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Wednesday, December 23, 1998 Published at 15:06 GMT

Oil-for-food scheme no cure-all

Iraqi oil exports are inspected under the oil-for-food programme

As United Nations humanitarian staff go back to work in Iraq after the US-led air strikes, serious questions hang over the UN oil-for-food programme which funds the distribution of desperately needed aid to millions of ordinary Iraqis.

UN oil-for-food spokesman John Mills: "It's badly needed"
About 100 UN workers arrived back in Baghdad this week after a 15-hour overland journey from Jordan following the resumption of deliveries of basic supplies to Iraq. Some international staff had stayed throughout the bombardment.

A spokesman said their first task would be to evaluate any urgent needs and assess the damage caused to the UN humanitarian programme by the four days of strikes.

[ image: Children in Baghdad queue for food donations outside a mosque]
Children in Baghdad queue for food donations outside a mosque
Under the programme, which began in December 1996, Iraq has been allowed to sell oil worth $5.2bn every six months to buy essential supplies for its people. About a third of the proceeds go towards the UN weapons inspection programme and a compensation fund for the damage caused by the Gulf War.

The programme's aim is to offset the shortages and suffering caused by UN trade sanctions which have been in place against Iraq since the Gulf War, pending the destruction by Baghdad of all banned weapons.

But the arrangement faces a number of problems:

  • Because of a slump in oil prices, proceeds from sales have amounted to only about 3bn dollars in the past six months, well short of the 5.2bn dollar limit.

  • In response to this, the US has proposed increasing the amount of oil Iraq can sell if there is assessed to be a humanitarian need for more food. But because of the poor state of Iraq's petrochemical industry, there are doubts as to whether Iraq would be able to produce more oil for export even if it were allowed to.

  • In spite of the programme, serious deprivation and malnourishment are a reality in Iraq. A Unicef report in 1997 estimated that nearly one million Iraqi children were chronically malnourished.

    Margaret Hassan of Care International, speaking from Baghdad: The humanitarian situation is not improving
    Such conditions fuel huge resentment among Iraqis against the sanctions, and this is readily exploited by Saddam Hussein's leadership in its propaganda.

    A former co-ordinator of the programme, Dennis Halliday, resigned this year, describing the sanctions regime as "illegal and immoral".

    "We are in the process of destroying an entire society", he said.

    Click here to watch Jeremy Cooke's report from Baghdad on the hardship faced by Iraqis.

  • While ordinary Iraqis suffer crushing poverty, the Baghdad leadership and those close to it appear immune from the effects of sanctions, and many of them live in opulence.

    [ image: An Iraqi trader in second-hand car parts - under sanctions new ones are hard to come by]
    An Iraqi trader in second-hand car parts - under sanctions new ones are hard to come by
    Western intelligence agencies suspect manipulation of the food rationing system, and say there is a large oil-smuggling operation.

    Britain said this had been targeted during the US-led air strikes in a successful attack against an oil refining facility which had been identified as a source of illegal oil shipments through the Gulf.

  • The sanctions against Iraq, and the oil-for-food deal that goes with them, attract far from universal international support. Russia, France and other Arab states have urged the easing or end of sanctions.

[ image:  ]
Some countries - including France and Russia, have business interests which they are keen to pursue but cannot while sanctions remain in place.

The issue will be another source of contention in the difficult period facing the UN as it tries to rebuild consensus in the wake of December's military campaign.

US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Pickering reiterated this week that only when Iraq began to disarm its weapons of mass destruction and its programme of disarmament was verified by UN inspectors would the question of sanctions even be addressed.

With no clear future for the inspection programme after the US and British strikes, that prospect looks as far away as ever. Meanwhile, ordinary Iraqis will have no choice but to continue relying on the oil-for-food deal, with all its shortcomings.

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