The economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Iraq in 1990 and enforced right up until the 2003 invasion are widely regarded to have devastated the local population. At the time, the U.N. estimated that approximately 1.7 million Iraqis had died as a result, including 500,000 to 600,000 children. Numerous officials resigned in protest due to the effects these sanctions were having on the civilian population.
However, at the end of July of this year, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a counter-narrative conducted by the London School of Economics (LSE) entitled “Changing views on child mortality and economic sanctions in Iraq: a history of lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
The LSE report found there was “no sign of a huge and enduring rise in the under-5 death rate starting in 1991” and that “Saddam Hussein’s government successfully manipulated the 1999 survey in order to convey a very false impression.” The Washington Post ran a story on this article late last week, failing to question the report’s findings whatsoever.
The LSE argues that the figure on child deaths was the “creation of a remarkable fiction,” making it quite clear that in their view, this was the work of a deceptive Saddam Hussein-led government. The report notes that upon re-interviewing the local population, many of the previously alleged deaths were unconfirmed, adding that some miscarriages and stillbirths had been wrongly classified as child deaths in 1995.
The report focuses on the widely cited Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Survey (ICMMS) conducted by UNICEF. LSE calls the ICMMS a deception and notes that a Working Group of an Independent Inquiry Committee established by the Secretary General of the U.N. “suggested that the Iraqi government might have tampered with the ICMMS data.” The report also says the ICMMS “suffered from serious errors and limitations,” though it does not expand on this particular claim.
Since 2003, three major household surveys covering the whole of Iraq were conducted, and these particular surveys did not support UNICEF’s initial findings. In fact, the three surveys “reveal[ed] no sign of a huge rise in child mortality after 1990,” according to the LSE researchers, who assert that this is “compelling evidence that it simply did not happen.”
Unfortunately for LSE, there are some major issues with this assessment.
First, to act as if an increase in child mortality due to economic sanctions was part of a conspiracy led by Saddam Hussein’s government ignores the fact that this is what sanctions have done to local populations across the globe. Sanctions routinely bring the particular state closer to a state of collapse, and the people who feel the effects the most are always civilians.
By creating political and civil unrest, the country enforcing said sanctions can successfully turn the local population against its own government.
Second, and most horrifyingly, the statistics regarding child mortality rates were actually mentioned to the Clinton administration in an interview, and Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, intimated that to the U.S. government, the deaths of half a million children were “worth it” as the “price” Saddam Hussein needed to pay.
Whether or not 500,000 children died was almost irrelevant to the Clinton administration, which barely batted an eyelid carrying out this policy. The U.S. government conducted this strategy all the while thinking they were killing hundreds of thousands of children – and didn’t care.
One of the U.N. officials who resigned at the time was the humanitarian coordinator, Hans von Sponeck, who protested the impact the sanctions were having on the civilian population. He subsequently wrote a book on the topic. His predecessor, Denis Halliday, also resigned in 1998 in protest to the sanctions, as well, referring to them as “genocidal.”
Media Lens, an organization that analyzes media bias and propaganda, wrote to both Halliday and von Sponeck for their views on the LSE report and published the responses on their Facebook page. As we will note, the LSE report is factually incorrect according to those who actually oversaw the program.
“UNICEF’s child mortality research and its publication in 1999 was a remarkable achievement given the circumstances in which Iraq and the UN system found themselves in the late 1990s. Saddam Hussein’s government had become highly suspicious of ‘outsiders’ including UN entities,” von Sponeck explained.
Von Sponeck acknowledges that there were constraints in conducting the research but clarified that UNICEF was well aware of this and took precautions. He stated:
“As to the 1999 UNICEF child mortality survey (the ICMMS), let me point out that, based on my association with UNICEF and other UN agencies resident in Iraq when I was the UN Coordinator in Baghdad, I feel comfortable in saying the following:
- In carrying out the mortality survey, UNICEF was fully aware of all the constraints and pitfalls, and said so.
- UNICEF staff – highly professional individuals were in charge of this research. They were joined by Iraqi medical personnel, and probably also by Iraqi intelligence people who were usually present when the UN carried out their field work!
- UNICEF, aware of the possibility of data manipulation by Iraqi authorities, was circumspect, watchful in the collection of data, and linguistically able to follow.
- On that basis, UNICEF had confirmed that child mortality data had been collected with Iraqi help, but UNICEF, it was stressed, was fully responsible for the research methodology, the data analysis and the resulting conclusions.” [emphasis added]
Considering that one of LSE’s main claims, as repeated by the Washington Post, was that the U.N.’s research had been manipulated by Saddam Hussein’s government, this already appears to collapse as an argument based on one of the most informed sources who oversaw the sanctions regime.
Von Sponeck also explained that his eyewitness testimony was often rejected by the U.S. and U.K. because he was told “that in citing statistics of civilian casualties all I was doing was to repeat Iraqi propaganda.”
For example, referring to an air strike that took place in 1999, von Sponeck said:
“I pointed out to the UK ambassador during a visit to New York that when a serious UK/US airstrike had taken place resulting in large scale civilian damage, I would myself go to the sites to verify casualties and therefore would be in a position to confirm Iraqi reports or correct them. As an example, when the official Iraqi media would report that in an airstrike on a residential area in Basra 11 deaths had occurred, I myself had counted 17 coffins!” [emphasis added]
Halliday concurred with Sponeck’s statement, adding that the “defensive misinformation from Washington and London never seem to end.”
Von Sponeck concluded:
“To tell the world yet again, and that 14 years after the end of sanctions, that life in an Iraq under sanctions was not as brutal and life-threatening after all, despite Saddam Hussein, and that there were fewer child deaths than UNICEF had reported in 1999 is repugnant and should not be allowed to go unanswered. ‘The rigging of the 1999 UNICEF survey was a masterful fraud’ the LSE study concludes. The two LSE researchers should retract such a seriously incorrect assertion and publicly apologize for their poor piece of work.”