Update – The Observer’s Nick Cohen Responds on Iraq

Following our Media Alert, ‘Nick Cohen of the Observer on Iraq, Chomsky and Pilger‘ (March 13, 2002), Media Lens received this reply from Nick Cohen on March 13, 2002:

“The problem with the sanctions cause starvation theory is that:
1. It was never used about sanctions against South Africa
2. Saddam is a tyrant who has killed tens of thousands of his own people.
3. The sanctions regime fell apart in the mid-1990s.
4. And, most important, Saddam has engaged in his own version of shock-therapy capitalism to enrich himself and his cronies. As in Russia, the combination of privatisation and gangsterism has led to mortality rates collapsing.

You can, if you wish, dismiss all of this and follow the UN’s simple calculations. Doubtless youir predecessors could find an equally convincing argument to support the thesis that the Ukranian famine was caused by the Western boycott of Bolshevism rather than dear old Uncle Joe.”


Dear Nick Cohen

Thanks for your reply. In your original article you wrote that Chomsky and Pilger “claimed” that sanctions had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children. We refuted this, showing how Chomsky and Pilger have +reported+ authoritative and highly credible sources – the UN, aid agencies, and others with in-depth knowledge of conditions in Iraq. You also implied that war was the only way to lift sanctions, and therefore to be supported, and that sanctions had not made much difference to the quality of life of children who would anyway have been living in a “prison state”. We showed how the choice is not limited between a massive U.S. assault or sanctions, and we showed that life in Iraq has massively deteriorated since the Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions. We note that you have chosen to simply ignore everything we wrote on these points in your reply.

Instead you turn to the “problem with the sanctions cause starvation theory”. Once again you offer a glibly distorted version of other people’s arguments – the tried and trusted response of ‘liberal’ commentators dismissing dissident views. The argument, in fact, is not just that sanctions have prevented the free flow of food and medicines, but that they have also prevented the reconstruction of the huge quantities of Iraqi infrastructure destroyed by U.S. bombing during the Gulf War – the water, sewerage, power-generation, transport, health care, agriculture and communication systems that are vital for the prevention of disease, the preservation of life, and for the basic functioning of society.

We will briefly discuss the points you made below:

1. You suggest that because it was not argued that sanctions caused starvation in South Africa, it is a problem to argue sanctions are causing mass death in Iraq. The South Africa analogy has been dealt with. South Africa was self sufficient in staples, unlike Iraq; most important, the majority of the people, and the ANC, backed sanctions, unlike Iraq. The argument is so transparently absurd that it does not merit further discussion.

2. You argue that because Saddam “has killed tens of thousands of his own people” sanctions cannot be responsible for the excess deaths of Iraqi children. By the same logic, allied bombing cannot have killed German civilians during the Second World War because Hitler killed vast numbers of his own people. The argument, again, is absurd. But of course your implication is that the Iraqi regime has again been sacrificing its own people for propaganda purposes. It is an argument that draws power from the flood of US/UK propaganda generated by the likes of Peter Hain who, as minister of state at the foreign office, wrote in the Guardian:

“About a quarter of medicines imported into Iraq sit in warehouses. And Saddam is actually +exporting+ food in the region.

Why? Because he plays politics with the suffering of his own people. He believes that TV pictures of malnourished Iraqi children serve his interests, so he makes sure that there are plenty of malnourished children to film.” (Hain, ‘Saddam plays politics with suffering’, Guardian, March 7, 2000)

Hans von Sponeck, who ran the UN’s ‘oil-for-food’ programme in Iraq before resigning in protest, responded to these claims at the time:

“You have heard, I’m sure, a lot about the overstocking of medicine. When you get from someone a monocausal explanation then you should start getting suspicious. It is not – I repeat, it is not – a premeditated act of withholding medicine. It’s much more complex than that.” (Quoted, ZNet Commentary, March 11, 2000)

Jutta Burghardt, head of the World Food Programme in Iraq, who also resigned in protest, said:

“It is a true humanitarian tragedy what is happening here [in Iraq] and I believe any human being who looks at the facts and the impact of the sanctions on the population will not deny that [von Sponeck] is right,” (Quoted, ‘Sanctions on Iraq: The “Propaganda Campaign”‘, Anthony Arnove, ZNet Commentary, April 1, 2000)

Your claims have also been directly refuted by Denis Halliday, who also ran the ‘oil-for-food’ programme in Iraq, and who also resigned in protest. Presumably, for you, the following exchange between Media Lens and Denis Halliday cannot have taken place, or must be false, because Saddam has killed his own people in the past:

Media Lens: “The British and US Governments claim that there are plenty of foodstuffs and medicines being delivered to Iraq, the problem is that they are being cynically withheld by the Iraqi regime. Is there any truth in that?”

Halliday: “There’s no basis for that assertion at all. The Secretary-General has reported repeatedly that there is no evidence that food is being diverted by the government in Baghdad. We have 150 observers on the ground in Iraq. Say a wheat shipment comes in from god knows where, in Basra, they follow the grain to some of the mills, they follow the flour to the 49,000 agents that the Iraqi government employs for this programme; then they follow the flour to the recipients and even interview some of the recipients – there is no evidence of diversion of foodstuffs whatever, +ever+, in the last two years. The Secretary-General would have reported that.”

Media Lens: “The British government claims that Saddam is using the money from the ‘oil-for-food’ programme for anything other than food. Peter Hain, for example, recently stated, ‘Over $8 billion a year should be available to Iraq for the humanitarian programme – not only for foods and medicines, but also clean water, electricity and educational material. No one should starve.'”

