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2003 | World Social Forum (23 - 28 January 2003)

The impact of war and economic sanctions on the human rights situation in Iraq

23-28 January 2003
Porto Alegre, RS, Brazil

Congregation of St. Catherine of Siena, Mosul, Iraq

In order to set the scene for you I’d like to briefly explain what were the conditions in Iraq before the sanctions and the Gulf War. As you may know from your history, Iraq is an ancient civilization. It is the traditional birthplace of Abraham, who is the common ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Before the current aggression began, Iraq was a developed and prosperous nation. It offered and stills offers universal free education through the university level. It once had the highest women’s literacy rate in the Middle East.

Universal free healthcare and qualified medical professionals made it a the premier medical center in the region.

It was an ethnically and culturally diverse nation, relatively open and tolerant society, generally respectful of religious and cultural diversity.

It had a quite adequate infrastructure including sophisticated water treatment and sanitation facilities and decent electrical and communication grids.

The influence of the Economic Sanctions

In light of all this, the sanctions are a tragedy, which has never been equaled, in the human history. You can hear this question from all Iraqis (children, women, the youth and elderly).

“What have we done to deserve all this?”

Iraq was such a prosperous country, but now its people are suffering from hunger and starvation! Is this fair and acceptable?

Wherever you go, you will hear the Iraqis say, “The UN Sanctions are killing us!”

Our Iraqi people are going through severe hardships since the Gulf War and currently from the devastating effects of the 12 – year crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations Security Council. The sanctions have resulted in great physical, intellectual, moral and cultural suffering for millions of people. The country, which was a prosperous nation – home to the world’s second largest oil reserves – is systematically de-developed, de-skilled and reduced to nothing.

The restrictions on trade and imports are a heavy blow on Iraqis particularly the children, the elderly and the invalid. They have crippled Iraq’s ability to provide the basic necessities of life for its people. If you visit Iraq, you will immediately witness the destruction of the people, their culture, their land and the deteriorating living conditions. The sanctions have killed more than 1.5 million Iraqis, most of them women and children, because of the severe shortage in medicines and food, the contaminated drinking water, polluted environment, inflation, low salaries, the crippled electric power supply, and the nutritionally deficient food ration in its quality and quantity that influences the very survival of the people. This has resulted in underweight babies, severely anemic mothers, inadequate medical supply and the isolation of the country and its people from the rest of the world.

Our children are held as hostages to illnesses easily cured by inaccessible antibiotics and healthy nutritional diet. In addition to this the natural growth of 23% of the total children of Iraq had stopped and this is equal to twice of the percentage before the Gulf war. The number of children under five who die every month is about 6500. More than 6 million Iraqis (that is to say about one third of the population) are suffering from starvation.

The old people suffer from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart problems. They have no access to medicines to relieve these diseases.


The once exemplary Iraqi health sector is close to collapse after 12 years of sanctions. While there has been some improvement in the availability of critical medicines and medical equipment, U.S. and British governments frequently employ their right to stop requests for goods while they determine their validity. As a result these goods while technically allowed, are often not available when they are needed. The enormous destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure and economy has clear influence on the performance of the hospitals and health sectors. The hospitals lack basic needs. How will hospitals function without clear water, blood banks, well-equipped labs, ex-ray equipment, medical instruments and operating rooms? How can blood banks, laboratories, x- rays, medical equipment work without electric generators and spare parts? As a result the capacity of the Iraqi hospitals has dropped to 30%.? The staff in the hospitals confronts great insufficiency of oxygen. This forces the doctors to put more than one infant in the same incubator and more than one patient share the same oxygen cylinder. In addition to this the hospitals are unable to provide food for the large number of patients; so their families are obliged to supply them with food.

Just a few days before I left for Jordan, I paid a visit to a friend of mine who is also my former pupil. She is in charge of the Leukemia Unit. She says she feels heart broken at the sight of mothers weeping at the bedsides of their dying children. She emphasized that most of the patients die because of the deficient medicines. The patient may be given half of the required chemical dose. Sometimes the patient might be given a sort of medicine that has nothing to do with her or his disease as an attempt to relieve her or his severe pain and stop her or his painful cries. You can listen to the broken hearted medical staff who is unable to secure antibiotics critical to combating the water borne contagious diseases striking the Iraqi people, especially children and the pregnant women such as anemia, typhoid, diarrhea, polio, and measles. Most Iraqis are suffering from diseases they could easily be treated before the Gulf war and the embargo.

Before the Gulf War 95% of the Iraqi population could easily get clean drinking water. There has been a slight improvement in the availability of water now, but nowhere near pre-Gulf War levels.

The embargo led to intellectual isolation of the Iraqi scientific and medical community. Our medical staff feels isolated because the scholarships to study abroad are refused, scientific and medical periodicals are not available and our doctors cannot attend the international scientific or medical conferences.

