Magazine article New Internationalist

Cradle to Grave

Magazine article New Internationalist

Cradle to Grave

Article excerpt

IN 1995 a glossy publication marking 'Fifty Years of Achievement' presented 'a sample of what the UN system has accomplished since 1945'. Impressive headings included self-congratulatory statements about humanitarian aid to victims of conflict, alleviating chronic hunger, providing safe drinking water and reducing child mortality.1

For Iraq-watchers the irony was stark. On 6 August 1990, Hiroshima Day, the most draconian embargo ever administered by the UN was imposed on Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait. By the end of the 40-day first Gulf War in February 1991, Iraq had been 'bombed back to a pre-industrial age', as threatened by then US Secretary of State James Baker. Further disaster was already unfolding.

'Nothing we had seen or read could have prepared us for this particular form of devastation,' wrote the then Special Rapporteur to the UN Martti Ahtisaari. The recent conflict has wrought near apocalyptic results on the economic infrastructure of what had been a rather urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous.'2

Iraq imported about 70 per cent of everything. The UN sanctions regime stopped the import of spare parts to maintain the supply of electricity, water and telephones. Dialysis patients died for lack of machine maintenance. Burns units had no rehydration salts, painkillers or antiseptics. Under the 'dual use' paragraph, operating theatres were denied disinfectants because, according to the UN, they could theoretically be used in chemical-weapons manufacture. Additives for water purification fell into the same category. Almost anything that came out of an Iraqi tap soon became lethal.

Within a year, childhood mortality spiralled. 'Baseline mortality for the under-five population rose from 43.2 to 128.5 per thousand,' an independent report concluded. Near-eradicated diseases such as polio, cholera and typhoid returned. Marasmus and kwashiorkor - grotesque wasting diseases associated with starvation - made an appearance. Cancers soared, linked to the depleted uranium weapons used in the 1991 bombardment. The import of cancer drugs was prohibited - the 'dual use' paragraph again. An embargo imposed to force Iraq out of Kuwait quietly strangled a nation where half the population was estimated to be aged under 16.3

Sugar babies

In 1993 doctors discovered an entirely new disease. Mothers too malnourished to breastfeed - in a country where obesity was once a problem - and unable to afford milk powder, had been feeding their babies sugared water or tea. Almost all their babies died. The doctors called them 'sugar babies'.

Diagnosed with a minor heart problem in 1990, seven-yearold Yasmin's doctors reassured her parents that as soon as the embargo was lifted a relatively simple procedure would fix it and she would be fine. During the next five years a minor problem slowly became a major one. She died in front of me and a gentle Iraqi friend. 'I hope they told her before she died that she had failed to comply with UN resolutions,' he said with fury, encapsulating the loathing for the UN throughout most of Iraq. Margaret Hassan, the redoubtable head of Care International in Baghdad - kidnapped last October and brutally murdered - called the children of the embargo 'the lost generation'.

US and British politicians repeatedly claim that the '30 years of neglect' by the Iraqi regime was responsible for the woeful state of the country's infrastructure. …

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