Stampa Articolo

Were the sanctions placed on Iraq by the international community genocidal?



di Paola Barbuzzi [*]

The United Nation Security Council (UNSC) imposed on Iraq harsh economic sanctions on 6th August 1990   under the Resolution 661 in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and to the threat that the invasion had provoked to international peace and security in the region of Western Asia.

The primary measure of the Security Council was “to secure compliance of Iraq with the paragraph 2 of the Rs 660 (1990)”, which compelled the immediate withdrawal of the Iraqi military force from the state of Kuwait. The main concern was to restore peace and security within the region and also “to re-establish the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Kuwait” as it was before the invasion.  Since Iraq refused to comply with the Resolution 660, the Council proceeded to implement sanctions regime by adopting the resolution 661 under Article 41, Chapter VII, of the UN Charter, after having established under article 39 the existence of a threat to peace.  This factor was crucial for the Security Council to confer upon itself the power to apply the sanctions provision, under Article 41 (Anna Segall, 1999).

In principle, the sanctions can be viewed as the right choice to an armed conflict. However, if the “humanitarian exemptions” are not adequately managed to protect the civilian population, the sanctions can determine severe humanitarian consequences on the civilians of the target state [1]. These consequences, for example, have brutally encompassed the life of millions of Iraqi people, who were deprived of their fundamental rights: the right to life and the right to humanitarian assistance. By denying and excluding imports of goods in toto, everything and all life became a target for the Iraqi people (Geoff Simon, 1998).

The decision of maintaining the sanctions in force after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 became the object of criticism and field of discourses on Iraq and its silent and on-going   humanitarian emergency that was characterised by

«A profound social crisis in which a large number of people die and suffer from war, disease, hunger, and displacement is owing to man-made and natural disasters…» (Abbas Alnasrawi, 2000).

Because of the devastating consequences that the sanctions have contributed to the impoverishment and degradation of the life of the population, many scholars and observers have associated the repercussions of the sanctions with the word genocide. Others have, instead, used the expression of “new Holocaust” to describe the agony and suffering of the Iraqi people.

Given that, in the first paragraph of the essay, I will argue, through a sociological approach, that the UN definition of genocide stated in the Art 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, especially the part which stresses  that genocide «means (…) acts committed with intent to destroy», is inadequate to recognise the effects of the sanctions  on the Iraqi people as genocidal. In this regard, in order to identify the sanctions as genocidal, the aim is to move away from the idea that the intentional legal concept, seen as «singular and linear goal of destruction», is the only requirement for the recognition of the genocide.

Therefore, within the sociological context, the «intent to destroy a group» transits to a broader understanding [2] in which Raphael Lemkin’s sociological framework is restored and used by quite a few scholars to “redefine” what genocide is. Furthermore, by narrowing the action of the genocide to the «intent to destroy» a group as such, the impasse would be that the sanctions could easily skip the moral and political responsibilities for the death of millions of Iraqis and the destruction of their cultural and social existence. As the scope of the UNSC, according to the official narrative, was not to impose the sanctions by targeting the Iraqi people as a group, rather it targeted the Iraqi regime, which was legally recognised as being a «threat to the peace and security». The political responsibility of the UNSC and other actors who were involved in the maintenance of the sanctions will be discussed in the second paragraph by providing an account of the consequences of the sanctions on the life of the Iraqi people.

1From the legal definition of genocide to a broader view

 Genocide carries a semantic power, the power of expressing the most inhuman and extreme form of crime against members of the same group or nation. It specifically refers to the idea of the physical disintegration of individuals as members of a group, as stated in Article 2 [3] (a) to (e) of the Convention, in 1948. Since then, the UN definition has predominantly influenced lawyers, scholars and others on dealing with genocide studies.

The intent to destroy and the knowledge of planning the physical and biological destruction of a group have become the main elements of detecting and recognising the meaning of genocide and its realities in practice. Therefore, the legal understanding of genocide that is comprised of two components “intent” and “knowledge”, as mentioned above, have forged the meaning of genocide solely to the idea of ‘mass killing’ of a group. However, if the destruction of a group is meant to focus on the fixed idea of genocide as the substantial amount of physical death of a group, how could acts of vandalism [4] and violence against the way a group lives be recognised as a cultural genocide? This form of genocide has led to critical sociological perspectives for the understanding of genocide itself and also for the understanding of the events that occurred in Iraq. If the sanctions did not carry the intention to destroy, they contributed to the impoverishment of the land and the severe destruction of the Iraqi national culture.

