2000/03/21 SCFAIT Transcript
Tuesday, March 21, 2000. 09:47
The Chair: [...]
I just want to recommend to the members of the committee something. This is an important subject for us. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the issue of sanctions generally. I mean when we were hearing that possible issue, we were looking at what are sanctions really doing. Who are they hurting and who are they helping? I mean, hopefully, this series of hearings we're going into now on Iraq will enable us to understand better not only the situation in Iraq, but also generally what is the utility of sanctions and how they can work. Maybe we can get something useful out of the report on that level.
So I'm very pleased to have with us today our various witnesses. I'm going to ask each one of you when you speak if you could keep it to ten minutes, because then we can guarantee we can get our questions in. So I'm going to just take you each one seriatim as you are on the list. So Physicians for Global Survival, Dr. Zurbrigg, Sheila.
Dr. Sheila Zurbrigg (Professor, Dalhousie University, Physicians for Global Survival): Thank you. I don't know if I can be heard here but just let me know if I can't. Thank you for inviting us to come and speak today. There's a lot to discuss so I won't dally with much of an introduction. I assume that you all have a copy of all our submissions. You may not have had a chance to read them all, but I will speak to a few issues in my submission.
The Chair: That's very helpful and if the other witnesses could do that too, just don't read your submission, because we do have it, but if you could kind of speak to the issue, the principle points, that's most helpful for us. Thank you, Madam.
Dr. Sheila Zurbrigg: I'm a physician, I'm also, in the last number of years, a health historian. I conduct research and teaching on the history of health in relation to changes in access to food in relation to all hunger historically. This research and background has sensitized me from the beginning to the potential, and I would say, inevitable impact of the initial military trade embargo against Iraq from 1990.
It's difficult to describe the scale of the disaster. We can say it's a catastrophe. It has been largely unmonitored, unfortunately. The first countrywide study of mortality impact of the sanctions was conducted last year by UNICEF and they published their reports, as you may be aware, in August which confirmed worst fears, which confirmed the highest estimates that individual UN agents and relief agencies had been making over the course of these nine years. Under five mortality is 131, a technical rate, per 1,000 live births.
This means that one out of seven Iraqi children are dying today before they reach the age of five, one out of seven. This is an extremely high rate, it's almost a 400% increase above pre-sanctions child mortality rates. It means, when you take into account the child population and adult mortality, that well over one million civilians have died in central and southern Iraq. These are excess deaths above the pre-sanctions mortality rate.[emphasis added]
We're talking about over one million deaths in a population of 18 million. If you can compare this to Canada, this is in a considerably smaller population if we had over one million deaths amongst civilians, it is an unthinkable human catastrophe. Not only are they extremely high, but they're probably increasing,[emphasis added] and I won't go into the technical reasons, which I address in my submission.
If economic sanctions were lifted tomorrow, mortality would continue to rise until the economy, which would take years, was restored. We're looking at a minimum of a million and a half civilian deaths due to the economic blockade. If it's delayed further, it's going to go higher, inevitably, to possibly two million, perhaps more.[emphasis added]
Hunger is a major determinant of these mortality rates. One third of children in Iraq are now seriously undernourished. They were not, pre-sanctions. Severe malnutrition, as a health phenomenon, had virtually disappeared by 1989. It is epidemic now. Low birth rate is now one of the highest in the world,[emphasis added] 25% of newborns in Iraq are born weighing less than five pounds. This has enormous mortality implications. One quarter of the children are severely immunologically compromised before even birth. We know that there are horrific problems in contaminated water, as well, but even without contaminated water, child mortality would be epidemic because of this level of undernourishment.
When you have a low birth weight rate of 25%, this reflects pervasive, severe hunger amongst the general adult population,[emphasis added] amongst women throughout Iraq. Something is very terribly wrong, and I hope at the end of this session, we will get beyond thinking in terms of relief, beyond thinking in terms of protein biscuits and nutritional supplements. If this kind of catastrophe were happening in Canada, an agency coming along and saying, "here's some protein biscuits", we would think would be absurd, and indeed obscene. Well, it is obscene in Iraq.
There has been relief. Oil for food has provided a small amount of funds to provide basic needs. Is that not right? And indeed, that's what western governments and our own government refer to and say, well, the civilian population has had 2,300 calories, is that not adequate food? If there's a hunger problem in Iraq, then it must be the government's responsibility.
Why is 2,300 calories not enough? What's wrong with this relief program?
It works out to the Oil for Food Program, from the beginning in the initial offer in 1991, the subsequent offer that was accepted in 1996, resolution 986, provides 21¢ for food, all food per person, per day. What can you buy with 21¢? What could you buy with 21¢?
