigerator. Even they sell their refrigerator, just to have the money to survive with it.

LEHMAN: Before the war there were 3,000 Orthodox Armenians in Basra; now, says Father Masis, there are less than 800. More than 2,000 of the Armenians left the area, but Masis says at least 100 members of his congregation were killed during the Gulf War.

FATHER MASIS SHANINEAN: [via a translator] This number, maybe you cannot believe it because the bombing was here in Basra. Not like the bombing in Baghdad or in other places. Because the bombing here was every ten minutes, every five minutes, every, you know, like this. It was like this, in Basra.

LEHMAN: Most of those who left migrated north to Baghdad in search of work. Those who stay must deal with chronic electricity shortages, deteriorating schools, and a struggling medical system. Still unknown is why rates of cancer and leukemia have reportedly risen in many parts of Iraq, particularly in Basra. But Dr. Al-Basawiji [sic], says there’s one leading theory.

Dr. Al-Basawiji [sic]: When we explain that, we say that nothing unusual happened in our environment except the bombs of the American and the British forces, that they used depleted uranium.

LEHMAN: The depleted uranium bombs have also been blamed for causing Gulf War Syndrome, and more recently, cancer, among European forces serving in the Balkan conflict. But the Pentagon says there’s no direct link between depleted uranium and these illnesses, and that the amount of radioactive material used in the weapons is well within international standards. Most studies on the subject have been inconclusive, but Dr. Abdul Ilah Atashur, the Director of Basra General Hospital, says studies are not. The rates of cancer he’s seeing are comparable to post-World War II Japan.

DR. ABDUL ILAH ATASHUR: So, this town, like Hiroshima. I think they need help. The people here in this town need help, not from our country, but from the all the countries in the world.

[sound of children and a conversation between an adult and a child in Arabic]

LEHMAN: But no matter what the cause, it is something doctors in Basra say they deal with on a daily basis. Often without equipment and supplies that they say were readily available prior to the sanctions. Dr. Muhammad is a surgeon at Basra General.

DR. MUHAMMED: Of course we have a short supply. And now we are getting some instruments. But it is a few amount. You know, it is not sufficient for the work. We have a lot of work. This is a major hospital in Basra, a big hospital. But it cannot cope with this, the amount of drugs, amount of instruments.

LEHMAN: How does that effect you personally, as a physician, to have to deal with all the shortages?

DR. MUHAMMED: Sometimes it’s, we feel very sorry. We have, we see plenty of cases and we have shortage in things. But we are dealing what is available, what things we have. Of course, we hope we get much, much better. Much better, some come up with these cases, we are behind what’s going on outside, of course. We have to work with what’s available. Which is not sufficient for the patient, but we manage anyhow.

LEHMAN: By the end of 2000, more than 6 billion dollars worth of food and more than 1 billion dollars worth of health supplies had been imported by the Iraqi government, according to UN figures. Saddam Hussein has been accused of not distributing the humanitarian supplies on an equal basis. And US Secretary of State Colin Powell, has called Hussein a threat to the children of the region. President Bush has pledged to continue to support the sanctions, which have been called into question in recent years by countries such as Russia and France. For Common Ground, I’m Chris Lehman.

PORTER: Sanctions as a foreign policy tool, next on Common Ground.

ARYEH NEIER: I do feel that at least in one area, sanctions have been very important, and that is in promoting human rights internationally.

MCHUGH: During his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Collin Powell said the United States imposes economic sanctions against other countries too often, and he encouraged Congress to get rid of most of them.

PORTER: These comments prompted long-time human rights leader Aryeh Neier to speak out. Neier, President of the Open Society Institute, defended sanctions in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times. He pointed to South Africa, Poland, and Burma as sanction success stories. I recently spoke with Neier about the usefulness of sanctions as a foreign policy tool.

ARYEH NEIER: I don’t quarrel with the idea that we have too many sanctions. And I’m not really able to address the validity of all the sanctions that we have. They are applied for a great variety of purposes. But I do feel that at least in one area, sanctions have been very important, and that is in promoting human rights internationally. I think they’re important in that field, not only because they inflict economic harm on governments that abuse human rights, but they are a way of expressing international rejection of a regime that abuses human rights. And sometimes of isolating such a regime. And in the human rights field, that has proved very significant.

PORTER: In fact, shortly after those hearings you jumped to the defense of sanctions with an op-ed piece in the New York Times. What made you feel so strongly about this that you wanted to make a public statement?

NEIER: Well, I was struck by the fact that Secretary Powell made his remarks at the very moment that some sanctions that have been in place for a long time were really having an impact. We have had sanctions for about a decade or a little more against Burma because of the abuses that took place in 1988 when there were student demonstrations and thousands of people were killed. And also in 1990 when the Burmese military junta canceled an election as it became clear that the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition party would capture at least 80 percent of the seats in Parliament. And that ending of a democratic process in the middle, when it seemed the opposition would win, was an appropriate moment to impose significant economic sanctions. Now, for the first time there are serious negotiations underway between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military junta. It’s the first time there has been a breakthrough. And to have Secretary Powell calling for an end to sanctions just when they’re having such a significant impact, made me feel it was appropriate to publish an article on the subject.

PORTER: You talk about tying specific actions to specific behaviors.


PORTER: And the term that you hear often is “calibration.”


PORTER: That sanctions need to be calibrated. Can you explain to our audience a little about what you mean by calibration?

