The Politics of Dead Children

Have sanctions against Iraq murdered millions?

Are "a million innocent children...dying at this time...in Iraq" because of U.S. sanctions, as Osama bin Laden claimed in his October 7 videotaped message to the world? Has the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) discovered that "at least 200 children are dying every day...as a direct result of sanctions," as advocacy journalist John Pilger maintains on his Web site? Is it official U.N. belief that 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 are dying each month due to its own policy, as writers of letters to virtually every U.S. newspaper have stated repeatedly during the past three years?

The short answer to all of these questions is no. The sanctions, first imposed in 1990 after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, are administered by the U.N., not the U.S. They were first imposed on all exports from Iraq and occupied Kuwait, and all non-humanitarian imports, in an effort to persuade Saddam Hussein to retreat within his own borders. After the Gulf War, they were broadened to include a dismantling of Iraq's biological, chemical, nuclear, and missile-based weapons systems, out of fear that Hussein would otherwise lash out again. Estimates of sanctions-era "excess" child deaths -- the number above the normal mortality rate -- vary widely due to politics and inadequate data, especially concerning children older than 5. The dictatorial Iraqi government, which has blamed nearly every civilian funeral since 1991 on sanctions, claims there have been more than 600,000 deaths of under-5-year-olds these past 11 years (4,500 per month) and 1.5 million deaths overall.

While firefighters were still pulling out warm body parts from Ground Zero, foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky and his followers on college campuses and alternative-weekly staffs nationwide were insisting that it was vital to understand the "context" of the September 11 massacre: that U.S.-led sanctions were killing "5,000 children a month" in Iraq. Meanwhile, on the Iraqi government's own Web site, the number of under-5 deaths from all causes for the month of September was listed as 2,932.

Arriving at a reliable raw number of dead people is hard enough; assigning responsibility for the ongoing tragedy borders on the purely speculative. Competing factors include sanctions, drought, hospital policy, breast-feeding education, Saddam Hussein's government, depressed oil prices, the Iraqi economy's almost total dependence on oil exports and food imports, destruction from the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars, differences in conditions between the autonomous north and the Saddam-controlled south, and a dozen other variables difficult to measure without direct independent access to the country.

Confusing the issue still further are basic questions about the sanctions themselves. Should the U.N. impose multilateral economic sanctions to keep a proven tyrant from developing weapons to launch more wars against his neighbors? If sanctions are inherently immoral, what other tools short of war can the international community use? Is this particular sanctions regime more unreasonable than others that haven't triggered humanitarian crises? How much should we blame Saddam Hussein for rejecting the U.N.'s "oil-for-food" humanitarian offer for six years, and expelling weapons inspectors in 1998? Most important, has Iraq made headway since then in pursuing nuclear and biological weapons?

Yet all this murkiness has not deterred advocates of sanctions from claiming absolute certainty on the issue. The warmongering New Republic, for example, announced in October that the notion that "sanctions have caused widespread suffering" was simply "false." Writing in National Review in December, former army intelligence analyst Robert Stewart asserted that "resources are available in Iraq. Even under the sanctions, Iraq's people need not starve."

The chasm between claims made by sanction supporters and opponents is enough to make inquisitive people throw their hands up in the air. Such despair is not exactly conducive to healthy debate, which is especially important at a time when President Bush has made it clear that Iraq must cooperate with weapons inspection or become the next target of the War on Terrorism. A closer look at the controversy over dead Iraqi babies shows that opponents of sanctions have a compelling case to make. Although they often undermine their own position with outrageous exaggerations, their critics show a similar disregard for the facts when they blithely dismiss concerns about the impact of sanctions on innocent people.

Origins of a Whopper

The idea that sanctions in Iraq have killed half a million children (or 1 million, or 1.5 million, depending on the hysteria of the source) took root in 1995 and 1996, on the basis of two transparently flawed studies, one inexplicable doubling of the studies' statistics, and a non-denial on 60 Minutes.

In August 1995, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gave officials from the Iraqi Ministry of Health a questionnaire on child mortality and asked them to conduct a survey in the capital city of Baghdad. On the basis of this five-day, 693-household, Iraq-controlled study, the FAO announced in November that "child mortality had increased nearly five fold" since the pre-sanctions era. As embargo critic Richard Garfield, a public health specialist at Columbia University, wrote in his own comprehensive 1999 survey of under-5 deaths in Iraq, "The 1995 study's conclusions were subsequently withdrawn by the authors....Notwithstanding the retraction of the original data, their estimate of more than 500,000 excess child deaths due to the embargo is still often repeated by sanctions critics."

In March 1996, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its own report on the humanitarian crisis. It reprinted figures -- provided solely by the Iraqi Ministry of Health -- showing that a total of 186,000 children under the age of 5 died between 1990 and 1994 in the 15 Saddam-governed provinces. According to these government figures, the number of deaths jumped nearly 500 percent, from 8,903 in 1990 to 52,905 in 1994.

Somehow, based largely on these two reports -- a five-day study in Baghdad showing a "five fold" increase in child deaths and a Ministry of Health claim that a total of 186,000 children under 5 had died from all causes between 1990 and 1994 -- a New York-based advocacy group called the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) concluded in a May 1996 survey that "these mortality rates translate into a figure of over half a million excess child deaths as a result of sanctions."

In addition to doubling the Iraqi government's highest number and attributing all deaths to the embargo, CESR suggested a comparison that proved popular among the growing legions of sanctions critics: "In simple terms, more Iraqi children have died as a result of sanctions than the combined toll of two atomic bombs on Japan." The word genocide started making its way into the discussion.

Still, the report might well have ended up in the dustbin of bad mathematics had a CESR fact-finding tour of Iraq not been filmed by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. In a May 12, 1996, report that later won her an Emmy and an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Journalism Award, Stahl used CESR's faulty numbers and atomic-bomb imagery to confront Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "We have heard that a half million children have died," Stahl said. "I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And -- and you know, is the price worth it?" Albright replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it."

It was the non-denial heard 'round the world. In the hands of sanctions opponents and foreign policy critics, it was portrayed as a confession of fact, even though neither Albright nor the U.S. government has ever admitted to such a ghastly number (nor had anybody aside from CESR and Lesley Stahl ever suggested such a thing until May 1996). The 60 Minutes exchange is very familiar to readers of Arab newspapers, college dailies, and liberal journals of opinion. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan mentioned it several times during their respective presidential campaigns.

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