Living under sanctions in Iraq: The Oil-For-Food Program and The Intellectual Embargo

Originally published
This report presents the findings of an American Friends Service Committee-sponsored medical delegation that traveled to Iraq in May 20 - May 30, 1999. Most of the delegation were physicians and public health specialists with backgrounds in international health. A previous medical delegation, including two members of the present delegation, had visited the country in November 1998 to assess the impact of the UN economic sanctions on the lives of children and families. On their return they published a report entitled "Child and Maternal Health, Nutrition and Welfare in Iraq under the Sanctions." The report has been distributed to religious organizations, health and human rights organizations, and members of Congress. It can be found on the Internet at

The second medical delegation had a dual mission: to assess the impact of the UN oil for food program, and to examine the way in which Iraq's international isolation has affected medical education in the country. In addition to three AFSC staff members, the delegation consisted of three pediatricians, two public health professionals, and a physician who had worked in Iraq for AFSC in 1991-2. Four of the delegation members had visited Iraq on previous missions. Arrangements for our visit were made by the representatives of the Middle East Council of Churches and the Mennonite Central Committee in Amman and Baghdad. While in Iraq we were accompanied in our field visits by representatives from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. A list of persons met can be found in Annex II.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has a long history of work in the Middle East, from relief services for Palestinian refugees in 1948 to supporting schools in Lebanon in the 1980s, and peacebuilding among Arabs and Israelis.

AFSC's Iraq program dates from the eve of the Gulf War. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 AFSC supported the United Nations' call for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait. As long as Iraq remained in occupation of Kuwait, AFSC supported the use of economic and military sanctions as a means, short of military conflict, to put pressure on Iraq to comply with the UN resolutions and leave Kuwait. Even before the beginning of the war, however, AFSC called attention to the harmful effect economic sanctions were having on innocent Iraqi citizens.1 After Desert Storm was launched and had compelled Iraq by force to leave Kuwait, AFSC began to call for an end to non-military economic sanctions to allow Iraq to rebuild its badly damaged civilian infrastructure.

Since the 1991 Gulf War AFSC has sponsored various projects in Iraq in conjunction with the Middle East Council of Churches and the Mennonite Central Committee. During the past year AFSC has sent four delegations to Iraq to examine the impact of the UN sanctions on the health and education sectors. It has also sent shipments of children's health kits, anti-tuberculosis medicines, and school supplies, and is now planning school rehabilitation and professional literature projects.

During our ten-day stay we visited six of Iraq's ten medical colleges, talked with college deans and senior physicians, visited hospital wards, and toured hospital medical libraries. We were also able to visit two centers for internally displaced persons in south Iraq and a center for children with disabilities in Baghdad. The pediatricians in our group frequently remarked at the stunted growth in the children we saw, but they seemed as active and playful as children everywhere. We walked around neighborhoods of Baghdad and towns in north and south Iraq, ate at local restaurants, and, on two occasions, arranged to meet socially with Iraqi physicians, including several from the private sector. We never felt ourselves to be under any threat.

The prior delegation's visit in November 1998 was marked by mounting tension over the weapons inspection issue. During this visit there were tensions of another kind: the weapons inspectors had departed, but bombing raids by American and British planes had become an almost daily occurrence in north and south Iraq. United Nations agencies had withdrawn their American and British staff from the country because the Iraqi government couldn't guarantee their safety. Although the air raids received little notice in the American news media, they were frequently mentioned by senior UN agency staff and Iraqi officials. Air raid sirens could be heard in the afternoons during our visits to north and south Iraq. Some of the casualties of a bombing that had occurred on May 12 were still under treatment at a hospital we visited in Mosul, and we visited a residential neighborhood in Basra where U.S. bombs had destroyed several homes.

This report is aimed at the general reader. It provides a brief overview of the events leading up to the current political stalemate. The section of the report that deals with medical education will be of more interest to those with a health background. However, the issues it raises touch the lives of all professionals: engineers, lawyers, teachers, and scientists. This report ends with recommendations addressing some of the problems associated with the UN sanctions and the oil for food program.

We hope that this report will be used by those doing advocacy on behalf of both professional societies and grass roots organizations. For those working in medicine and public health there are specific recommendations for actions that can be taken by individuals and organizations, based on suggestions from Iraqi physicians and educators.2 We hope that the report will also serve as a reference for UN agencies with current programs in Iraq and private voluntary organizations contemplating future programs in Iraq. We are convinced that the political debate on Iraq has reached an impasse. We need to remind our leaders of international norms and urge them to seek productive ways of breaking the current deadlock. Only pressure exerted by well informed groups will move the process ahead.


1. In 1992 AFSC published Dollars orand Bombsullets that made a comparative study of several sanctions regimes imposed by the UN or United States, including the Iraq sanctions. The report makes observations regarding the human costs ofand benefits economic sanctions, and establishes guidelines for their future use.

2. In addition to the recommendations made in the report itself, several other project ideas and issues are raised in annex I.