Raphael Lemkin [5] offers a comprehensive and vital view of the cultural destruction of a group. He sustained the idea that the annihilation of the social and cultural relations on which a group creates its own identity and communal life is to be considered genocide [6]. For him, genocide was the destruction of the foundation of the life of a group through a coordinated plan of different actions; actions that were set up for the destruction of the identity of a nation. The destruction of a national group was the «destruction of political and social institutions, culture, language, religion, the economics, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups». Destroying the culture meant, for Lemkin, the destruction of the rights to the collective existence of a nation because the culture was perceived as an assemblage of “human societies” and “consequently” seen as a container of «a necessary pre-condition for the realization of individual material needs»[7]. The loss of culture was the loss of the social fabric in which the genos grows and preserves its existence. Therefore, «the destruction of a nation results in the loss of its future contribution to the world»[8], as Lemkin emphasized. Furthermore, within this broader view of cultural genocide, mass killing was seen as one technique for the destruction of a group, not the only one.

The cultural genocide’s view is one way of transcending the impasse of the narrowing view of the legal concept of genocide. Through the perspective of the destruction of the cultural patterns some scholars have been able to expand and connect diverse manifestations of forms of genocide to, for instance, the «cases of many indigenous peoples»[9] lives, or the deployment of the concept of ‘social death’ [10]. The latter refers to some acts or series of acts   that make them genocidal [11]such as the removal of a group from its own land. Furthermore, the interest of neoliberal economic hegemony of political, corporate and military leaders have been often the cause of cultural and physical destructions of groups and also of sovereign states, as occurred in Iraq with the Gulf War and then the imposition of the economic sanctions.

Denis J. Halliday [12] defined the sanctions genocide to a conference held in Spain in 1999 on the United Nations’ regime of economic sanctions on the people of Iraq. His criticisms were addressed to the UN security council’s responsibility for the death of millions of people, especially children, and the incompatibility of the sanctions with the provisions of the UN Charter, which were established with the intent to guarantee human rights to everybody.  What’s more, Halliday arose an essential point about the future credibility of the UN’s humanitarian interventions and its political role as a guarantee of the Human Rights for the protection of minority groups and civilians against any form of political violence such as genocide. In this regard, due to terrible events that occurred in the 1990s in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, interrogations on the meaning and scope of the concept of genocide brought back the attention to the term genocide. Many scholars were encouraged to deal with the term genocide, not just as a mere conceptual exercise. It was felt the practical and moral necessity for the right use of the term genocide within international law policies. In other words, when the nature of the violence is understood, the implementation of international public policies on genocide, for example, will be more effective on the punishment of the perpetrators and will prompt interventions in favour of the targeted people and civilians.

The civilians are the main focus of Martin Shaw on his sociological analysis of   genocide. Through Max Weber’s theory on social relations, Shaw arrives at describing genocide as a complex, intentional action of multiple actors. The plurality of actions within a genocidal context produces social conflict, «characterized by particular kinds of relationships between actors»[13]. What makes genocide different from other forms of political violence is that the targeted group, the victim, and also the civilians are the objective target of the perpetrators. In synthesis, for Shaw, since the civilians socially represent the non-combatants to the perpetrators, who are armed and militarily organized, their civilian identity is what makes their targeting genocidal [14].


Foto Adrian Dennis (EPA)

The sanctions and their effects on the civilians

The entire Iraqi population, especially the most vulnerable such as the elderly, sick people and children, experienced enormous destruction on their lives, when the UNSC, supported by the US and other western allies, imposed sanctions in Iraq in the response of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Although the sanctions were legally called under Article 41 of the UN Chapter VII, the representative of the UNSC did not correctly calculate, or they intentionally ignored, the devastating consequences of the economic embargo on a country that was totally dependent on imports and exports for the functioning of its economy and the welfare of its people. Selling oil was used to import foodstuff, consumer goods and capital goods [15]. On top of these issues, Iraq was already facing negative impacts due to the destruction of the oil facilities, after eight years of war with Iran; and the political leadership represented by Saddam Hussein had spread terror, violence and suppression among the population during his dictatorship. If the Iraqi people experienced the deprivation of civil and human rights under Hussein’s regime, the sanctions did the same. They deprived Iraqis of the right to life and the right to humanitarian assistance. More importantly, after a massive military bombing, (organized by the US and its allies during the Gulf war), that destroyed the civilian infrastructures, the implementation of the sanctions contributed to a slow and deteriorating annihilation of the social and cultural foundation of the way of living of the Iraqis.

