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2002 | 54th Regular Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights (July - August 2002)

The impact of the war in Iraq on the human rights of children

July-August 2002
Palais des Nations

Delivered by Philippe LeBlanc OP on August 12, 2002

Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Caritas Internationalis, Pax Christi International, in conjunction with Franciscans International, wish to bring to the attention of the Sub-Commission the impact of international sanctions on women and children. Our concern extends further to the use of depleted uranium and other instruments of war and their harmful and destructive consequences on vulnerable groups. Our stance on these issues is a humanitarian, ethical and moral one which stems from our grave concern about of the devastation brought upon the lives of millions of women and children worldwide and because of the gross and ongoing violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

In terms of children, article 38 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child binds states to commit themselves to respect and to ensure respect for rules of humanitarian law applicable to children. It also declares that State Parties “shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict”. Further, article 3 of the Convention declares that in all actions concerning children, … the best interest of the child shall be a primary consideration. Notwithstanding such obligations, these articles are being systematically violated on a daily basis as a result of more than twelve years of economic sanctions against the iraqi people. The violations of the rights of Iraqi children as a result of sanctions have been described in a number of UN and other reports. Further, United Nations agencies dealing with food, health and children which includes FAO, WFP, WHO, UNICEF have reported on the extent of this humanitarian crisis. Most of the deaths caused by the sanctions are those of infants, children, the elderly, the chronically ill and emergency medical cases. These people who are the most vulnerable to polluted water, malnutrition, and the lack of medicines and medical equipment and supplies.

UNICEF reports

In spite of numerous reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Development Program and many NGOs, nothing has been done to put an end to the violations of the most fundamental rights of the children of Iraq. The humanitarian disaster is such that UNICEF reports that more than 500,000 children under five years old have died as a result of the embargo, between 1991 and 1995.

The 1999 UNICEF report and mortality surveys show that in marked contrast to the prevailing situation prior to the events of 1990-91, the infant mortality rates in Iraq today are among the highest in the world, from 47 deaths/1000 live births in the 80s to 107 deaths/1000 live births in the past decade. Furthermore, the International Committee of the Red Cross states that the Iraqi health-care system is today in a decrepit state. UNDP calculates that it would take 7 billion dollars to rehabilitate the power sector country-wide to its 1990 capacity.

Impact on children

A whole generation of children born after the war have been deprived over a period of twelve years of the right to adequate food which would allow them to develop normally. According to the statements of some of Dominican members on site, many families are forced to sell their houses, their furniture and sometimes their own clothes to feed themselves. Further, the length of the crisis has shaken the foundations of the traditional practice of families helping each other. An increasing number of women find themselves alone to raise and to meet the needs of their children. The economic sanctions have a devastating effect not only on the survival of children, but also on their moral, social and psychological development, in violation of article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Also, over twelve years a whole generation of children have been deprived of normal access to education. The regime of sanctions has hampered the usual supply of school materials as well as access to culture, to sciences and the new technologies, which had been previously widespread.

The embargo which weighs heavily on Iraq has had a devastating effect on civil society, destabilizing elementary social relations, both educationally and commercially. This has been corroborated in reports by the specialized UN agencies.

Most of the child victims were not even born at the time of the Gulf War. These children did not die as a result of combat. These innocent children died as a result of measures decreed by an organization whose mission was to protect their peace and security. Because of the length of time that the sanctions have been in place, they are no longer economic but constitute a humanitarian problem. In harming and killing children over a period of ten consecutive years, the sanctions have placed the future of a whole people in peril. As recognized by the UN Secretary General, it is more than ever time to reverse the process.

Use of depleted uranium

In addition to the effects of sanctions, there is the effect of environmental pollution in Iraq, in particular, of depleted uranium, which is chemically and radiologically toxic. Epidemiological studies show that the increased incidence of congenital abnormalities and defects, cancers in all age groups are directly related to exposure to depleted uranium, either by ingestion, inhalation or skin contact.

In his report on Human Rights and weapons of mass destruction (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/38), the Sub-commission expert, Mr Y.K.Y Yeung Sik Yuen states that depleted uranium was first used on a wide scale during the Gulf war in 1991. The estimates of DU left behind in the battlefieds of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia range from 320 metric tons to 1,000 metric tons . Mr. Sik also refers to a British Atomic Energy Authority report that says that some 500,000 will die before the end of the century from the radioactive debris left in the desert.

