The boundless attempts to conceal and justify the brutal Sanctions Regime against Iraq

A “spectacular lie” – this is how an August 4, 2017 article in the Washington Post1 called UNICEF’s 1999 finding that 500,000 children were killed as a direct result of UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq. The article builds on a study published in the British Medical Journal of Global Health, which is alleged to be an academic work but sadly builds on a seriously incorrect and dangerous assertion distorted by political motivation. Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) is dismayed at the study’s conclusion, which can only be seen as part of the tenacious attempts to cover the appalling crimes committed against the Iraqi civilian population under the sanctions regime. The consequences of the sanctions and subsequent acts of aggression against innocent people continue to reverberate in the ravaged country with brute force.

GICJ has been addressing issues of justice and accountability pertaining to Iraq since its establishment. Through its partnership with various NGOs, lawyers and a vast civil society network within Iraq, GICJ is able to receive documentation and evidence of human rights violations as they occur in Iraq. GICJ continues to bring this information to the attention of relevant UN bodies in order to gain justice for all victims.

During the sanctions regime Iraqis had to hold funeral processions for their children almost on a daily basis.

 A Look at the Study

The Washington Post article draws on the study “Changing views on child mortality and economic sanctions in Iraq: a history of lies, damned lies and statistics”2, which was written by two researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) and published by the British Medical Journal of Global Health (BMJGH) on 24 July 2017. To summarize, the study describes the core finding in UNICEF’s 1999 Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Survey (ICMMS)3 that an additional 550,000 more children had died as a result of the UN-imposed sanctions as “a massive fraud”. The authors allege that UNICEF’s survey data was deliberately falsified by the Iraqi government to fool the international community: “The data were evidently rigged to show a huge and sustained — and largely non-existent — rise in child mortality,” the authors argue. “The objective of Saddam Hussein’s government was to heighten international concern and to get the economic sanctions ended.” The delineated purpose of the study is to uncover a “major deception” contained in UNICEF’s report that had long sustained the view that “the UN’s economic sanctions were wrong”.

Dr. Hans Koechler, President of the International Progress Organization (right), at a press conference at the UN Headquarters in New York on the humanitarian aspects of the UN sanctions against Iraq; with him: Ambassador Nizar Hamdoun, Permanent Representative of Iraq to the UN (center), and Dr. Abdul Latif Arabiyat, former Speaker of the Jordanian Parliament. (16 May 1994)

The 1999 UNICEF Report

In the heavily-populated southern and central parts of Iraq, UNICEF conducted the ICMMS in cooperation with field staff from the health sector provided by the Iraqi government. The research represented a significant success as it drew on a large sample of about 14 000 households in the north and 24 000 in the center/south. With a strict focus on child mortality, the ICMMS questionnaire was comparable to that employed in other countries and it was carefully pretested. The researchers collected full birth histories. An independent panel of experts established by UNICEF assessed the ICMMS survey procedures and quality of data and concluded that no problems could be identified.

The survey results, published in August 1999, clearly showed that children in the center/south of Iraq were dying at over twice the rate as a decade earlier. Due to the ongoing humanitarian emergency brought about by the sanctions, 500,000 more child deaths occurred during 1991–1998. Based on the findings, concern was expressed that the imposed economic sanctions have an extremely detrimental impact on children.

GICJ’s Response

The arguments brought forward in the BMJGH study that UNICEF’s findings are “a masterful fraud” are rigged and its conclusion is not only deeply flawed but also damaging. UNICEF’s child mortality research and subsequent publication of the ICMMS in the year 1999 was an astounding achievement at a time in which the Iraqi government had become highly suspicious of UN entities. Indeed, UN organizations such as UNSCOM/UNMOVIC had become intelligence and deception agents of the Western powers, notably the US and UK. UNICEF staff – fully responsible for the research methodology, the data analysis, and the resulting conclusions – conducted the research with professionalism and without hidden agenda. As an intergovernmental program, UNICEF naturally has to engage with governmental entities when conducting field research – as do other UN agencies and procedures in elaborating their reports. While UNICEF staff was cooperating with Iraqi medical personnel and Iraqi authorities in the data collection, they were painstakingly aware of the possibility of manipulation and collected the data with utmost circumspection and expertise. To suggest otherwise is hubristic.