The government requests the cheapest food possible, because it knows that the cheapest food provides the most calorie per penny, or per dinar. That means that the only food affordable on this ration is grains, a few lentils, a little bit of oil, no vegetables, no fruits, no meat, no milk, no eggs, nothing that we would consider a humane diet.
Virtually, probably three-quarters.... We have very little information, but probably three-quarters of the population are dependent almost solely on this ration, on this oil-for-food food basket. Why? Because the economy has been essentially decimated. There are very few real jobs, real jobs that pay wages that people can afford to buy food. The embargo overnight removed virtually all the population from the market. The prices of food increased initially in the first year by 3,300%, but salaries did not respond. In other words...and today a litre of milk costs 850 dinar, 1 litre. The average income, monthly income for a household in Iraq today is 7,000 dinar. In other words, they can buy perhaps eight litres of milk total for a month's supply of food. So they don't buy milk. They don't buy anything. They survive on their oil-for-food rations that they've been allowed.
It's worse than this. These rations are worse than any prison rations. I'm a famine historian. I'm quite familiar with them and relief efforts in 19th Century British India. These rations are worse than 19th Century British Indian famine relief rations. [emphasis added] At least the British provided some allowance for fresh vegetables. This is what we're looking at. Their food basket calories, even though they reach 2,300 calories, near minimum calorie requirement, are insufficient for another reason. This food basket, for many families, is not just food for their families, it's essentially income, because they have no real work. At a minimum, 65%, conservative estimate of unemployment. There is no earnings.
There's no economy.
So they have many families, some that I spoke with in Baghdad, take this food basket to provide basic medicines, or a pair of shoes, or to even pay the rent, the monthly rent. They have to sell this inadequate... a portion of their food basket to simply have shelter. Some commentators have compared Iraq under sanctions to one gigantic prison. It is worse than a prison, much worse, and not just because of the rations. It is worse because sanctions doesn't provide anything besides food. It doesn't pay the rent, it doesn't pay for clothing. There is nothing else, and most families cannot afford that. So they have to use their food ration.
From the beginning it was fabulously naive to think that relief in any form could substitute for a functioning entire economy. This is a grave error and it's incomprehensible to me as a hunger historian how this could have been allowed to happen. Worse, we continue to blame this problem on the Iraqi government. [emphasis added] The Iraqi government is responsible for many crimes and I would be the first to admit that, but they're not responsible for epidemic hunger and deaths and mortality in Iraq: the sanctions are responsible for that.
The charge is that Hussein would have other funds available from smuggled oil supplies and that he is building monuments and palaces. What funds does he have available? Only the funds that he receives from smuggling oil mainly to Jordan, but no one when they level this charge has ever bothered to calculate how much funds he has available.
There's only one source reference in all of the literature that I've found that gives a very high estimate, in my opinion, but nevertheless $330 million a year in funds available to the Iraqi government from the oil it sells to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey. What does $330 million amount to for a population of $18 million? Nobody's bothered to calculate this. It works out to 4.1 cents a day per person. 4.1 cents per day would do absolutely nothing to have prevented this health catastrophe. It's woefully inadequate. Yes, resources have been diverted to sustain the military, but those resource diversions, had they all gone to humanitarian relief which is unrealistic, wouldn't have altered this situation fundamentally at all.
The Chair: I have to tell you that you've gone well over the 10 minutes.
Dr. Sheila Zurbrigg: I won't address the issues of intent how this resolution was passed. It's in the presentation. I am concerned in several final comments.
I believe that we are trapped by the sheer horror of what we as the international community has done. It is an unspeakable human disaster. Because it is so large, it is very difficult for people to acknowledge that they are responsible, or they have made mistakes. We have all made mistakes. The history of famine is littered with the inability of those responsible political powers to acknowledge (a) the problem, and, (b) to do something about it; and we are in that cycle of denial and blame. It is getting worse. We can at least afford to be in this cycle and I believe it is going to take public pressure to force all agencies to acknowledge what is going on and acknowledge the responsibility.[emphasis added]Ê It would be a grave mistake in my opinion to assume that most expert agencies, including those within our government, have a clear understanding of the economics of what's happening in Iraq. Having met, myself, with members of the department and spoken at length in several lengthy conversation, I am absolutely convinced that there is very little understanding of why this is happening, and much blaming and exteriorizing of responsibility.
That's a horrible thing to say, but in fact I think it would be a grave error for anyone here to assume that there is a competent understanding of what exactly is happening. This is an emergency. It's an emergency of the largest order. Thank you.
The Chair: Thank you very much, Dr. Zurbrigg.