Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq

“Almost 10 years of extraordinary isolation imposed by the UN and enforced by America and Britain have killed more people than the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.”

Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq is a powerful indictment of the largely unreported effects of United Nations sanctions following the 1991 Gulf War – most strikingly, the 500,000 children among more than one million Iraqis who died in almost 10 years of sanctions, figures verified by UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) and other UN agencies. 

John Pilger describes it as “the most comprehensive embargo in modern history against a country” and asks why 21 million people are “being punished for the crimes of a dictator, Saddam Hussein”. Iraq, which in 1989 had one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, as well as universal, free healthcare and education, now has one of the highest. Remarkably, the United States and Britain are continuing to bomb Iraq almost every day, with civilians accounting for a third of the casualties.

Paying the Price is dominated by scenes of malnourished and dying Iraqi children whose treatment is affected by the intermittent supply of drugs while clean water, fresh food, soap, paper, pencils, books and light bulbs are no longer available or extremely limited in supply.

In a Baghdad cancer clinic, Denis Halliday – who in 1998 resigned from the UN over the sanctions and intervened personally to save the lives of some children – tells Pilger: “I think in this hospital we’ve seen today evidence of the killing that is now the responsibility of the Security Council member states, particularly, I think, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.” American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, previously asked on American television whether the deaths of more than 500,000 children was a price worth paying, answered: “We think the price is worth it.”

In the south of the country, Pilger reports on another lethal result of the Gulf War, which followed Sadam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Americans used depleted uranium in shells and missiles fired by their tanks and aircraft. Wind and dust carried the radiation across the towns and villages of southern Iraq, creating what one specialist describes as “a cancer epidemic that is likely to strike almost half the population”. The embargo has denied Iraq the equipment and expertise needed to clean up the former battlefields, as well as the technology for diagnosing cancer and drugs for treating it.

Claims of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction – the justification for sanctions – are untrue, says Scott Ritter, a former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq. “By 1998, the chemical weapons infrastructure had been completely dismantled or destroyed,” he explains, adding that biological, nuclear and long-range ballistic missile weapons programmes had also been “eliminated”.

In an empty Security Council chamber at the UN, Pilger concludes: “Do the representatives of the powerful who sit here in the Security Council ever think beyond their so-called interests and manoeuvres and about their victims, small children dying needlessly half a world away? It’s time we reclaimed the United Nations. While you’ve been watching this film, countless children have died silently in Iraq. How many more will die before the silence is broken?

Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq (Carlton Television), ITV1, 6 March 2000

Producer-director: Alan Lowery; co-producer: John Pilger (75 mins)

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library