Iraq: the humanitarian consequences of military action

News and Press Release
Originally published
Save the Children UK (SC UK) is one of the longest-serving international humanitarian agencies in Iraq, with programmes in a variety of sectors since 1991.
Save the Children's position

- SC UK is deeply concerned at the possibility of renewed and intensified armed conflict in Iraq. Military action will have very serious humanitarian consequences for vulnerable children - cutting off food supplies, destroying vital infrastructure, and traumatising children close to fighting. The fragile gains in the humanitarian situation achieved in recent years could be erased for years to come.

- SC UK believes that the current situation must be resolved within the framework of international law. The United Nations Security Council is the most appropriate body to ascertain whether a threat to international peace and security emanates from Iraq and what the appropriate response should be.

- SC UK is calling on the UK Government to:

  • support and pursue all possible measures aimed at improving the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people;

  • consider fully the likely impact of military action on the lives of children in Iraq;

  • continue its backing in the Security Council of the inspection regime set out in Resolution 1441 and explore and exhaust all diplomatic solutions.
- In the event of war, SC UK would call on the UK and other governments to:
  • abide by international law, ensuring the safety of civilians and the protection of civilian objects wherever possible and safeguarding food and medicine supplies;

  • take specific steps to distinguish between civilian and military peoples and targets, as required by international law;

  • ensure that humanitarian assistance is given on the basis of need alone by impartial and independent organisations;

  • reinforce the rights of all Iraqi citizens to seek asylum, including in the UK;

  • ensure that refugees and displaced persons are properly protected and have full access to their rights.

  • Resolving the existing humanitarian crisis must be a key priority of the UK and other governments.
- Key facts
  • Children aged under 14 comprise almost half the Iraqi population. 70% of the population lives in town and cities.

  • 60% of Iraqis are poor and are dependent on food rations. Iraqi children continue to depend on imported food, despite good harvests last year. Any external shock, such as conflict, would cut off the provision of food rations.

  • Despite improvements, 11.4% of Iraqi children in North Iraq and 23.1% in Centre/South Iraq are still chronically malnourished.

  • Under-five child mortality rates in Centre/South Iraq have deteriorated by 160% under sanctions reversing the positive trend of the 1980s. The main causes relate to poor water, sanitation and health infrastructure, and deepening poverty.

  • Average monthly salaries of between $3 and $6 for a family of seven do not suffice to purchase food or fuel from the market if the food ration provided under the Oil-for-Food Programme is cut in an emergency and subsidies cease.

  • The quantity, quality and availability of water is dire. In rural areas, only 46% of Iraqis in Centre/South Iraq have access to piped water. Iraqi children are forced to drink water that often contains up to ten times the acceptable level of contamination.

  • One in three girls in Centre/South Iraq does not attend primary school due to deepening poverty and a lack of schools. Enrolment of girls in Centre/ South Iraq has fallen and female illiteracy rates are rising steeply.

  • Iraq already suffers serious energy shortages - with negative consequences for water, sanitation and health facilities.

  • The number of internally displaced persons is already between 700,000 and 1,000,000.
A mother of four young children recently told Save the Children: "We hope there will be peace. An attack would have a bad effect on everyone. People here have different views about what will happen - some say there will be an attack, others say there will not, but no one [here] has prepared for an emergency by storing food for example. We cannot afford to make any kind of preparation or to pay for transport to move if we needed to. "If something happens it will affect everyone - wherever they live. Only important people will be able to save themselves because they have cars and some of them can even travel to other countries. The only ones affected will be the poor people."

On 14 January 2003, Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons said: "[... ] we are enormously aware of the problems that would arise from military action, not only through the serious degradation of infrastructure [... ] but through the appalling loss of life that would occur in an overwhelmingly young population [... ]."

The current situation in Iraq

Widespread suffering of the civilian population, especially children, is already prevalent throughout Iraq. While it is true that almost all Kurds probably would wish to see a change of government in Iraq, many poor and vulnerable families with whom Save the Children has spoken have said they would not welcome a war because of the potentially devastating impact on their lives.

After twelve years of sanctions, food supplies and basic service provision rely on open borders, functioning infrastructure and effective management. Almost all Iraqis, whether in the North or Centre/South, are too poor to cope with additional hardship, after using up cash reserves and selling their possessions over the past decade. Children, the internally displaced, widows, the elderly and the poor are particularly vulnerable, due to their limited political voice in the distribution of resources.