A dubious opposition to the collection of data on civilian casualties on the part of the US/UK governments was prevalent already during the reign of the sanctions regime – even if it was to be carried out independently of Iraqi assistance. Hans von Sponeck, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq at the time the survey was conducted, recollects that his independent airstrike reporting was vehemently opposed by the US/UK missions to the UN, on allegations that in providing “statistics of civilian casualties all [he] was doing was to repeat Iraqi propaganda”4. During his verification of civilian casualties, he sometimes found that Iraqi reports had understated deaths.

The intention of composing and publishing a study claiming that life in an Iraq under sanctions was not as brutal and life-endangering after all – even 14 years after the end of sanctions – is highly dubitable and can only be interpreted as part of the endless stream of strategic and manipulative misinformation. This stream has been carefully orchestrated to defend the acts of aggression on the Iraqi civilian population, which were sanctioned and carried out primarily by the US and UK governments. Especially the downplaying of the calamitous impact of the sanctions on hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi children is repugnant.

To reiterate a statement made by Ambassador Agam Hasmy of Malaysia at the UN Security Council in 2000: “How ironic is it that the same policy that is supposed to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction has itself become a weapon of mass destruction!” The continued attempts to legitimize the UN sanctions and the subsequent policies that led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq leave a sinister echo amidst the walls of destruction, suffering, and death that followed and continue to decimate the lives of innocent Iraqis until this day.

A Look at the Facts: Death, Destruction and Suffering under the Sanctions Regime on Iraq

The sanctions against Iraq were a total financial and trade embargo imposed by the UN Security Council through Resolution 661, which was adopted on August 6, 1990, four days after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Pursuant to the end of the 1991 First Gulf War, the rigorous economic sanctions were intensified through Resolution 687, which included provisions for the removal of weapons of mass destruction. They remained firmly in force until May 2003 (UNSC Resolution 1483), with some parts persisting until today. While the officially stated aim of the sanctions was to effect Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait, payment of reparations, and eliminate suspected weapons of mass destruction, the underlying purpose was to force a regime change. Based on fraudulent claims and exaggeration, a few Western nations, particularly the US and UK, fervently supported the sanctions against Iraq in order to achieve their agenda and topple Iraq’s ruling authorities – at the cost of countless innocent lives.

That the removal of Saddam Hussein would proceed at the cost of uncountable innocent civilians and the destruction of an entire society was of little interest. “One of the greatest acts of aggression: the medieval siege of Iraq” – as author and journalist John Pilger has referred to the sanctions – savagely catapulted the population of a formerly flourishing civilization into the abysses of human suffering, indignity, and death. It was the ordinary people of this havocked and mutilated country that had to bear the brunt of the sanctions. In his book “A Different Kind of War”5, Hans von Sponeck poignantly illustrates the suffering of the Iraqi people under the policies of a sanction regime steered from Washington and London and implemented by the UN in New York: Callous policies that were considered “worth it” by then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.


Hans C. von Sponeck denounces the consequences, especially on children, of the UN sanctions against Iraq.

As the UN took complete control over the Iraqi economy, the country was deprived of its sovereignty over its trade, with oil exports being under the tight control of Western nations and revenues being stacked in the French Banque Nationale de Paris. Iraqi-owned assets were frozen. With a 70 percent dependency on imported foodstuff to cover the basic needs of the population, the Iraqi government was unable to provide the basic nutrition for its people as the UK and US governments were rigorously blocking and delaying vast amounts of vital supplies for survival. More than $5bn worth of supplies was blocked from entering Iraq in mid-2002. As a direct consequence of these policies, Iraq’s infrastructure – sewage, water, electricity, and oil systems – had been largely destroyed or incapacitated through the 1991 war and the subsequent attacks6.  

By 1995, the living conditions of the Iraqi population had degenerated to a point that experts around the world were warning of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe of historical proportion. The “Oil-for-Food Programme” by the UN Security Council, presented as generous humanitarian response plan yet fully funded by the Iraqi state, exacerbated the strangulation of the country and deepened the hardship of ordinary Iraqis.