Halliday: “Of the $20 billion that has been provided through the ‘oil-for-food’ programme, about a third, or $7 billion, has been spent on UN ‘expenses’, reparations to Kuwait and assorted compensation claims. That leaves $13 billion available to the Iraqi government. If you divide that figure by the population of Iraq, which is 22 million, it leaves some $190 per head of population per year over 3 years – that is pitifully inadequate.” (Interview with David Edwards, March 2000, www.Media Lens.org)

3. You suggest that the sanctions regime fell apart in the mid-1990s. This, again, is something you have simply decided is true without reference to the facts. As we have reported in detail in previous Media Alerts, Iraq’s infrastructure was subject to massive devastation during the Gulf War. Eric Hoskins – a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team on Iraq – reports that the allied bombardment “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, ‘The Ambiguities of Power – British Foreign Policy since 1945’, Zed Books, 1995, pp.189-190)

The restriction of resources as a result of sanctions, described by Halliday above, has made the large-scale reconstruction of infrastructure impossible. In March 1999 an expert ‘Humanitarian Panel’ convened by the Security Council concluded the UN’s ‘oil-for-food’ programme could +not+ meet the needs of the Iraqi people, “regardless of the improvements that might be brought about in the implementation of” the relief programme (Quoted, Voices in the Wilderness website, March 2002: http://www.viwuk.freeserve.co.uk)

The Panel continued:

“Regardless of the improvements that might be brought about – in terms of approval procedures, better performance by the Iraqi Government, or funding levels – the magnitude of the humanitarian needs is such that they cannot be met within the context of [the oil-for-food programme] … Nor was the programme intended to meet all the needs of the Iraqi people … Given the present state of the infrastructure, the revenue required for its rehabilitation is far above the level available under the programme.” (ibid)

Their conclusion being that:

“the humanitarian situation in Iraq will continue to be a dire one in the absence of a sustained revival of the Iraqi economy which in turn cannot be achieved solely through remedial humanitarian efforts”.

This, like so much other evidence, gives the lie to a statement you made in one of your responses to a Media Lens reader:

“All it [the UN] says is there have been sanctions and mortality rates have risen. That’s correlation, not causation.” (Sent to Media Lens, March 14, 2002)

This seems to contradict your own assertion that the UN has drawn a causal link but has got it wrong:

“You can, if you wish, dismiss all of this and follow the UN’s simple calculations.”

But anyway the UN has +clearly+ drawn causal links between sanctions, the restrictions of the ‘oil-for-food’ programme and mass death in Iraq.

In August 2000 Human Rights Watch concluded that:

“An emergency commodity assistance programme like oil-for-food, no matter how well funded or well run, cannot reverse the devastating consequences of war and then ten years of virtual shut-down of Iraq’s economy.” (ibid)

This was written some five years after you claim sanctions “fell apart”.

Can you appreciate the superficiality of your argument when you talk of problems with the “sanctions cause starvation theory”? The problems are much more complicated and deep-rooted than you suggest – sanctions have prevented the rebuilding of both economy and infrastructure that could have prevented children from succumbing to the effects of poverty, and of disease spread by contaminated and wrecked water and sewerage systems. Voices in the Wilderness UK have written to us summarising the flaws in your argument:

“Today, dirty water is one of the biggest child killers in Iraq, while millions of Iraqis have been pushed into terrible poverty because families are unable to earn a living wage. These are the basic realities which Cohen ignores to his shame.” (Email to David Edwards, March 14, 2002)

4. You suggest that the suffering in Iraq has been caused by Saddam’s “combination of privatisation and gangsterism”. We would be interested to know where you have obtained this inside information on Iraqi politics. Like everything else in your response, you seem to perceive no need to support your arguments with evidence or references. In her book, ‘Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq’ (the standard academic work on the subject) Sarah Graham-Brown notes that “the areas where it has been possible to make profits since 1991” – namely “contracting, trade and transport” – “had fallen largely into private hands +in the 1980’s+” (emphasis added), that is during a period which saw an “accelerated decline” in infant and child mortality rates (Graham-Brown, Garfield, 1999).

We sent you a sincere and detailed challenge to your arguments, and in response we (and everyone who wrote to you) received a curt and dismissive response, unsupported by evidence, which made no serious attempt to answer our points. In our experience this is virtually the rule for mainstream journalism. Serious debate is not welcome in the mainstream; dissent is treated with derision and contempt, or ignored. There is no sense that ideas are to be proposed and challenged, debated and discussed – we the public are supposed simply to listen to your wise words and shut up. To dare to do anything else is deemed outrageous by journalists who seem to view themselves as celebrities to be feted, rather than public servants doing a job that +demands+ vigorous challenge if it is to be done well.

We can’t help but reflect on the fact that you are one of the most highly respected liberal commentators at the liberal extreme of the mainstream spectrum. We note also that you could hardly be addressing a more serious accusation – that our government truly is responsible for genocide in Iraq. Your performance on this vital issue is a further indication of the appalling state of the ‘free press’ in this country.

Yours sincerely

David Edwards and David Cromwell
The Editors – Media Lens


Contact Nick Cohen:

Email: [email protected]

Ask Cohen why he stated that Noam Chomsky and John Pilger have “claimed” that the excess deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are the result of sanctions. Ask him why he failed to mention Chomsky and Pilger’s sources – Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, Unicef and others – who have blamed sanctions for mass death in Iraq.

Copy your letters to the Observer editor, Roger Alton:

Email: [email protected]