Local markets have been critically undermined by the setting up of centralised distribution systems and lack of purchasing power during twelve years of sanctions and the Oil-for-Food Programme. They cannot, therefore, be relied upon to supply vulnerable children with goods and services if the humanitarian programme is interrupted during or after conflict.


Sanctions on Iraq were streamlined under UNSCR 1409 (May 2002) permitting most civilian goods to enter Iraq. However, the UN maintains complete financial control over Iraq's oil revenues, which accounted for around 60% of Iraq's GDP before the Gulf War. No local produce or services can be bought with oil revenues, depressing farmers' incomes, undermining local markets and food security, and creating dependency. The Oil-for-Food humanitarian programme has recently been tightened and is currently facing severe funding shortfalls of several billion US dollars.


A study by SC UK (January 2002) found that in North Iraq nearly two-thirds of the population depended on imported food rations. Northern Iraq further depends on monthly supplies of imported food from the Centre/ South, which has been cut off in previous periods of conflict. Evidence from North Iraq points to the fact that local food supplies are nearing depletion, with similar scenarios for Centre/ South Iraq.


The health of the population depends in part on supplies of medicines and equipment procured under the Oil-for-Food Programme. Before sanctions, the Iraqi people enjoyed the best healthcare services in the region, and malnutrition rates were 3%. Now, the health situation is precarious and could be reversed in the absence of treatment and supplies.

Diplomatic solutions

SC UK believes that political dialogue through the United Nations on the sanctions regime and weapons inspections could still resolve the current situation. However, the humanitarian situation under economic sanctions must be a priority concern, and should be dealt with separately to the issue of weapons inspections.

We support continued diplomatic efforts to avoid military action, which should always remain an option of last resort. It is the legal and moral duty of the members of the Security Council to channel all their efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the current crisis.

The likely consequences of military action

Military action would dramatically increase the suffering of the majority of Iraqi civilians and pose serious medium- to long-term difficulties in resuming normal life:

1. Recent experience shows that air or ground attacks against urban areas will inevitably result in significant loss of civilian life, including the deaths of children.

2. Thousands of civilians will be forced to, or try to, flee their homes, putting their safety at very high risk and creating the possibility that children become separated from their families. Many will flee to the North where there is heavy snowfall during winter and they will have no relatives of social networks to rely on. The borders with Iran and Turkey are some of the most heavily mined areas in the world.

3. Supplies of humanitarian goods, in particular food, imported under the UN Oil-for-Food programme will be interrupted, as neighbouring states close their borders and internal systems break down. Children will suffer disproportionately as a result of the disruption to food supplies and health care services. In Save the Children's experience, without emergency medical treatment, the most acutely malnourished children die within 1-5 days.

4. UN agency, international and local aid staff may be forced to evacuate their posts, and local authorities may obstruct or be unable to deliver supplies to the needy. A breakdown in communications and logistics in the Iraqi civil administration will leave civilians without access to centrally warehoused supplies and hamper distribution.

5. Damage to infrastructure may result in power cuts (depriving civilians of health care and safe water) and the closure of transport routes (preventing, for instance, the collection of waste), leading to public health risks in the medium term, endangering the lives of many Iraqis.

6. The UN Needs Assessment for Iraq estimates that during conflict two million children under 5 would need therapeutic feeding. It also states that "the outbreak of diseases in epidemic if not pandemic proportions is very likely."

7. In the event of a chemical or biological weapons release, children would be disproportionately affected. Children are more vulnerable to toxins exposure than adults because they breathe more air, eat more food and drink more water per pound of body weight, and their immune systems are less developed.

For further information please contact:

Christoph Wilcke, Middle East Research and Advocacy Officer, on 020 7703 5400
Rebecca Hickman, Political Adviser, on 020 7716 2135

Save the Children UK has worked in northern Iraq since 1991, and has rebuilt infrastructure, including schools, roads, bridges and water networks, advised the authorities on methods of education, and lobbied for changes in the juvenile justice system and for children in institutions. We have supported Kurdish communities in a range of projects from services to income generation and awareness-raising on the rights of the child.