Almost 30 percent of each dollar was diverted to the dubious UN Compensation Commission residing in Villa “La Pelouse” in Geneva, which was to deliver financial compensation to aggrieved individuals and states. By mid-2004, the commission had conferred $48.2 billion to claimants – while the Iraqi people were starving. Further shares of Iraqi money got invested into the pockets of international UN staff. In the meantime, Iraqi wages (at an average of $5 and $25 a month) hardly sufficed to afford families’ basic necessities7.

As UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck was a daily witness to what he calls “a harsh and uncompromising sanctions regime punishing the wrong people”. In his book8, he outlines some of the most salient consequences on the daily lives of innocent Iraqis:


While piped water was accessible to the majority of Iraqis during the 1980s, water supply diminished substantially throughout the 1990s – with the quality and amount of water shrinking. In Baghdad, for instance, water supply decreased by 55 percent, from 330 liters/day in 1989 to about 150 liters in 2003.


While the percentage of the population having access to piped connections for waste disposal increased in the early 1990s, treatment of waste disposal decreased.


The formerly thriving education system was crushed by the sanctions. Throughout the period from 1990 to 2003, primary school enrolment gradually declined, particularly among girls.


Iraq had fallen from being prosperous, with an annual income per capita at about $2,450 in 1980, to being one of the poorer countries in the region, reaching a low of only $250 in 1990. Indeed, Iraqis relied on a scanty 51 cents to sustain their daily existence.


The health sector also succumbed to the sanction regime – with the entire country being left with only one fully functioning X-ray machine by 1999 and long forgotten diseases returning.

Up to August 1990, Iraqis could receive approximately 3,375 calories per capita per day. In1991, calories available via subsidized rations had declined to about 1,300. Until the end of the sanctions, the calories availability level would remain about 65 percent of the pre-sanctions level.

During the time of the sanctions, the Iraqi population fell victim to a sharp increase in malnutrition, especially child malnutrition – with one out of five children under 5 in Central or Southern Iraq being malnourished.

Dehydrated and malnourished, seven-month-old Sahra is comforted by her grandmother in Baghdad, 1998. At that time, 30 percent of Iraq’s children under five were malnourished because of the shortage of food and medicine as a result of the UN sanctions.” [al-Arabiya]

Analyst Abbas Alnaswari writes: “Estimates of the number of people who lost their lives because of the sanctions range up to 1.5 million people, including more than 500 000 children," adding that "The World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded that the health system had been set back by some 50 years.”



Unprecedented high levels of child mortality – between 100 and 120 deaths per 1000 – raged in the country. The findings in UNICEF’s child mortality survey are therefore anything but surprising.

Sponeck acknowledges that efforts by the Iraqi government to counter the imposed policies and alleviate the suffering of the population were thwarted by the US and UK-imposed blockage of the import of vital goods to improve healthcare, livelihoods, infrastructure, and education. Iraqi women, men, and children kept dying from malnutrition, lacking medicines, diarrhea, and malaria. Life support was withering away, revenues from the traditionally income-generating oil export stolen, and the means and morals of the Iraqi army drenched. Iraq had become a faint shadow of its past.

What Numbers Cannot Convey

It is at this time that UNICEF conducted its child mortality survey – when uncountable lives were breaking apart. Indeed, the meticulously collected data is incapable of conveying the full plight of the Iraqi children – which ran unfathomably deeper than the additional 500,000 recorded deaths. At this point we would like to ask the authors of the BMJGH study: What number in child mortality do you think would be appropriate to justify the sanctions? 450,000? 350,000? 200,000? Even then – would these additional hundreds of thousands of child deaths attenuate the brutality of the sanctions regime? Would it not still classify as genocide?

And yet, their hardship and suffering was far from being over. As voices critical of the genocidal siege became louder in the international arena, the Clinton administration was increasingly pressured to abandon the sanctions.

However, the US had set its mind on overthrowing the regime, which had been written in concrete through the Iraq Liberation Act of October 31, 1998. With Iraq lying shattered, the 2003 military invasion by the US could proceed effortlessly. What lay ahead was unparalleled bloodshed, destruction and disintegration – which reached well beyond the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist government. Indeed, the disarray the country was in was a fertile ground for the upheaval and civil war in the country, and helped create the conditions for the rise of ISIL.

