In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Dr Omar Dewachi was a newly minted doctor in Baghdad. The crippling international sanctions, designed and implemented by the US and its allies, were advertised and promoted as a strategy to keep the Saddam regime in check. Except that they did not hurt the President or his inner circle. The price was paid by ordinary Iraqis, who had no say in the government decisions or policies. In his book Ungovernable Life, Dr Dewachi, who later did his PhD in anthropology from Harvard, talks about these sanctions and how they destroyed the healthcare system on which ordinary Iraqis depended. He, and nearly every doctor who worked in Iraq at that time, has spoken about the time when there were no medicines for the sick, even the most basic ones. Hospitals had to constantly adapt to the new realities of lack of essential services and basic supplies. Unable to work, there was an exodus of physicians, nurses, and technicians — making the system weaker, poorer and more vulnerable. In a country that once had one of the best healthcare systems in the region, the consequence of sanctions resulted in deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly children. Saddam and his family, on the other hand, were not missing out on any meals or essential medicines.
Early indications, soon after the sanctions were enforced, had started to show the human toll of the policies. But little was done to change it. The sanctions remained in effect, for more than a decade, until 2003. The strategy was justified in the Beltway cocktail parties as a cost for the greater good. The price of being born in the wrong country.
The real impact of the sanctions was not on the powerful — those who had gassed, killed, bombed or executed their own people — but it was weak, the poor and the vulnerable, who had already been suffering. Alas, for many of those who suffered, we cannot hear their lived experiences, for they are no longer around to share the pangs of hunger and pain of not having a drug that could save their life. They remain nameless, except in the memory of their grieving families.
There are already some calls in the higher corridors of power of the wealthy nations to apply strong sanctions on Afghanistan. Collective amnesia about the pain of the weak is in full force. World Bank and other international agencies have stopped their aid already. This is unlikely to do anything except accelerate the humanitarian crisis that predates the fall of Kabul. It is likely to cause death of those who are sick, and make sick out of the healthy. It is likely to breed hatred and frustration. It is unlikely to solve any problem.
We should not let that happen — in Afghanistan or anywhere else.
Our approach to human rights, and care for everyone, would be hollow and hypocritical if we champion dignity, the right to schooling for all, a fair and equitable system of justice, and equal rights regardless of ethnicity or gender — but somehow find ourselves on the side of blocking vital resources that support hospitals and clinics, and funds that are absolutely critical to procure lifesaving medicines and food that is so desperately needed in the country.
Lately, the humanitarian efforts have started to pick some pace, but a lot more needs to be done. Pakistan, to its credit, has supported the humanitarian flights, but these are going to be far from adequate. We need to push back — on all forums — against any sanctions that affect access to food and healthcare. Supporting the right and chance to live is not an endorsement of the policies of Taliban. It does not weaken our commitment to the right of education, or a free and dignified existence for everyone in the country. It only strengthens our case that human lives are worth more than political point scoring.