NEIER: Sure. Let me do it in the context of China. Because that’s an example where an attempt to use sanctions failed. That is, after Tiananmen Square in 1989, there was effort to deny China Most Favored Nation status. And it was doomed to failure because China is such a big country, trade with China is so important to many businesses, that no one was going to agree to a complete disruption of trade, which essentially would have been the consequence of denying China Most Favored Nation status, which was really just ordinary trading privileges with the United States. My view in retrospect is that if the sanctions had been calibrated, which means that some much more modest sanctions had been applied-let’s say denying Most Favored Nation tariff treatment to products produced by military-owned factories in China, and then some specific goals had been set, such as, let’s say, allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to go into Chinese prisons to look after the welfare of the Chinese prisoners the way the International Committee of the Red Cross does in many other countries-if there had been that specific calibration in terms of tying a particular improvement in human rights to a particular sanction, and then escalating the sanctions if the human rights situation deteriorated, diminishing the sanctions if the human rights improved-if it had been done in that way, I think it might have been politically palatable and I think it would have had a significant impact on China.

But an all-or-nothing approach, which is what we ended up with in the annual debates over Most Favored Nation status, was, as I say, doomed to failure. And very often a government looking at an all-or-nothing approach thinks that it’s being asked to commit suicide, and it won’t do that in exchange for removing sanctions. On the other hand, if it sees something manageable, something that it can tolerate, then it will take the step necessary to end sanctions. And therefore calibration, I think, is the effective way to impose sanctions.

PORTER: In part of his allegations that we use sanctions too often and in too many places, he said that we often use them because they make us feel good. Do you feel that’s the case?

NEIER: Perhaps that’s the case. One could put that in a less pejorative way. One could say that when a reprehensible practice takes place, such as torture, and Americans want to disassociate themselves from the practice of torture, and we impose sanctions even if we think that it isn’t ultimately going to have an effect, we want to make the statement that we loathe torture, and we want not to be associated with it. You could say that’s making us feel good rather than achieving a political effect, but I don’t think that’s so bad. I think that there are times when we want to say, “This is something that offends us and we’re simply making a statement that this is offensive conduct.” Even if we think we’re not ultimately going to bring about a change in that way.

PORTER: The sanctions against Iraq…


PORTER: … are wildly unpopular, I think around much of the world. Is this a case of good sanctions or bad sanctions according to your standards?

NEIER: Well, first, I have to say that these are not sanctions that are imposed for human rights reasons. I think human rights sanctions would, in fact, be richly deserved in the case of Iraq because given Iraq’s murderous treatment against the Kurds in the north, against the Shiites in the south, against the marsh Arabs, against anybody who dissents, you could hardly think of a worse human rights violator than Iraq. But the particular purpose of the sanctions against Iraq has been to curb their production of weapons of mass destruction. And they’re very unpopular because they have clearly caused a lot of harm to Iraqi citizens-children, for example, who are malnourished or denied medicines. But I do think that it’s important to examine those sanctions closely and see whether it’s the sanctions themselves, or whether the way they are manipulated by Saddam Hussein’s government that is actually the cause of the damage that is done. The Iraqi government has had the opportunity to sell a substantial amount of its oil internationally and to use the proceeds for food and for medicines. It has chosen not to take full advantage of the opportunity to purchase food and medicine. And I think there is a high degree of cynicism on the part of the government of Saddam Hussein-that is, he’s willing to sacrifice Iraqi children so as to make a stronger case against sanctions.

PORTER: One other question on Iraq for you. We have a freelance producer for our radio program who was recently inside Iraq. And reported sort of a quirk in the oil for food program. He visited a school where they were able to purchase some materials-desks and things, using oil for food money. But they aren’t able to repair the building. The building is sort of crumbling around these nice new supplies. Is it possible to calibrate sanctions in such a way that it can address sort of, almost bureaucratic details at that level?

NEIER: I don’t know. I hope so. I would think that one ought to be able to differentiate ordinary building supplies from what might be called “dual-use” materials-materials that actually might have some military purposes.

PORTER: One last area for you I wanted to ask about, and that is the difference between universal sanctions and unilateral sanctions. Maybe you can describe for our listeners what we mean by those terms.

NEIER: Right.

PORTER: And then, do we have a preference

NEIER: Certainly universal sanctions are to be preferred to unilateral sanctions. Unilateral sanctions would be sanctions that say the United States, acting on its own, imposes against a particular government. The universal sanctions would be sanctions that are the product of a decision by a multilateral institution such as the United Nations and adhered to by its members. And those, there are a number of advantages to universal sanctions. One obvious advantage is that it prevents the country that is the target from shopping around and using its relationship with one country to frustrate sanctions against another country. On the other hand, there have been certain circumstances where what really matters to another country is the relationship to the United States. Poland was part of the Communist bloc, but during the 1980s the relationship to the United States mattered a great deal to Poland. There are a great many Polish-Americans; in part as a consequence of their influence there was always extensive trade between Poland and the United States. Even though the European countries were closer, the United States mattered much more to Poland than the European countries. And so, unilateral sanctions, even in a circumstance like that, were very important. When it comes to, let’s say, Latin American countries, the United States is overwhelmingly the country that matters. European countries are of much less significance in Latin America, and so unilateral sanctions can be quite effective in certain circumstances.

PORTER: And then you have trade and industry groups, like this organization called USA Engage, which will say those sanctions always will, they’ll undermine American businesses.


PORTER: Put them at a disadvantage. Our allies will jump right in there and cut a deal. What do you say to them?

NEIER: You know, a lot of the people who are engaged in those businesses are actually multinational companies. They operate in Europe and other parts of the world just as they operate in the United States. They could go at it the other way around. They could say to the European governments, “Why don’t you go along with these sanctions as well,” and prevent any government from doing what China did in playing off Europe against the United States.

PORTER: That is Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

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