The destruction of the electrical power generator system, for example, caused environmental and health issues. Some of the issues were related to the use of old generators that produced a high percentage of HC (hydrocarbons) emission. The latter combined with other toxins caused the increase of cancer and more adverse health effects [16]. Plus, with the lack of electrical supply public services such as hospitals had to reduce their service sharply Notably, with the shortage of pure drinking water [17], the population was exposed to disease and epidemics. In particular, children were the most affected by the lack of vital commodities: potable water, food and medication. Numerous surveys, made by the UNICEF during the embargo, showed accurate figures of the dramatic increase of child mortality under five during the period of the embargo, as a result of starvation and disease.

More generally, the economic sanctions brought to the collapse of the social fabric   with the rise of crimes [18], prostitution, suicide, robbery, kidnapping, analphabetism and also the deterioration of Iraqi women’s rights and their condition.  The women were not only forced to leave their jobs and look after their families, but they also underwent profound psychological discomforts. They soon abandoned hopes and educational opportunities for their future.  Many of them assisted the death of their children in silence, as a constrained cruel destiny, with no claim and voice to be heard by anybody, neither by the UNSC nor the Iraqi regime. Indeed, no incisive actions were taken by the UNSC to end this injustice and give back to the Iraqis their right to life.

If the high spirit of the UN, when the organization was established on 24th October 1945, was to promote cooperation, peace, security and guarantee of human rights to everybody on the planet, why did it fail to deliver this purpose with the Iraqi people?  Moreover, if the importance of the Universal Declaration, as it is also explained in the preamble of the ICCPR, 1966, is the natural recognition of the rights, listed in the Charter, as the inherent dignity of the human person, why were these innate human rights violated and thus negated to the people of Iraq?

The questions mainly aim at pointing out the incompatibility of the principle of the UN, that of the guarantee of human rights, with the political ideology. When political ideologies manipulate and interfere with the operation of the Security Council, the sanctions can be indiscriminately used as a powerful weapon against the population. They can then turn into a genocidal machine.

 The genocide arose and was shaped by the result of the influence of the US on the UNSC in determining crucial policies that affected the entire population of Iraq [19]. Since the US‘s main goal was the destitution of Saddam Hussein, the sanctions were forcibly and illegally maintained active until the accomplishment of Saddam’s downfall, despite the human catastrophe. In this scenario, however, even the government of Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein contributed to the destruction of its people by using discriminatory measures to supply food only to its supporters in order to ensure their continued loyalty to the regime [20].

Within this power game of “man-made decision” the civilians become the most vulnerable and targeted object of political ideology. In order to avoid the same mistake that happened in Iraq, the Security Council must comply with the principles of the UN Charter. It must be incorruptible and intransigent to any external interference that   could jeopardize its role of guarantee of human rights for everybody around the world.




The narrow view of the UN definition of genocide, the “intent to destroy” has been, transited to a broader understanding of it through a sociological approach. By doing so, Raphael Lemkin’s original sociological framework on genocide offers a comprehensive understanding of genocide itself and its manifestations. For him, genocide was the destruction of the foundation of the life of a group through a coordinated plan of different actions. Destroy the culture of a group, perceived as the social fabric, the ‘genos’, meant the destruction of the rights to the collective existence of a nation.  The sanctions contributed to the deterioration of the Iraqi social fabric and exposed the population to devastating consequences.  The right to life of millions of people was subject to an ostensive indifference of a political ideology that has imposed its interest through the  UN devices.

Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 38, luglio 2019
 [*] Abstract
Le sanzioni economiche imposte all’Iraq da parte del Consiglio di Sicurezza delle Nazioni Unite, avvenute il 6 Agosto del 1990, rimasero attive anche dopo la liberazione del Kwait. Tale decisione fu oggetto di dura critica per la sua non giustificabilità e soprattutto per l’impatto negativo  che ha attanagliato la vita degli Iracheni e la loro società. Quindi, la devastante realtà nella quale la popolazione irachena è stata costretta a vivere per oltre un decennio, ha dato la possibilità a molti accademici e studiosi di espandere l’uso del termine genocidio. Infatti, alla domanda: “Sono state le sanzioni imposte all’Iraq dalla comunità internazionale a provocare quella catastrofe umana?, la risposta è decisamente:  Sì può parlare di GENOCIDIO.
Nell’articolo faccio riferimento a studi di carattere sociologico  influenzati  dalle osservazioni di Raphael Lemkin, un avvocato polacco di discendenza ebraica,  il quale ha dato grande rilievo al genocidio di stampo culturale che include la distruzione del modo di vivere di un gruppo di popolazione.
La definizione di genocidio non può più essere ristretta alla sola eliminazione fisica, deve includere la distruzione culturale, riferendosi anche alla negazione del diritto di esistenza collettiva di un popolo, di una nazione, indispensabili  per la realizzazione dei bisogni materiali dei singoli individui di quella “comunità”. Inoltre, il genocidio culturale dà modo di superare l’impasse del concetto legale che ha impedito a molti analisti ed accademici di utilizzare il termine per altri casi relativi alla  violenza di massa  esercitata su gruppi etnici.
[1] Anna Segall, Economic sanctions: legal and policy constraint, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 836.
[2] Martin Shaw, What is genocide?, Polity Press,  Cambridge 2007.
 [3] Article 2: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
• (a) Killing members of the group;
• (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
[4] As Damien Short pinpoints, Lemkin envisages the destruction of a group through two separate ways: (a) By killing the members of a group, -physical genocide (derived from Lemkin’s notion of “barbarity“); (b) By   destroying   the way of group lives- cultural genocide (derived from „vandalism“), in Damien Short, Cultural genocide and indigenous peoples: a sociological approach, The international Journal of Human Rights, vol.14, No. 6, November 2010: 831-846,.835.
[5] Raphael Lemkin is well known for being the founder of the term genocide and more importantly, for his lifetime’s work for the legal protection of the minority group.
 [6] Mohammed Abed, Clarifying the concept of genocide, “Metaphilosophy”, Vol. 37, No. 3–4, July 2006: 309.
[7] Ibid: 835.
[8] Damien Short, Cultural genocide and indigenous peoples: a sociological approach: 835.
[9] Damien Short, ibid.
[10] Mohammed Abed talks of social death when a group is forced to leave its land. He sustains that values, memories, practices of recurring public events and other traditions that characterize the identity of a group are profoundly connected to the territory. Removing groups from their ancestry territory are seen as social death, therefore, as a form of genocide.
[11] Ibid: 312.
[12]  Denis j. Halliday was the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq from 1 September 1997 until 1998.
[13] Martin Shaw, What is genocide?: 96.
[14] Ibid.: 113
[15] Abbas Alnasrwai, “ Iraq: economic embargo and predatory rule”, published in War, Hunger and Displacement: The Origins of Humanitarian Emergencies, Volume 2, (Oxford University Press, 2000): 89-119.‎:.15.
[16] Souad N. Al-Azzawi, “Crime against humanity: The destruction of Iraq’s Electricity Infrastructure. The social, economic and environmental impacts”, Global research, October 2007
[17] Eman Salman, “Sanctions from a Iraqi perspective’: Many of the water treatment facilities were contaminated by the by the sewage system”
[18] The Iraqis came to experience crimes as a new phenomenon under the sanctions regime.
[19] Joy Gordon, Lesson we should have learned from the Iraqi sanctions.
[20] Abbas Alnasrwai, “ Iraq: economic embargo and predatory rule”: 17.
Paola Barbuzzi, laureatasi in filosofia all’Università di Bologna, dopo qualche anno di insegnamento di L2 a donne migranti, si è trasferita a Londra per frequentare dei master sui diritti umani e la medicalizzazione del corpo femminile. Stabilitasi da oltre un decennio nella capitale britannica, lavora con `NGOs sulla difesa dei diritti umani e la loro violazione, in modo specifico, sulle donne.



























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