Involvement of the sponsors of this statement

The three sponsors of this statement, Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Caritas Internationalis and Pax Christi International have a long-standing concern about the situation of iraqi women and children and have first hand knowledge of the devastation. Dominicans have been working and living with the people in Iraq for over 250 years. They are educators, health workers and are also active in pastoral and other fields. Dominican sisters working in hospitals in Iraq receive and care for the children who are dying as a result of ongoing sanctions.

Dominicans from the United States have visited Iraq in 1999, 2000 and 2001 and have seen with their own eyes what the sanctions have wrought on the women and children in that country. At the end of their visit to Iraq 2001, the delegation declared in a statement:

During our ten days in Iraq we have witnessed the destruction of a land, people, and culture, an action more insidious and far-reaching than any in the history of the United Nations. Every aspect of Iraqi society and culture has been adversely affected by the sanctions. In the 1980s, Iraq possessed an effective universal health care system and universal free education, modern telecommunications technology, and adequate power resources. The country had sophisticated water treatment systems that met the needs of most of the population.

Now, after ten years, the Iraqi infrastructure can no longer bear the weight of human need. Women of childbearing age and especially children continue to suffer from high levels of malnutrition resulting in arrested development and diminished capacity to reach their full potential. The air and water are toxic. […] Those who suffer most are children, an entire generation who have known nothing but war. Nearly 10 million Iraqis are under the age of fifteen…What hope is there as a nation when sanctions deprive them of clean water, adequate nutrition, medical treatment and education?

Caritas Europa delegation to Iraq

In January 2001, a Delegation from Caritas Europa, which was accompanied by the President of Caritas Middle East and North Africa and hosted by its Iraqi partner organization, Confrérie de la Charité, visited Iraq and published a report on the devastating effects of sanctions on the people of Iraq.

The Caritas Europa report demonstrates how the sanctions against Iraq have resulted in untold suffering for millions of people – physical, mental and cultural. The report argues that the effects of the sanctions – even if they were lifted today – will certainly be felt for many years to come. It is indelibly imprinted on the Iraqi psyche. A once prosperous nation is systematically de-developed, de-skilled and reduced to penury. The very social fabric of Iraqi society is being rent asunder.

The overwhelming conclusion of the report, which is supported by Caritas Internationalis, was that the current comprehensive sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the UN Security Council should be immediately suspended and a new relationship initiated and developed by the international community and Iraq. Such a new relationship should lead to a situation where the current chapter of immeasurable suffering is brought to a close.

Pax Christi statement

In a recent statement, Pax Christi Internationalis stated: It is deplorable that the worlds most powerful nations continue to regard war and the threat of war as an acceptable instrument of foreign policy, in violation of the ethos of both the United Nations and Christian moral teaching. The way to peace does not lie through war but through the transformation of structures of injustice and of the politics of exclusion, and that is the cause to which the West should be devoting its technological, diplomatic and economic resources.

We are extremely concerned about any further major incursion into Iraq, including pre-emptive strikes, that could further destroy a society and cause cataclismic harm to women and children and seriously compromise any hope for a just and lasting peace in the region.

When the veil is lifted on the devastation in the country and the truth is made known about the destruction of the lives of children and women, the international community will need to render justification for these acts and recognize their responsibility for the massive rebuilding of a devastated society.

August 9, 2002 was the 12th anniversary of the UN blockade and sanctions against Iraq. These 12 years will remain an indelible blemish on the UN record of humanitarian activity and protection of human rights.


Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Caritas Internationalis, Pax Christi International, in conjunction with Franciscans International, and in the spirit of Pope John Paul IIs calls to end the sanctions against Iraq, and of the 1998 Synod of Bishops of Asia,

  • urge the international community to resolve the humanitarian crisis affecting the most vulnerable in Iraq through peaceful means including the end of sanctions which continue to debilitate and cause untold death among women and children;
  • request the international community to respect the rules of humanitarian law and to guarantee basic human rights in regard to women and children;
  • strongly recommend that the international community and all concerned governments search for peaceful and just solutions rather than resorting to war which can only bring untold horror and irreversible harm to the most vulnerable.
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