While an in-depth discussion of the developments that would follow the sanctions surpasses the scope of this article, a brief outlook should suffice to reveal the untenability and inadmissibility of the conclusions drawn in the report. Around 1,500,000 Iraqis, primarily children, died as a direct consequence of the imposed sanctions, according to UNICEF estimates. Many more would die as a result of the havoc in which the country was left. Not only is data illustrating the extreme suffering and skyrocketing death toll among children as direct consequence of the sanctions overwhelming; the devastating developments that ensued after the sanctions were lifted provide little credence to the message that life under sanctions was not that bad and that the figure of 500,000 deaths was “a massive fraud”.

The Reign of Injustice and its Patrons: A Call for Accountability

While the tragedy was unfolding among Iraq’s population, the Security Council was maneuvered by US and UK interests and the UN, alongside with many Member States, remained largely subservient to Anglo-Saxon ambitions. International human rights and humanitarian law were, as usual, crumbling in the face of the will of the powerful – at the cost of uncountable innocent lives. It is all the more agonizing that even fourteen years after the overdue lifting of the sanctions efforts are being made to legitimize the reign of injustice. Many of the Iraqi children that survived this reign have been turned into orphans – while no child growing up under the sanctions regime has been granted a childhood, let alone a single carefree and peaceful day in their lives.

Yet, until this very day, the defensive misinformation from Washington and London keeps pouring in – washing away the last remnants of truth. Rather than finally acknowledging the brutal injustice of the sanctions policy, the squashy criticism that is occasionally uttered is limited to the incompetent implementation thereof. There can be no doubt that the conclusion of the LSE study that “the rigging of the 1999 UNICEF survey was a masterful fraud” is part of the defensive and propagandistic web of lies used to justify the unyielding Anglo-Saxon self-interest. The LSE researchers as well as the author of the Washington post article should retract their seriously inaccurate statements and publically apologize for their contribution to morally irresponsible and fraudulent concealment. The crimes committed against the Iraqi civilian population under the brutal and uncompromising sanctions regime must finally be addressed and all perpetrators must be held accountable. The international community has a moral as well as legal obligation to finally face the facts and bring long overdue justice to the Iraqi people. Those left behind in the rubbles of a once proud country will demand accountability of all those parties – states and non-state actors – involved in horrendous crimes against their loved ones. And all those believing in human rights and dignity should be standing right beside them.

1. Sly, Liz. Saddam Hussein said sanctions killed 500,000 children. That was ‘a spectacular lie.’ Washington Post. Published 4 August 2017. Retrieved from

2. Dyson, Tim, & Cetorelli, Valeria. Changing views on child mortality and economic sanctions in Iraq: a history of lies, damned lies and statistics. BMJ Global Health. Published 24 July 2017. DOI: 10.1136/bmjgh-2017-000311

3. UNICEF. Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Survey. Baghdad, 1999. Retrieved from
UNICEF. Iraq surveys show ‘humanitarian emergency’. 1999

4. Sponeck, Hans C. von. Contribution on Media Lens. (8 August 2017). Retrieved from

5. Sponeck, Hans C. von. A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq, Berghahn Books, New York & Oxford, September 2006; ISBN 1-84545-222-4 (hardback), 322 pages. First published in Germany in 2005 (Hamburger Edition) as Ein anderer Krieg: Das Sanktionsregime der UNO im Irak.

See also: D’Aymery, Gilles. International Ignominy. Hans von Sponeck's A Different Kind of War:
The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq. [Book Review]. 2007. Retrieved from

Sponeck, Hans C. von. After the journey — a UN man’s open letter to Tony Blair. New Statesman. Published on 23 September 2010. Retrieved from

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. Sponeck, Hans C. von. A Different Kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq, Berghahn Books, New York & Oxford, September 2006; ISBN 1-84545-222-4 (hardback), 322 pages. First published in Germany in 2005 (Hamburger Edition) as Ein anderer Krieg: Das Sanktionsregime der UNO im Irak.

Links to relevant GICJ press releases and appeals on Iraq:

Jeopardizing UNAMI's Credibility GICJ Calls to Investigate Adbuction of Journalists GICJ Calls to Investigate Children in Armed Conflict GICJ Calls for Investigations on Crimes Committed in Fallujah Press Release: Footages Show Crimes and Abuses by Iraqi ERD GICJ Calls to Convene Special Session on Iraq

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