One of the hidden disasters of the gulf War was the use of depleted uranium weapons. U.S. and Britain developed these weapons because the spent uranium is dense metal that can pierce armored tanks. On impact the uranium vaporizes and remains in the soil and atmosphere. 320 tons of depleted uranium were used in Iraq. The result is that people in certain regions of the country have been living a radioactive bath for 12 years.

There is an alarming increase in leukemia, kidney, lung and breast cancers. According to an Iraqi cancer specialist, a University of Baghdad study estimates that 40% of the people in Basrah province will die of cancer. That is 750,000 people. As far as chemotherapy is concerned there are insufficient drugs available even for the rich people who can afford them. The radiation therapy equipment is very poor. Though some of the machines are very old, they are still working. Because of the embargo, the government is not allowed to import update machines or spare parts to repair the old ones.


The aircrafts and missiles destroy life and life support systems. You notice the children’s faces frozen in fear as the siren signals another bombing. The devastation of bombing is apparent from the 80 % of children in Baghdad who have lost their parents and relatives during the Gulf War. Those who have survived the bombing are in great need for special attention, intensive psychological care and rehabilitation, guidance and instructing to enable them to return to their normal and natural life.

Before the Gulf war and the US bombing, Christians and Muslims were living peacefully and friendly together. I was teaching at a private school. Its pupils were Christians and Muslims studying, playing together and the sisters were the centre of respect and confidence of the pupils and their parents.

Religious tensions that are now felt in Iraq are heightened by the instability caused by sanctions and by the growing anti-western sentiment in the region. Christianity is associated with the West, and particularly with the United States. This translates into increased tensions in Muslim-Christian relations. We Dominicans have experienced increasing incidents of religious persecution. Twice the statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus was covered with a hijab and abijah as a means of insulting Christians.

After a celebration at a Dominican church people leaving the church were attacked. Sixteen men, women and children were injured. By our religious habit, a sign of our commitment, sisters can easily be recognized and receive verbal abuse and even threats, especially the young sisters when they go to the university.

The most serious incident involved a 70-year-old Chaldean sister, brutally murdered in her Baghdad convent. Nothing was taken from the house but objects sacred to the faith were desecrated. It is important to note that in each of these instances the Iraqi government came to the defense of the Christian community.

Educational Situation

Education has greatly suffered under the sanctions. The malnutrition resulted from the sanctions has great effect on mental ability. In addition to this, many families no longer send their children to school because they cannot afford to buy books and stationary. As a result literacy has fallen from 90% to 50%. Children do not go to school in order to go on streets begging, selling newspapers or work as shoe-shiners so as to help their families. At the same time there is a brain drain. Many experts, specialists, specialized doctors and highly educated middle class are involved in the reluctant mass migration.

Our country was highly esteemed for its advanced educational system. But now our universities, colleges and schools lack even the simplest requirements such as laboratory equipment. The publication of books and magazines is almost impossible either because of the shortage of paper or the heavy publication cost. You will feel heart broken to see classrooms with smashed windows, cracked ceilings, no electricity, no seats, no water supply and even no blackboard and chalk. Many students need update textbooks. Most of the institutions have been subject to dramatic damage. According to UNICEF they have been able to repair 450 schools. 5,000 more are in need of repair. Because of the growth of the Iraqi population – 40% of Iraqis are under the age of 15 – the county needs an estimated 5,000 additional schools.

A large number of pupils and university students have dropped their higher education after the Gulf War. Even though education is free, the cost of clothes, books and supplies is prohibitive. They need to work to help their parents earning some money to support the family, in addition to the heavy expenses incurred on obtaining higher education and the transportation fare is incredibly high. At the same time high degrees are not given their real value. People with master’s and doctorate degrees work as taxi drivers, or in hotels or restaurants. We are incapable of importing anything that has any relation with teaching- learning process.

Economical Situation

In 1981 I traveled for a month in Europe on 400 Iraqi Dinar and had money left over to buy gifts. Now a kilo of flour on the black mark is 400 ID, a kilo of sugar is 600 ID, and a kilo of rice is 500 ID. A kilo of meat is 4,000 ID. All of this, even as the average monthly salary decreased dramatically. According to a European aid agency in Iraq, in 1988, before the Gulf War, the average monthly salary was $1200 U.S. After the war it was $450. Now the average salary is $4 U.S. a month.

Before the Gulf war the Iraqi dinar was worth 3US $. Now it is 2500 Iraqi dinar to 1 US $ and dropping rapidly as war looms.

