No Stomach for Sanctions


by John Tyler Connoley

July 13, 2004


I almost died when I was nine years old and living in Zambia. I came down with amoebic dysentery, a disease of the large intestine most often caught from drinking contaminated water. I started getting sick on a Friday afternoon, just after school. On Sunday, when I was still suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, my mom asked the nurse at the mission station what to do. The nurse said to make me drink boiled water spiked with sugar and salt, and pray I'd get better soon.


The main diagnosable symptom of dysentery is bloody diarrhea, but I also had vomiting, fever, and wrenching stomach pain. Dehydration gave me severe headaches (think the worst hangover ever) and delirium. My parents say they knew I was really out of it, when I stopped caring who saw me naked running to the bathroom -- I was a very modest child. I remember sleeping in the bathroom where the cool tile soothed my fever, and where I wouldn't have to risk not making it to the toilet. I also remember people coming to the house to pray over me; I had to get up to wretch in the middle of the prayer.


In desperation, my parents finally loaded me into the back of a pickup truck with a bucket, and drove me six hours over a bumpy dirt road to the closest Salvation Army hospital. They were sure I'd die, and I did lose twenty percent of my body weight. But, the doctor said the sugar-water my mother fed me had kept me out of the grave.


These days, whenever I get a stomach flu or a case of food poisoning, the pain, fear, and helplessness of those weeks comes back to me. During those moments, I invariably begin thinking of the two million children who die from this type of diarrheal infection every year, and particularly of the estimated half a million Iraqi children who died of dysentery and cholera during the years of United Nations sanctions against Saddam Hussein.


During the past few months, we've been reading news of the (shocking!) corruption in the UN Iraqi Oil-for-Food program. The reporters make it seem as if no one knew the sanctions were a terrible blight on UN policy. As if Kofi Annan hadn't written in his Millennium Report in 2000, "When robust and comprehensive economic sanctions are directed against authoritarian regimes, a different problem is encountered. Then it is usually the people who suffer, not the political elites whose behavior triggered the sanctions in the first place." As if it hadn't been obvious to all observers that the sanctions against Iraq were offering millions of dollars in profits to black-marketers, while the dual-use clause led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children.


The dual-use clause, one of the worst aspects of the Iraqi sanctions, stated that any item having a potential dual military use had to be approved by a special committee before being shipped to Iraq. Of course this included equipment to fix and repair electrical plants and oil refineries. It also included chlorine bleach -- the cheapest and easiest way to rid water of bacterial agents and a potential ingredient in making chlorine gas. Likewise tanker trucks for distributing clean drinking water to villages were deemed capable of carrying more-dangerous cargo. Even hospital equipment could be potentially dismantled and made into weapons. Time and again, the United States members of the sanctions committee blocked such items from reaching Iraq, while thousands of children died of diarrhea.


Reports from the contractors and soldiers rebuilding Iraq tell of power plants and water treatment facilities carefully pieced together with recycled parts and ingenuity. Unable to get the equipment to fix their aging infrastructure, Iraqi engineers became master scroungers. Now American contractors, freed from import bans, are working to replace fifteen years of makeshift repairs so the children can have clean drinking water again. It took a war to make it happen, because the sanctions did nothing to weaken Saddam Hussein.


Instead, the sanctions made him worse. They gave his government even more power, as it became the distributor for food and water rations. They gave his government more money, as it became a black market operator. They closed off relations with his government, so CIA operatives had no reliable information about Saddam or his plans. And at the same time, they sickened and weakened the very people they were supposed to help. As Kofi Annan said in that 2000 report, "Indeed, those in power, perversely, often benefit from such sanctions by their ability to control and profit from black market activity, and by exploiting them as a pretext for eliminating domestic sources of political opposition." You could say we learned this the hard way, but at least we learned. Or did we?


As of January, the United Nations still had sanctions against five countries, including Afghanistan. An almost fifty-year-old United States embargo against Cuba shows no signs of lifting -- while it shows no signs of succeeding. And, recently, Colin Powell has been threatening sanctions against Iran, because even though they don't work and cause children to die, sanctions continue to be politically popular.


Think about that next time you get the stomach flu. Then, when you're feeling better, write a letter to your representatives, and tell them you don't want our useless sanctions killing any more innocent children.


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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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