Intended for healthcare professionals


Some talk of genocide

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 11 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:722
  1. Tony Delamothe
  1. BMJ

    Paying the Price—The Killing of the Children of Iraq: A special report by John Pilger, ITV, Monday 6 March at 9 30 pm

    Last month, the United Nations' top official in Iraq resigned, no longer able to tolerate the suffering caused by nine years of economic sanctions. In taking this action for these reasons, he followed in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor. A few days after his resignation, the head of the UN world food programme in Iraq also resigned in protest.

    John Pilger's documentary, Paying the Price—The Killing of the Children of Iraq, showed why these people might want to distance themselves as far as possible from the policies of the UN Security Council towards Iraq. “Every UN agency dealing with health, food, agriculture, and children has reported repeatedly that tens of thousands of the most vulnerable in society have died or are suffering as a result of the sanctions,” says Pilger. “Why should the civilian population, including children born since the Gulf war, innocent people, be held hostage to the compliance of a dictator?”

    The World Health Organization estimates that, since the sanctions, the death rate among children has doubled, adding another half a million deaths. What crime did these children commit to deserve this punishment, asks an Iraqi paediatrician at the end of her heartbreaking ward round.

    No doubt Pilger would have put this question to Britain's foreign secretary, Robin Cook, had he not declined to appear on the programme unless granted a string of demands that even Saddam Hussein would have been hard pressed to exceed. The US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was asked whether she thought the deaths of half a million children was a price worth paying for achieving the West's aims for Iraq. “We think the price is worth it,” she told a US press conference.

    In the documentary, a State Department official did his best to airbrush out this public relations gaffe. The estimate was “derived by a methodology we don't accept,” he said, but he had no alternative methodology and therefore no alternative estimate.

    Meanwhile, daily life for the Iraqis continues in a downward spiral, with people trying to turn their possessions into cash for food and medicines. In the street markets, doctors are selling their textbooks to put food on their families' tables. About $1.5bn worth of overseas contracts for vital equipment remain on hold, mostly at the behest of the United States, although the UK Department of Trade and Industry blocked a shipment of vaccines against yellow fever and diphtheria because of their possible use in weapons of mass destruction.

    Iraqi hospitals have limited drug supplies—aspirin rather than morphine for cancer pain. Crucial chemotherapy for childhood cancers is unobtainable. At the same time, the demand for such treatments is increasing: lymphomas and neuroblastomas seem more common now than before the Gulf war, when weapons were laced with depleted uranium.

    According to Derek Halliday, the former assistant secretary general of the United Nations in charge of humanitarian operations in Iraq, the West is waging war through the United Nations on the people of Iraq, with results that you do not expect to see in a war fought under the Geneva Conventions. “We're targeting civilians… it's a monstrous situation for the UN, for the Western world, for all of us who are part of some democratic system, who are responsible for the policies of our governments and the implementation of economic sanctions on Iraq.”

    No end in sight

    After nine years of sanctions, the end of the West's disagreement with Iraq seems as far off as ever, which the chairman of the UN Sanctions Committee attributes to internal divisions within the Security Council. It's clear that the United States and Britain are still playing the “weapons of mass destruction” card, despite the testimony of a former UN weapons inspector that this capability has been dismantled.

    According to Halliday, the Security Council is now destroying the human rights of the Iraqi people. It's an “extraordinary situation that the chamber responsible for peace and security is neglecting the very provisions of the charter which forms the bases of the organisation itself. There is no democracy in the Security Council: if the issue of sanctions on Iraq after nine long years were to go to the General Assembly we'd see a very large majority overturning the sanctions tomorrow.”

    Pilger said the sanctions are not affecting Saddam Hussein and his cronies, who seem to have access to the health care they need, but he carefully avoided the issue of whether sanctions were working: the programme was an examination of the ethics of the means, not the ends.

    Prime Minister Tony Blair, apparently borrowing from George Bush's script of several years before, intoned: “Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people. It never has been.” In which case, this programme should make despairing viewing for him and his government. The collateral damage of the actions meant to hurt Saddam Hussein's regime, Pilger argues convincingly, has brought the whole country to its knees. Halliday calls it genocide and believes that when the history books are written the Security Council, the United Nations, Washington, and London will be “slaughtered” for their actions. From Pilger's first draft of history, you can see the evidence the historians might cite.

    And how did the paediatrician feel at the end of her ward round? “Very sad. All of the children look like your daughter or my son. And when you see my son in front of me dying, what happens to you?”

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