70 % of the people in Iraq have got no money to buy food and other life necessities. As a result the middle class families have sold their furniture: fridge, TVs videos, clothes and even their books in order to provide food for their children. At the moment these families have nothing left to sell, therefore they are the victims of malnutrition and starvation. The nightmares of poverty and starvation have opened a wound in the heart of every Iraqi individual and this wound is growing deeper day after day. This poverty and starvation lead to robberies, murders, exploitation, killing, forced migration and subsequent unraveling of the Iraqi family.

We are suffering from hunger and starvation despite the fact that Iraq is a country of great riches and is floating on an ocean of black gold. Our oil is supposed to be a blessing for the country and its people, but it has become a curse and a source of suffering.

The political situation

The unstable situation, the continued bombing and threats are the nightmare that makes our people worried and live in panic. Our children have a disturbed sleep; so they cry in the midst of their sleep.

The migration of young men has caused many social problems. The most urgent one is the 8 to 1 ratio of Christian females to males. Many young women remain unmarried or marry outside the faith.


Before the embargo, Iraq used to import 70% of its agricultural equipment and seeds. Agriculture is facing great dangers that Iraq has never been familiarized with before. Hundreds thousands of rats and mice invaded six Iraqi governorates and ruined most of the agricultural crops that form a main source of food of Iraqi citizens. Also the U.S. used biological weapons. According to the Caritas International report for 2000, they introduced the Snail Worm Fly into Iraq. It caused great damage in human beings and cattle. The fly spread to six governorates. Also, in 1997 U.S. planes dropped insect larvae which infested the palm trees and killed many of them. This resulted in increase in the price of a kilo of dates from 50 ID to 1200 ID. Another Governorate in the south was attacked by worms and strange spiders which caused huge damage.

  • Are the sanctions imposed for valid reasons?
  • Do the sanctions target the right people?
  • Have sanctions reached their goals or objectives?
  • Are the sanctions reasonablly time -limited ?

The sanctions are genocide. They destroy the people in Iraq (especially women and children), and Iraqi culture and their land. The sanctions’ consequences are worse than the consequences of all the bombing that took place during the war. The embargo and the economic sanctions have deprived us of our rights to learn and develop. They cannot be justified. The innocent, weak and voiceless people should not pay for mistakes for which they are not responsible. The sanctions should be lifted so that our country can regain its dignity, experience normal development and be in a position to re-establish fruitful and good relations with other peoples.

I plead to each one present here who is capable of putting pressure on the world leaders, particularly President Bush to advocate the lifting of the unjustly imposed crippiling sanctions and preventing the nightmare of new war from haunting the Iraqi children, women and all the innocent and vulnerable people of Iraq so that they can restore their dignity.

Our activities

Under these difficult circumstances does the presence of 200 Dominican sisters, brothers and priests and 1,000 Dominican laity in Iraq mean anything? As an order rooted in the Gospel, we are called to preach truth, love, hope and compassion. We are compelled to share in the suffering of our people. I humbly admit that we do so despite the hard circumstances that we are going through. Our Dominican charism enables us to read the sings of our times in a prophetic way and listen compassionately to the cries of our people. We try our best to be the sign of hope for them, identify their urgent needs and respond to these needs by sharing God’s love and compassion with them.

During these hard moments we do our best to be with the poor and for the poor. Our congregation has started ten sewing centers to offer free courses in sewing and knitting for the housewives and young women who have no work. We try to find jobs for young men in order help them understand their self-worth. Due to the lack of hope and the difficulties that our young people face, there is an obvious increase in the number of young men and women under depression, we have to accompany these and try to lighten their grief. Our congregation has converted two of its convents into orphanages to look after the orphans and young girls suffering from hard social situations. Also we have converted another convent into a maternity hospital to offer good care and distinct service for the infants and their mothers. We teach religion for children of all ages. Some of the sisters teach theological courses in Baghdad and Mosul, help in the formation of other religious educators. We have opened our educational centers to serve students and others who would not otherwise have access to books for personal reading, research and writing.

The Dominican Family

We, the Dominican brother and sisters in Iraq like to express our warm thanks and extended gratitude to the entire Dominican sisters and brothers for all the efforts and actions they have taken on our behalf and behalf of our people. We deeply appreciate their wholehearted prayers and fasting, this will surely “cast the Demons out.” We are encouraged in our efforts by Dominicans around the world who support us with their prayer, fasting and solidarity. Our hope is that our Dominican brothers and sisters will double their efforts to direct the power of our charism on the desperation and isolation of the Iraqi people. They have to bring the cry of the Iraqi children into every pulpit, parish, classroom and any place where the Word of God will awaken a compassionate response.

As Dominicans, the Order of Preachers that is deeply rooted in the Gospel and the preaching of the Human Rights, we are compelled to call for an end of the sanctions and the embargo against Iraq so as to end the children’s anguish and death. Then the world will no longer hear, “ We are suffering. Is it legal? Is it fair and acceptable?

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